MLS News
MLS SuperDraft 2017: Complete Round-by-Round Results and Twitter Reaction
MLS News
Friday, 13 January 2017 18:54

Expansion club Minnesota United made UCLA forward Abu Danladi the top overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Los Angeles Convention Center in California. Syracuse defender Miles Robinson was the second player off the board to fellow expansion team Atlanta United.

Danladi and Robinson represented the first of 44 selections made during Friday's event, which covered the first two rounds. The third and fourth rounds are scheduled to get completed Tuesday through a conference call involving the league's 22 franchises.

Let's check out a complete list of picks made Friday in L.A. That's followed by a recap of some notable selections and a look at the social-media reaction to the annual showcase of incoming players.

                                  

Draft Results

                         

Recap and Reaction

Danladi is coming off a strong junior campaign with the Bruins during which he tallied a team-high seven goals and two assists across 11 appearances. In all, he found the net 18 times and assisted on 18 more goals in his three years at UCLA.

The Ghana native could step right in to a key attacking role for the Loons. Although there's always a learning period when a young prospect starts going up against experienced professional players, his vision and playmaking ability make him ready for the challenge.

Minnesota United passed along a message from Danladi to the supporters:

The Pac-12 Network provided a glimpse at his attacking skills back in November:

While Minnesota opted for offense with its first MLS pick, Atlanta United went the opposite direction to select Robinson. The 6'2'', 185-pound defender was an immense physical presence at the collegiate level en route to winning the 2016 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Award.

His stature gives him the look of a future stalwart center back at the pro level, but he does bring some offensive skill to the table, as well. He racked up four goals and an assist for the Orange in 2016.

Major League Soccer relayed an interview with Robinson after his selection:

Bay Area broadcaster Tim Swartz is bullish on the defender, including at the international level:

New York City FC pulled off a trade with the Chicago Fire to acquire the third pick. The club made the decision to take Akron forward Jonathan Lewis, a surprising choice based on the side's immense defending woes across its first two years in MLS.

That said, there's no doubting Lewis' long-term potential. He was one of the nation's best distributors, accumulating 12 assists in 22 games for the Zips in 2016. He also scored a pair of goals during his freshman season.

Glenn Crooks of WFAN showcased comments from the winger, who was named the top player at the MLS Scouting Combine, about manager Patrick Vieira's potential vision after the pick:

Ives Galarcep of Goal USA analyzed the selection:

In all, the first round featured the selection of six forwards, eight midfielders and eight defenders. Three schools—UCLA, Connecticut and Denver—tied for the lead with two players apiece taken inside the round's 22 picks.

Alec Ferrell became the first goalkeeper taken by Minnesota with the first selection in Round 2. Andy Greder of St. Paul Pioneer Press passed on further details about the Wake Forest standout:

Every team will hope the players it drafted Friday will eventually make an impression on their club. Though in some cases, it could take multiple years before they develop enough to do so. Finding valuable depth through the draft is critical to success in MLS.

That said, the picks are even more important for Minnesota and Atlanta. Those front offices were tasked with trying to secure future faces of the franchise as they build from the ground up. Danladi and Robinson are saddled with those expectations but should prove worth the investment.

                                                  

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2017 MLS Mock Draft: 1st-Round Predictions and Full Selection Order
MLS News
Saturday, 07 January 2017 07:00

While the January transfer window is in full swing in European soccer, the crown jewel of MLS offseason is just around the corner, the MLS SuperDraft.

Below, we'll break down a first-round mock draft and break down the full draft order.

Here's a look at the draft order in the second round:

There may not be a consensus top pick in this year's draft, but four names tend to hover around the early picks: Jeremy Ebobisse, Abu Danladi, Jackson Yueill and Miles Robinson.

So who are these guys?

Ebobisse is arguably the safest forward in this draft and maybe the top talent available, period. He has been incredibly impressive with the United States under-20 national team, notching nine goals in eight games during the 2016 campaign, per Rob Usry of Dirty South Soccer.

He has a deadly left foot and the potential to grow into a prolific scorer in the MLS. Will Parchman of MLSSoccer.com broke down his game:

Ebobisse is one of those jack-of-all-trades forwards, capable of just about anything in just about any system. That has to be music to an expansion club’s ears. Of course in this he lacks specialization, but that certainly hasn’t hurt Wright-Phillips, who’s banked on his all-around game to become one of the most lethal scorers in MLS history. Ebobisse has that in him if he can find a creative system that can generate looks. The good news? He’s malleable, skilled and endlessly technical. As far as picks go, it gets no safer than Ebobisse, who’s ready to go now.

