Juan Agudelo, of the New York Red Bulls, has made more playoff starts (2) than regular-season ones (0). Now, he seems poised to play a much larger role in the Red Bulls' future. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

MLS 2011 Preview: Home Grown Players Ready To Make An Impact

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MLS 2011 Preview: Juan Agudelo Looks To Continue His Metoric Rise

The New York Red Bulls' Juan Agudelo made an impact from his first match for both club and country in 2010.  The Red Bulls' academy product became the club's first Home Grown Player to appear in a competitive match when he made his debut against the Philadelphia Union in the U.S. Open Cup qualifiers, and came on as a substitute in a late-season league game against Real Salt Lake in which he nearly set up the winning goal.

Juan Agudelo

Position: Forward

Team: New York Red Bulls

Age: 17

Nationality: United States

Already capped by the U.S. National Team, Agudelo could be a key piece in Hans Backe's attack in just his second season.

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Agudelo came off the bench again the next week against Philadelphia when he had a shot cleared off the line in the closing stages as the Red Bulls tried to snatch a draw, and went on to start in both legs of New York's Eastern Conference Semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes.

Despite his immediate impact at club level, Agudelo's best debut was yet to come.  The Colombian-born striker had starred for the United States' Under-17 and Under-20 national teams, participating in both the 2009 U-17 World Cup and the 2010 Milk Cup, and USA coach Bob Bradley called him up for the senior side's match against South Africa in November of 2010.  Not only did Agudelo earn his first cap at just 17 when he came on for Robbie Rogers in the 61st minute, but he scored the winner five minutes from time, becoming the youngest player to score for the senior USA side.

Since that SportsCenter highlight reel moment, he has been capped a second time for the United States, again coming off the bench and proving decisive as he drew the penalty that was scored by Teal Bunbury to give the USA a 1-1 draw with Chile.

Agudelo is good with both feet, although he prefers his right.  However, he tends to prefer playing on the left while occasionally switching flanks.  He is also very adept technically and has a decent eye for a pass.  Most importantly for the Red Bulls, a team sorely lacking in speed, Agudelo also has plenty of pace and acceleration.

What can Agudelo do to improve his game?

As is the case with many promising young strikers, Agudelo has demonstrated a tendency to go for the extraordinary a little too often.  Particularly in the second leg of New York's playoff tie with San Jose, he seemed too willing to go for goal from tight angles instead of pulling the ball back for a teammate.  While he has the quality to score such difficult shots, his decision-making in the penalty area is not the best.

How will you know when he's figuring it all out?

Agudelo is well on his way already.  Even during the course of that playoff game against San Jose he seemed to be learning which options to take, and his cross for Juan Pablo Ángel's headed goal was a great example.  He is still only 18, but has shown the capacity to understand more of the professional game, and we can expect him to continue getting better.

What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?

Injuries (or lack thereof) will be very important in determining how often Agudelo is on the pitch for the Red Bulls in 2011.  It looks unlikely that he will be fit for First Kick against the Seattle Sounders, with a groin injury keeping him out of New York's final group of pre-season friendlies in Arizona.  If fit, he will probably start at least 20-25 games at striker alongside Thierry Henry, and a expectations of a goal return between 10 and 15 are probably fair.

What's the ceiling on Agudelo?

This is a very difficult question because he simply hasn't played many competitive games at senior level; he's made just two substitute appearances in MLS and two starts.  What we've seen when he has been on the pitch is very good: Agudelo is strong enough to survive in MLS, and has the technical quality that some other young American strikers lack.  He seems to have gained the trust of Red Bulls coach Hans Backe, but we need to see a full season's worth of performances to even get in the ballpark of a fair assessment of his talents.


MLS 2011 Preview: Ruben Luna Poised For The Spotlight

Ruben Luna is a 19-year-old U20 Mexican international forward, and Dallas’ best of their six Home Grown Players. Luna, a member of the inaugural FC Dallas Juniors program, burst onto the youth scene in 2009, scoring an incredible 38 goals in his 27 league matches with the FCD U16 Juniors en route to being named the Development Academy U16 player of the year.

Rune Luna

Position: Forward

Team: FC Dallas

Nationality: Mexico

Age: 19

A member of the Mexican U20 national team, he has torn up the youth ranks at every stop.

