Major League Soccer: Players with a Future in Europe
The MLS has long been tagged as the retirement league, as many notable footballers arrive only after their prime to suit up for the soon-to-be 19 sides (Montreal Impact join in 2012).
Those aging stars are perhaps more enticed by the prospect of living in North America and away from the pressures in Europe than the actual play.
While this is partly true, the league also offers a glimpse at future U.S. talent—current national team players Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and Tim Howard (who have all spent time playing in the English Premier League) all started their professional careers in MLS.
As the league has developed, so to have the academies and the level of college soccer in North America.
Finally, homegrown products are popping up across the league and representing a new generation of football. And for some, their potential is so great that one day the MLS might not be a big enough stage for them to hone their craft.
Here is a list of young MLS talent that is ready/will soon be ready to make the jump to top-tier European football.
One of the best defenders in the league and probably the best distributor out of the back for New York Red Bulls, Ream has a bright future ahead of him.
Overlooked in the run-up to the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, Ream fell to the second round. He wasn't expected to do much, but took the league by storm, earning a starting spot for the season opener, which he never relinquished.
Tim has now earned a handful of caps for the U.S. National Team and is an MLS all-star. While his performances with the USMNT have been spotty, clearly he has proved people wrong about his career trajectory.
England is the most likely destination for the Missouri native, as NYRB might look to cash in on their draft-day steal.
Zakuani is one of the most exciting and skillful players in the league. At only 23 years of age, his best years are still ahead of him.
Since entering the league in 2009, he has been labeled a star in the making because of the flair and speed he possesses in attack. It only takes a second for Zakuani to take over a game on the left wing for the Sounders.
The Congo DR native suffered a set-back this season after succumbing to one of the most excruciatingly painful injuries—breaking his tibia and fibula—early in the campaign, the result of a vicious tackle.
If he can fully recover (no easy task) and regain his form, it won't be long before he accomplishes all that he can in the MLS and looks to move elsewhere.
Shortly after making his debut for Toronto FC in 2009, Stefan Frei became the first-choice keeper and hasn't looked back since.
Though the team has never been able to make the playoffs, Frei has proven to be a certifiable cornerstone of the team.
He has become, without question, one of the top goalkeepers in the MLS. Even with recent competition from friend and Toronto teammate Milos Kocic, Frei has managed to keep his stock up and is looking ready to make a switch to the Old Continent.
He is a great shot-stopper, making unbelievable first- and second-chance opportunity saves. While his box presence could still use some work—as he tends to get lost on set pieces—there is no ceiling on his potential. The only questions are when and where.
Already having had offers from the likes of Arsenal and other overseas powers, Luis Gil is a superstar in the making.
He instead opted to play in the MLS, making his professional debut last year, and has enjoyed frequent playing time with current employer Real Salt Lake. Oh, did I mention he's only 17?
As the youngest player on this list, Gil has very little professional experience to his name, and it's still unknown what type of player he is and will become.
He is being projected as a No. 10—the age-old designation of a midfielder steeped in creative verve—but as he matures this could change.
He possesses a level of flair never before seen from an American this side of Freddy Adu, and this hasn't gone unnoticed.
Hopefully, all the pressure from the U.S. hopefuls doesn't hinder his development and he becomes the footballer he has the potential to be.
This kid could change U.S. soccer as we know it.
Probably the selection to cause the biggest doubt, Kitchen isn't necessarily a household name. He was selected third overall in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, and to this point has looked like a steal.
Despite playing only one full season in the NCAA and being one of the youngest players in the league, Kitchen has become a mainstay in the D.C. United starting XI.
A natural leader, his versatility allows him to be slotted all over the field, and one can only imagine what he will prove capable of during his career. If you wanted a definition for intangibles, look no further than Kitchen.
Though he is already getting offers in Belgium, it won't be long before Kitchen has a long list of interested suitors fighting for his signature.
At 6'5", Omar Gonzalez is a mammoth of a footballer.
But this doesn't take away from his mobility and ball control. He has been a mainstay on the LA Galaxy defense, winning the 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year Award and anchoring the top MLS defense this season.
Gonzalez still needs time to mature as a defender before taking the step up to the next level. Nevertheless, he looks certain to bring in big bucks when the time is right and he makes the move abroad.
Look for Gonzalez to secure a regular spot in the U.S. National Team's central defense.
As undersized as they come, Plata hasn't let his physical limitations stop him from being a force in the MLS.
Plata isn't owned by the MLS, having been loaned out from his home club LDU Quito (Ecuador). He has taken well to the system in place in Toronto, however, and makes up for his small stature with his high work rate.
The point needs to be made though.
What is the smallest player around doing playing in such a physical league? Surely Plata would have less limitation and issues playing in a less-athletic league. Nevertheless, Plata still manages to be a difference maker, but as he grows up his quality will not be unnoticed.
His size will not hold him back, a move to Europe is inevitable and if he chooses the right league, like a Eredivisie, he could be successful.
I cannot wait till the day they pull out the Lion King cele and do a Rafiki Circle of Life hold up with the little man.
John has been one of the best defenders in the MLS this season. He is a rock in the defense; is good with distribution and provides a potent aerial threat.
John was slated for a transfer to Blackburn Rovers in the EPL this past summer, but the move fell through. Look for John to complete a transfer overseas during the January transfer window, as he is very keen on taking his game to the next level.
The U.S. will surely be looking to secure his international commitment as he is also eligible to play for Greece.
Probably the most talked about MLS player these days, Shea brings an incredible combination of athleticism and flair to the game.
Oddly enough, Shea started the season as a CB and has been moved around the pitch with abandon, finally discovering his niche down the left wing. He has been picking apart the league since.
The Texas native will surely cause a stir when the January transfer window opens up, with a host of clubs from England, Germany and elsewhere reportedly interested in securing his services.
It remains to be seen if it is in his best interest to move right away or to continue playing valuable minutes as the star of FC Dallas.
All these guys have bright futures ahead of them.
Though their departure from the MLS takes away from the league's quality, they must be allowed to pursue their dreams. They will provide greater respect for the league and in turn this will help the MLS as a whole.
What do you think about the list?
Was anyone left out? Did someone not deserve to be on it? Please share your thoughts with me!