It's hard to imagine him falling any lower than the No. 2 pick in this draft.

Minnesota will have a very interesting decision to make, however, because Danladi is also an impressive striker who notched seven goals and two assists in just 11 games with UCLA in 2016. Danladi's pace and versatility are his strengths, as he has the skill set to play either as a central forward or as a winger on either flank.

Without his history of injuries, he'd probably be the consensus top pick in this draft. In terms of raw talent, no prospect has more. Regardless, Minnesota and Atlanta can't really miss with these two players atop the draft.

After that, Yueill and Robinson should be the next two players off the board. Yueill is a playmaker in the midfield who led the Pac-12 with 11 assists in 2016, good for fifth overall in the NCAA. There isn't another player in this draft with his vision, anticipation or ability to set up his teammates in ideal scoring positions.

According to TopDrawerSoccer.com, "Some MLS General Managers have compared his game to Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley, which should give some idea of how he fits into the MLS style of play."

If Yueill's game ultimately resembles anything close to what Bradley brings to the table, he'll be an absolute steal at either No. 3 or 4.

Robinson, meanwhile, is the top defensive player in this draft and is likely versatile enough to play in all four positions on a back line, though he'll settle in at centre-back more than likely. His college head coach certainly had high praise for him.

"Miles has been terrific for us these past two years and he has played an integral role in leading our team to new heights," Syracuse head coach Ian McIntyre said, per Lindsay Kramer of Syracuse.com. "He is an outstanding, humble young man and a wonderful teammate. He has a very bright future ahead of him and we are all very excited for Miles as he embarks on the next stage of his career."

Robinson has the look of a player who will once find his way on to the USMNT roster at centre-back. 

                  

You can follow Timothy Rapp on Twitter.

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Predicting 5 Breakout Stars in MLS in 2017
MLS News
Tuesday, 20 December 2016 09:18

The second the 2016 Major League Soccer season ended, the full focus of the league shifted to the beginning of the 2017 campaign, which starts in late February for some sides. 

Transactions within the league and transfers from abroad have already been made by some, and the number of them will ramp up once the January transfer window opens. 

A lot of attention will be centered on the additions to MLS, but there is already a bounty of young talent in North America ready to break out on the national stage. 

Last season saw the emergence of Jordan Morris as a key scorer for the Seattle Sounders and Keegan Rosenberry as one of the top full-backs in the league for Philadelphia. 

We've predicted five players who will follow in the footsteps of Morris and Rosenberry and become the breakout stars of the 2017 MLS campaign. 

Begin Slideshow

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Ranking the Top 50 Players in MLS in 2016
MLS News
Wednesday, 14 December 2016 04:46

The 2016 Major League Soccer season was a wild and unpredictable roller-coaster ride that perfectly personified the league. 

The Seattle Sounders won MLS Cup over Toronto FC after both sides dispatched some of the best teams from the regular season to reach the championship match. 

On an individual level, plenty of big-name designated players exceeded expectations once again, while a few underrated stars broke out in a big way over the course of nine months. 

Our ranking of the top 50 players in MLS primarily focuses on performances from the regular season, but play-off showings were considered if applicable. 

With that being said, here's our annual year-end list of the top 50 players to take the pitch in MLS this season.  

Begin Slideshow

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Seattle Sounders Cap Emotional Year by Earning Elusive MLS Cup
MLS News
Sunday, 11 December 2016 03:36

TORONTO — The Seattle Sounders have lifted trophies before. 

The Sounders have also been at or near the top of the Major League Soccer totem pole since arriving in the league eight years ago. 

But there was always a void in the trophy case, at least until Saturday night. 

The Sounders were crowned MLS champions on a 5-4 penalty shootout victory over Toronto FC at BMO Field after 120 minutes of scoreless play failed to decide anything. 

“It’s amazing," Sounders captain Osvaldo Alonso said in a champagne-soaked visitors locker room at BMO Field. "I’ve been here for a long time and I’ve longed for this moment. I’m very happy for the fans, the franchise." 

What makes the club's first MLS championship even more unbelievable is the steps, backward and forward, that were taken to get to the podium placed in the middle of the pitch on a cold December night on the shores of Lake Ontario. 

 

Seattle fired manager Sigi Schmid, who led the club to four U.S. Open Cups and a Supporters' Shield in 2014, in late July before handing Brian Schmetzer the reins on a temporary basis, which then turned into a permanent gig as manager. 