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Luna, a big strong forward that reminds you a ton of Carlos Ruiz in his prime, minus the diving, was promoted to the first team for the 2010 pre-season after leading the team in scoring. But due to visa issues, he was unable to be signed to a Home Grown contract until the middle of the year. Luna would appear in a few games last year, but is ready for his time in the spotlight in 2011. Ruben fits perfectly as a forward in the FC Dallas 4-1-4-1 system as he holds the ball up well and will finish half-chances with deadly regularity. In a first for MLS development academies, Luna was called into the Mexican U-20 national team in preparation for the U20 World Cup this summer in Colombia.

What can Luna do to improve his game?

Luna simply needs to work on speeding his game up a bit more. His decisions can still be a bit slow, especially at the MLS level, but those will improve with time.

How will you know when he's figuring it all out?

If he’s scoring poaching goals and combining well with Brek Shea and Marvin Chavez on the outsides, he’s finally improved his speed to the MLS level. It’s really just a matter of time.

What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?

It all depends on if he plays for Mexico in the U20 World Cup. If Luna stays with FC Dallas for the majority of the season, he should play in 20 games and score at least a few goals. Right now Luna is the No. 2 forward on the depth chart.

What's the ceiling on Luna?

Some might laugh, but almost every person I’ve talked to within the organization that’s watched this player develop says "Carlos Ruiz." Ruiz, of course, won two Golden Boots during his first stint in MLS. Luna has the potential to be a top 5 forward in the league.

- Report by Daniel Robertson of Big D Soccer


MLS 2011 Preview: Bill Hamid Ready To Take Over The Reins

Bill Hamid is already the youngest goalkeeper ever to win an MLS game. It's a title he stole from Tim Howard, his idol, and the man he someday wants to replace as starting goalkeeper for the U.S. National Team

Bill Hamid

Position: Goalkeeper

Team: D.C. United

Nationality: United States

Age: 20

Having become the youngest goalkeeper to ever win a MLS match, he now looks to become the full-time starter

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Hamid signed with DC United as the team's first ever Home Grown Player in 2009 and he did it at the ripe age of 18. He’s come a long way since then, having beat out Troy Perkins for United’s starting goalkeeper position temporarily last year before taking a step back due to injury. Hamid started only eight games for D.C. in 2010, but he earned half of the team’s total number of wins, with three. His 1.25 goals against average was impressive, but he’s facing competition for the starting job again this year as United sent Perkins to the Portland Timbers in exchange for Steve Cronin this offseason.

What can Hamid do to improve his game?

If you believe the reports, then he’s already done it. While recovering from shoulder surgery this offseason, Hamid wasn’t able to spend much time practicing on the field. So he spent his time in the gym instead. Already an intimidating presence at 6-foot-3, Hamid bulked up even more. He went from looking like a blocking tight end to looking like a pass-rushing linebacker. Or maybe even like a professional wrestler. He also made the decision to grow up, improve his diet, eliminate bad habits, etc. Having Pat Onstad as his goalkeeper coach (and now as his competition also) surely can’t hurt. If Onstad can help Hamid improve his communication and decision-making on the field, this kid could go far.

How will you know when he's figuring it all out?

If he can secure the starting role for D.C., Hamid will have to quickly learn how to lead a young and experienced back-line that will include rookie Perry Kitchen. Hamid is an excellent shot-stopper, but at times in 2010, he looked a bit hesitant coming off his line. When Hamid is starting consistently, communicating effectively, and acting as a leader, we’ll know he’s legit.

What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?

United fans are expecting big things from Hamid this year. Once the team doctors deem him fully-recovered and he’s cleared to play, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hamid start around 75 percent of his team’s games this year. The future is now!

What's the ceiling on Bill Hamid?

His ceiling is about as high as any player’s in the league. He wants to play for his National Team. He wants to play in Europe. Hamid’s got the right attitude. He can do it.

- Report by Martin Shatzer of Black and Red United


MLS 2011 Preview: Tristan Bowen Appears Ready To Shine

Of all the players in this series, Tristan Bowen may seem the oddest fit. After all, he played in 18 regular season matches last year and even scored a couple of goals. That said, no one is going to pretend that Bowen has come anywhere close to reaching his potential.

The first player officially signed under the Home Grown Player Rule (but not the first to be produced by a team's academy), Bowen is now in a situation where he can really showcase his talents. After two seasons with the LA Galaxy, where he started 10 games last year as a replacement for Edson Buddle, Bowen was traded to Chivas USA in exchange for allocation money that was ultimately used to help sign Juan Pablo Angel.

