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Thursday, May 1, 2003
ESPNsoccernet: May 21, 12:49 AM UK
Ready for the big stage

Marc Connolly

There's no question as to whether or not Brad Friedel deserved to be named to the English Premier League Team of the Year.

Even his 15 shutouts and monstrous efforts in victories over Manchester United and Arsenal -- arguably the two best teams in the world after star-studded Real Madrid -- don't speak to the excellence that the American goalkeeper displayed this past season.

Personally, I think he'd make an all-World team right now. And don't think that Kasey Keller wouldn't get some top five votes. That's how respected our two keepers are in the soccer world.

As for other Americans in Europe, the odds are long against Claudio Reyna for making such a team in the future. Forget about the upcoming year he'll spend in the English First Division after Sunderland failed to stave off relegation - it's his age and collection of injuries over the years that will more than likely prevent him from ever playing any better than he did at times for Sunderland last season or with Rangers four seasons ago.

That leaves us John O'Brien, who is a bona fide starting player on a Champions League side at the age of 25. The U.S. World Cup starter is already a known commodity in Europe and on the international level, plus he plays on an Ajax team that is being whispered about all over the continent. If he stays healthy, which has always been the trouble for Johnny O, it's only a matter of time before he becomes a full-fledged star in Europe.

Yet, the burning question on everyone's mind isn't about the U.S. players that are currently abroad. It's about the ones right here at home. So the question that begs to be answered is simple: "Which players are most likely to make a splash in Europe?"

Anyone with soccer intellect can tell you that Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard are high on that list. But after that, it's not so clear.

To help me with such matters, I consulted close to a dozen MLS general managers, coaches, players, agents and soccer aficionados who are "in the know" in one shape or form. Many of the names forwarded to me were surprising, as were some of the omissions, as you can see below.

The following is the ranking compiled from one to 10 based on their candid comments, suggestions and, in some cases, rankings.

1. Landon Donovan -- Not a big surprise, is it? At 21, the San Jose Earthquakes' playmaker is already a marked man around the world. That's what scoring two goals and being an all-around nuisance at four different positions in a World Cup will do for you.

Says one coach, "Should be in Europe right now. His pace and fitness are world-class."

2. DaMarcus Beasley -- Has the speed and offensive instincts to make things happen in the attacking third in any league around the world, and has underrated defensive skills and a tenacity that makes him a hard-tackler despite his size (5-foot-8, 145 pounds).

"Wide left is a commodity anywhere," says MLS superagent Patrick McCabe, who is responsible for bringing 10 foreign players to MLS in addition to the several home-grown talents he represents. "If he can add five to eight pounds of muscle, he'll be able to hold up to the more physical European game."

3. Tim Howard -- Friedel and Keller have helped pave the way for American keepers and this young MetroStars stalwart should be the next in line. One G.M. dubbed him "Superman". Though some question his technical skills, his athleticism is never in doubt.

"Do you really think this guy would embarrass himself wearing a Man. U. uniform?" asks one insider. "He's top class, a hell of a kid with great attitude and could play anywhere, anytime."

4. Carlos Bocanegra -- Is firmly entrenched on the National Team right now, and has shown he can play centerback as well as out on the left. His size (6-0, 170) and strength makes him an EPL prototype, which is the league he wants to play in.

"Best defender in MLS," says one coach.

5. Pablo Mastroeni -- Was one of the success stories from the World Cup after playing so well after stepping in for Chris Armas as a defensive midfielder. His leadership abilities have really been noticeable in 2003 for the National Team, as well. Not playing with another established central midfielder in Colorado isn't an easy chore right now, as he shines brightest when he's able to link with a playmaker or a more creative presence.

One coach describes the 26-year-old as the "full package of talent combined with improved understanding and maturity. He's one of the best talents the U.S. has ever produced."

6. Edson Buddle -- Raised eyebrows when he beat out Jeff Cunningham for the starting striker's role next to Brian McBride, but came through 36 minutes into the opening match against L.A. with a goal. Actually, the 21-year-old has already proved he can score at this level, tallying 13 times (ninth all-time for the Crew) in limited playing time over the past few seasons. Has great ball skills for someone his size (6-1, 170), which has drawn the interest of two Champions League teams, including Norwegian power Rosenborg, that are coming over for a look-see once he's healthy.

"He's a load for a defender to handle out there," says one G.M. "I wouldn't want to defend him."

7. Kyle Martino -- Just coming into his own at 22. In his second season for the Columbus Crew, he's already shown how dangerous he can be whether it's from a one-touch through ball, a quick, darting run or a devastating shot from the top of the box. What's really helped him is playing with a class professional like McBride and from the tutelage of assistant coach Robert Warzycha.

"Give him some added muscle and more one-time balls, and he can make any front-runner happy with his service," says one insider.

"Has everything it takes to be a great one," says another.

8. Eddie Johnson -- Recently turned 19, yet is already in his third season in MLS. The Dallas Burn striker hasn't beat out Bobby Rhine for a starting role yet. His nagging injuries have gotten in the way, but some have also questioned his attitude. "You're not in Bradenton anymore," says one insider. He's still raw, but his speed and touch is easily noticeable. Should turn heads in November at the Under-20 World Cup.

"It will be a waste of talent if this kid doesn't move on soon," says one coach.

9. Santino Quaranta -- He starts alongside Johnson at forward for Thomas Rongen's U-20s. From his international play and spurts of greatness over the past few seasons with D.C. United, Quaranta was recently mentioned as a player that Bruce Arena would consider. Not bad for an 18-year-old. His maturity has also been questioned by some. His size (6-1, 185) makes him an intriguing prospect as a target forward.

"He has real ability and class," says one coach. "He consistently has to put it all together before he's ready."

10. Ricardo Clark -- Playing for Mooch Myernick with the U-23s and Bob Bradley with the Metros is something that has people believing he'll improve as much as any first-year player in MLS. There aren't many holding midfielders in America that have as much strength and power or ability to go forward as this 20-year-old. Clark has already combined well with Richie Williams for the Metros and has already displayed a maturity that's rarely seen in a rookie who is slotted in the center of the field.

Says McCabe, "He reminds me of (Patrick) Vieira. He needs to simplify his game, but this should not be a problem."

Others

What intrigued me was that only one person mentioned Clint Mathis, and that was a G.M. who listed him as a "questionable." Same went for Bobby Convey and Ben Olsen. There wasn't a Taylor Twellman mention; there wasn't a Josh Wolff mention; and there was no sign of Nick Rimando's name. There were several players given to me in their place. (Heck, Mike Clark even got a nod.) In no particular order, here are 10 other players who were mentioned.

  • Nate Jaqua -- Big Chicago Fire striker had two Champions League teams, including Belgium's Club Brugge, interested in him before going the P-40 route.

  • Eddie Gaven -- MetroStars rookie is with the U-17s right now.

  • Dema Kovalenko -- "Does the dirty work, but also possesses tons of skill and heart."

  • Justin Mapp -- "Needs to work on his final ball and continue defensive work, but has all the goods to go far."

  • Eddie Pope -- "Maybe he's too old now, but if he continues to be as good as he's been the first three weeks of the season - see you later."

  • Arturo Alvarez "The most talented young player I have seen this year."

  • Chad Marshall -- European scouts already love this Stanford defender who also plays for the U-20s. "Will be number one pick in the draft if he stays in MLS."

  • Brian McBride -- "The McBride transfer talks begin in July as it does every year."

  • Adin Brown -- "Has all the tools to make a similar path that Friedel and Keller have made in the U.K."

    and, of course &

  • Freddy Adu -- "True potential for class."

    Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.


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