The past finals the Sounders experienced in other competitions prepared them for the day the franchise and the city have been waiting for since the club was reborn as an MLS franchise. 

"We’ve had experience with Open Cups and closing out Supporters Shield games, with what felt like a championship at home in 2014," midfielder Brad Evans said. "We put ourselves in a good position tonight. We played well enough to get into penalty kicks and at that point it’s a crapshoot." 

The Sounders were able to manhandle Toronto FC's forward pairing of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore thanks to a matchup they knew played in their favor. 

“We knew our defense was up for the challenge," Evans said "The physical battle with Jozy is one that these guys relished." 

Although Toronto controlled the match from the outset, the center-back duo of Chad Marshall and Roman Torres held Giovinco and Altidore to a combined three shots on target over 120 minutes. 

The last attempt placed on target will go down in Sounders and MLS lore forever. Altidore's header appeared destined for the back-right part of the net until Frei lifted his left hand and swatted the ball off the line. 

“I just tried not to give up and see if there’s anything I can do," Frei said. "Try to keep my feet moving and leap and thankfully I was able to get to it." 

“It was one hell of a save," Altidore said. "At the end of the day, you have to pull off something special and we weren’t able to." 

At that point in the 108th minute, you sensed that somehow the Sounders would find a way to pull off the victory, despite being the first team in MLS history to go through an MLS Cup without a single shot on target. 

"I thought they dominated us to be honest," Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan said. "And for us to stick to our game plan and fight through everything, it’s a characteristic of the team we have." 

After fighting for 12 more minutes, the Sounders approached penalties with all of the momentum and confidence in the world on their side. 

“The momentum swings for me in my mind (on Frei's save)," Evans said. "That’s a world-class save. That’s a legendary save." 

Frei and Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin traded saves one round apart in penalties to force a sixth round. 

Toronto's luck ran out as Justin Morrow's spot kick struck the bottom portion of the crossbar in the middle of the goal. 

"As the goalkeeper, I have to say I’m not a big fan of PKs," Frei said. "Somehow you have to decide a game, but for me, football is a team sport and that’s the beauty of it. It sucks that it has to come down to an individual." 

Morrow's miss put Torres in the position to send a city and franchise into a rush of emotion never felt before. 

After Torres blasted his penalty into the top part of the goal, he rushed across the left side of the field surrounded by his teammates in the direction of the Sounders supporters in the upper deck. 

"I was very pleased for Roman, although he will tell you if you ask him that he was a forward when he was growing up," Schmetzer said. "We don’t know if we believe that story, but he swears he was a forward when he was growing up in Panama.”

The final penalty was much different than the one in Seattle's final training session before the championship match. 

“Roman actually missed a PK in training yesterday," Frei said. "I’m glad he missed that one and not the one today." 

The infusion of Torres back into the starting lineup combined with the acquisition of Nicolas Lodeiro and the breath of fresh air provided by Schmetzer allowed the Sounders to overcome any adversity they faced.

In many ways, Schmetzer is the perfect man to lead the Sounders. Schmetzer is a lifetime Sounder. Schmetzer played for the Sounders in the NASL from 1980-1983 and managed them in the USL from 2002-2008 before becoming an assistant to Schmid. 

“I drafted him and I felt really guilty for a long time because I stopped him going to college," former Sounders boss Alan Hinton, who brought Schmetzer to Seattle, said. "I drafted him as a high school player and I stopped him from going to college for a lot of years, but I don’t feel bad anymore. I’m very happy because he went to the university of life and university of soccer." 

Schmetzer is a Seattle soccer lifer who got more out of the Sounders in four months than anyone expected him to. With the Sounders close to the Western Conference doormat, Schmetzer willed the club back to a playoff spot—and eventually to the title—without Clint Dempsey, who has been out of the lineup since August with an irregular heartbeat.

"I think the base was always there," Schmetzer said. "They found a way to win, a way to persevere in tough situations." 

Winning the 2016 MLS Cup isn't the conclusion of an eight-year journey, it's just another massive step in making the club as great as it can be. 

“I’m so happy I’m here because this is what we’ve always wanted Seattle to become," Hinton said. "To win in the eighth year of operation is marvelous. We’ve made the playoffs in every year. We’re the biggest club in Major League Soccer and we’re about to get bigger." 

   

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter; @JTansey90. 