Tristan Bowen

Position: Forward

Team: CD Chivas USA

Age: 20

Nationality: United States

Filled in for Edson Buddle while he was with the U.S. National Team and was then traded to Chivas USA.

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Bowen has shown flashes that he's capable of being a premier scoring threat, but other than a seven-match stretch in which he started every game, he's not been given many opportunities to show show what he can do over an extended period. He's been tried as an outside midfielder as well as a forward with the Goats and will likely see time at both positions this season.

What can Bowen do to improve his game?

The biggest thing Bowen can do this year is become more versatile. He's basically been groomed as a forward, but has been seeing some time in the midfield with Chivas. If coach Robin Fraser makes good on his attempts to institute a 4-1-4-1 formation, Bowen will likely find himself on the wing as fellow youngster Justin Braun is the clear No. 1 forward. Even in a two-forward set-up, Bowen is going to be fighting with much more seasoned veterans and Fraser may be reluctant to put his entire strike force in the hands of two players with just four professional seasons between them. Transitioning from forward to wing is not easy for anyone, let alone a 20-year-old who has been used almost exclusively at forward.

How will you know when he's figuring it all out?

With Fraser bringing in so many veterans, it seems pretty clear that he intends to make players earn playing time. For all the promise Bowen has flashed, he's only going to be playing if he is earning it. That said, if Bowen sees 1,500 minutes or more, we can safely say he's progressing almost regardless of production.

What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?

Bowen doesn't need to set the world ablaze, but if he can just maintain his production last year in limited time over a longer period that would probably be sufficient. Two goals and two assists over 878 minutes would translate to about five goals and three assists over 2,000 minutes. More importantly, those 2,000 minutes would mean he's earned some significant playing time.

What's the ceiling on Bowen?

Bowen's longterm future is still probably as a forward. That's where he was playing while with the Galaxy, and that's where he's mostly played for the U.S. U-18 and U-20 teams. He could develop into a capable midfielder, but it seems more likely that he'll only reach his full potential as a forward, where he has the potential to be one of the better forwards in the league and maybe even a U.S. National Team contributor.


MLS 2011 Preview: Zach Pfeffer Is Definitely Young, But Don't Let That Fool You

At just 16 years of age, Zach Pfeffer is living a life that most kids his age can only dream of. Born in Dresher, Pa. in January 1995, Pfeffer played for local youth soccer powerhouse FC Delco throughout most of his young life. During his time at Delco, the midfielder honed his talents under a coaching staff that has produced many MLS players, including Seattle Sounders defender Jeff Parke, Colorado Rapids midfielder Jeff Larentowicz and DC United head coach Ben Olsen. Pfeffer was frequently called up to various U.S. youth national teams, including the U-14’s and U-15’s, before earning a place in the Spring 2010 semester of Bradenton Academy, the U.S. U-17 national team’s residency program.

Zach Pfeffer

Position: Midfielder

Team: Philadelphia Union

Nationality: United States

Age: 16

Despite being one of the youngest players in the league appears to be impressing coaches and could get significant playing time.

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That was when Pfeffer began making waves. After completing his semester in Bradenton, he was identified by the Union’s assistant coach, John Hackworth, as an exceptional prospect. Pfeffer was invited to train with the Union first team, and he achieved a rare feat for a player his age when he appeared in the second half of a friendly match at PPL Park between the Union and Mexican side Chivas de Guadalajara. The young midfielder continued to train with the first team throughout the 2010 season before being offered a unique opportunity to travel to Germany to train with TSG Hoffenheim of the Bundesliga. He impressed the Hoffenheim coaches, who reportedly wanted him to stay in Germany.

But the Union were not prepared to let him slip through their fingers. Within weeks of Pfeffer’s return to the U.S., he accepted an offer to become the Union’s first ever Home Grown player at just 15 years of age in December 2010. He became the fourth-youngest player ever to be signed to an MLS contract behind only Freddy Adu, Faud Ibrahim, and newly signed New England Revolution Home Grown Player Diego Fagundez. Pfeffer, now 16, has been with the Union throughout the entire 2011 preseason, and he made headlines with a 40-yard wonder goal that he scored in a friendly against the University of Central Florida. Pfeffer is a midfielder who likes to get involved in the attack. He is comfortable out on the wings or in the middle, and has been described by the Union coaching staff as being on par with many of his MLS teammates when it comes to technical skill.