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MLS Cup Final 2016: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders FC Score and Reaction
MLS News
Saturday, 10 December 2016 23:33

The Seattle Sounders earned their first MLS Cup, edging out Toronto FC 5-4 in a shootout after neither team scored a goal in regulation or extra time Saturday night at BMO Field in Toronto.

The turning point came during the sudden-death portion of the shootout.

Justin Morrow's kick caromed off the crossbar, which allowed Roman Torres the opportunity to hand Seattle the title. The 30-year-old defender opted for the safe route, drilling his kick down the middle past goalkeeper Clint Irwin, who dove to his left.

Fox Soccer shared a replay of the decisive kick:

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson saluted the victors on social media:

It was an improbable victory for the Sounders, who set MLS Cup lows in total shots (three) and shots on target (zero), according to Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl. Seattle defended well, but the Western Conference champion relied heavily on goalkeeper Stefan Frei to keep Toronto off the scoreboard.

While the 2016 MLS Cup wasn't a great advertisement for the league, the match unfolded in fitting fashion, given both the stakes and the conditions at BMO Field.

Top Drawer Soccer's Travis Clark alluded to the frigid temperature in Toronto:

Dirty Tackle's Brooks Peck had a novel way to determine a champion:

Before either team had time to get comfortable, Jozy Altidore nearly put Toronto up 1-0. Sebastian Giovinco laid the ball off perfectly to the American striker, and his low shot narrowly missed the mark in the second minute.

Fox Soccer shared a replay:

Tensions rose after Sounders forward Nelson Valdez kicked Drew Moor in the groin while attempting to play a high ball. The TFC defender took exception to the foul and gained a measure of revenge after fouling Valdez shortly after play restarted.

The Toronto Star's Laura Armstrong thought Moor was lucky to avoid anything more than a stern admonishment from the referee:

Altidore saw another scoring chance go begging in the 30th minute, when his header off a Morrow cross was too slow to threaten Frei. Although the Swiss goalkeeper didn't react quickly, he had plenty of time to make the save.

The Sounders failed to register a shot on target through the first half, though TSN's Kristian Jack noted Seattle did a great job of constricting Toronto in the center of the pitch:

The second half unfolded in largely the same manner.

The Sounders enjoyed more success in the final third, but all three of their shots were off target. Nicolas Lodeiro, who had eight goals and eight assists in 18 MLS games this season, was anonymous, which MLSsoccer.com's Matthew Doyle credited to Michael Bradley:

Bleacher Report's Graham Ruthven grew more annoyed with the lack of attacking moves from either team:

During a frenzied sequence in the second minute of injury time, Altidore was inches away from scoring the winning goal. MLS showed the narrow margin that necessitated extra time:

Altidore's bad luck continued when he mishit a header off a cross from Tosaint Ricketts. Instead of driving the ball into the back of the net or hitting it hard into the ground, he lofted it, which allowed Frei to make a sprawling one-handed save to preserve the clean sheet.

MLS shared a replay of the sequence:

Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber didn't think he saw a better save all season:

Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer sent his team out with a defined defensive strategy. Seattle hounded Giovinco all game and counted on the center-back duo of Torres and Chad Marshall to keep Altidore in check.

Toronto could've come out on top had Altidore been more clinical in front of goal, but the Sounders are far from the first team to count on good fortune en route to a title. Their triumph is also an incredible turnaround after they ousted coach Sigi Schmid in July.

With Schmetzer and Lodeiro on board for a full campaign, a repeat won't be out of the question. The pair was instrumental in Seattle's improvement in the second half of the regular season. The team should have a better idea of Clint Dempsey's health situation as well after an irregular heartbeat ended his year in September.

After years of postseason disappointments, the Sounders' 2016 championship should be a springboard for 2017 and beyond.

      

Post-Match Reaction

MLS provided a look inside the winning dressing room:

Osvaldo Alonso was one of the best players on the pitch, and his work in midfield was a big reason Seattle shut down Toronto through the middle. His performance was even more impressive after Schmetzer said Alonso had a pulled tendon in his knee, according to the Boston Herald's Kyle McCarthy.

NBC Sports' Nicholas Mendola shared Bradley's reaction after the game:

"It can be a cruel game sometimes," the Toronto captain said, per ESPN The Magazine's Doug McIntyre. "It's not for the weak."