What can Pfeffer do to improve his game?

Pfeffer still has a lot of work to do if he is going to compete for playing time in MLS. He must improve his size and strength, and must get accustomed to the physicality of the league. The fact that he has been with the Union from the start of the 2011 season bodes well for him though, as he has been going up against seasoned veterans like Danny Califf and Brian Carroll every day in training. Pfeffer must also continue to mature as a person, as he is still very young and is not used to the life of a professional athlete.

How will you know when he's figuring it all out?

Given that Pfeffer is still only 16 and has yet to appear in an official MLS match, it will be difficult to make a proper assessment of his development throughout the 2011 season. Pfeffer doesn’t even have his driver's license yet, and his mother drives him to practice every day. So it may take time to judge how he his coming along. Having said that, the Union coaching staff has said on numerous occasions that he will compete for playing time this season. If Pfeffer can get regular minutes in the Reserve Division and settle in with his new teammates, he will probably get onto the field once or twice in an official match. This will be a strong indicator that Pfeffer is moving in the right direction.

What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?

During the 2011 season, Pfeffer will see the large majority of his playing time in the Reserve Division. With the current Union roster only featuring five defenders, many players will be relied on to play in different positions for the Union Reserves in order to create a feasible back line. Most of these players will be midfielders, since the Union has a large number of them and some can move to defense. This should open up a spot for Pfeffer and he should be starting the majority of the reserve team’s games. After Pfeffer revealed his wonderful finishing ability in the University of Central Florida friendly match, one can expect him to score at least a few goals with the Reserves, and he should pick up an assist or two to boot. And if he can make it onto the field with the first team, then this season should be considered a rousing success for the 16-year-old.

What's the ceiling on Pfeffer?

John Hackworth, the Union’s assistant coach, has referred to Pfeffer as a generational talent and a player who is already at an MLS level in terms of technical and tactical ability. It’s his physicality and overall size that needs to improve. That’s high praise, especially coming from a guy who coached the U.S. Under-17 national team at two U-17 World Cups. If Pfeffer continues to develop and eventually get playing time with the Union first team, there’s no reason to believe that he could eventually earn caps with the U.S. senior national team. If all goes well for him, he could develop into a player in the mold of Bolton Wanderers and former Houston Dynamo midfielder Stuart Holden. If that’s the case, then the Union will be quite pleased with their young talisman.

- Report by Joey Samuel of Brotherly Game (Philadelphia Union blog)


MLS 2011 Preview: Home Grown Players Ready To Make An Impact

The Home Grown Player Rule was instituted in 2006 as a way to entice MLS teams to put more emphasis on their academies. Over time, the rule has evolved and expanded to the point where teams are essentially allowed to sign as may Home Grown Players as their rosters allow. In the last year, teams have greatly increased the number of players they are signing under the rule, with 23 HGP signings coming in the past calendar year.

Being mostly players 18 years old or younger, the vast majority of the 33 signings in the rule's history have not had much of an opportunity to play. As of this writing, just three players who were signed to HGP contracts have made as many as 10 appearances and just eight have made even one senior team appearance.

Home Grown Players Read To Contribute

Over the next week or so, we'll be doing mini-profiles of five players who were originally signed under the Home Grown Player Rule who are most likely to make significant contributions to their teams this year.

Juan Agudelo
New York Red Bulls
Tristan Bowen
Chivas USA
Ruben Luna
FC Dallas
Zach Pfeffer Philadelphia Union
Bill Hamid DC United

That doesn't mean there haven't been signs of progress. Andy Najar, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, is now the poster child for the program. He made 26 appearances as a 17-year-old and is now poised to be one of the league's stars.

Identifying who the next Andy Najar will be is hardly an easy task, but we have highlighted five players signed to the league via the HGP rule who appear poised for breakout seasons. As part of SB Nation Soccer's series of previews for the 2011 MLS season, we'll be doing a series of profiles of those five players.

Included among those players are a 16-year-old who will likely make his MLS debut this year (Zach Pfeffer), a goalkeeper who already has his first MLS shutout under his belt (Bill Hamid), the first HGP to have been traded (Tristan Bowen), an 18-year-old with United States National Team experience (Juan Agudelo) and a forward who may be starting for the defending Eastern Conference champions (Ruben Luna).

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