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Seattle Sounders vs. Toronto FC: Live Score, Highlights from MLS Cup FInal
MLS News
Saturday, 10 December 2016 17:00

MLS Cup final--BMO Field, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Toronto FC 0-0 Seattle Sounders (Seattle win 5-4 on penalties)

Toronto FC: Irwin, Beitashour, Moor, Zavaleta, Hagglund, Morrow, Bradley, Cooper (Cheyrou 84'), Osorio (Johnson 76'), Giovinco (Ricketts 103'), Altidore

Seattle Sounders: Frei, Jones, Marshall, Torres, Mears, Roldan, Alonso, Morris (Evans 107'), Friberg  (Fernandez 66'), Lodeiro, Valdez (Ivanschitz 72')

    

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MLS Cup Final 2016: Toronto vs. Seattle, Date, Time, Live Stream, TV Info
MLS News
Saturday, 10 December 2016 07:00

Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders FC will meet on Saturday at BMO Field in the 2016 MLS Cup final, as one of the two teams will win its first-ever MLS title.

Sounders have come close in the past, winning the Supporters' Shield in 2014, but they face a difficult challenge in Canada, where Toronto have been exceptionally strong all season.

Led by the prolific Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto scored a combined 14 goals in the conference semi-finals and finals, sending a clear warning sign to Sounders.

Here's everything you need to know about this year's MLS Cup Final.

    

Date: Saturday, December 10

Time: 8 p.m. ET/1 a.m. GMT (Sunday)

Venue: BMO Field, Toronto

TV Info: Fox Sports (U.S.)

Live Stream: Sky Go, Fox Soccer 2Go

    

Preview

Toronto and Seattle have qualified for the MLS Cup final the long way around, finishing the regular season in third and fourth place, respectively. The hosts cruised past Philadelphia Union and New York City FC before beating Montreal Impact in an all-Canadian Eastern Conference final that saw 12 goals in total.

Per Arch Bell of ESPN FC, the city is anxious to win a major trophy after coming close in other sports the last few years:

It has been 23 years and six weeks since Joe Carter deposited Mitch Williams' two-ball, two-strike pitch over the left field fence of the Toronto Skydome to clinch the Toronto Blue Jays' second consecutive Major League Baseball World Series championship. Since 1993, Canada's most populated city has endured a title drought from all four of its major North American sports teams: baseball's Blue Jays, basketball's Raptors, hockey's Maple Leafs and soccer's Toronto FC.

Led by Giovinco, the former Juventus man who has taken MLS by storm since moving across the Atlantic, Toronto play a spectacular, entertaining brand of football that has won the team plenty of fans the last two years.

Jozy Altidore and Giovinco form one of the most prolific scoring duos MLS has ever seen―per Kurtis Larson of the Toronto Sun, the numbers are staggering:

Sounders are no slouches, either, but they've qualified for the MLS Cup final on the back of solid midfield play and an excellent organisation rather than raw scoring potential.

The visitors survived a spirited challenge from Sporting Kansas City in the first round of the play-offs before gathering steam, comfortably dispatching FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids.

Nicolas Lodeiro is Seattle's big star, playing as the team's main conductor in midfield. The MLS official Twitter account shared some of his highlights:

Historically, Seattle have held the edge over Toronto, losing just two and winning eight of the last 12 meetings between the two clubs.

Home advantage will be huge for Toronto, however, especially if the temperatures drop. The hosts have been the more consistent team throughout the season, and combined with their star power and excellent form, they should be able to finish the job against a talented Sounders squad.

Final prediction: Toronto 2-1 Seattle

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Stage Is Set at MLS Cup for USMNT Stars to Give Inspiring Performances
MLS News
Friday, 09 December 2016 11:24

Three of the names on the marquee for Saturday's MLS Cup Final at BMO Field in Toronto are members of the United States men's national team.

Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Jordan Morris will be on full display when Toronto FC host the Seattle Sounders in the championship contest. 

Over the last week, Toronto midfielder Bradley in particular has handed out plenty of praise for Morris, who scored 12 goals in his rookie season and netted the game-winning goal for Seattle in the Western Conference Final. 

The USMNT captain complimented Morris on dealing with the ton of pressure he's faced in 2016, per Fox Sports' Julie Stewart-Binks: 

Morris went from fringe player to starter in an instant when Obafemi Martins was sold late in the offseason and has stepped into an even bigger role since Clint Dempsey was ruled out for the season with an irregular heartbeat. 

The production out of the MLS Rookie of the Year is a big step forward for the league as a whole as it tries to attract the best American players to remain at home among a growing number of outstanding foreigners. 

However, there are a few trends that suggest foreign players are becoming the foundation of rosters league-wide and that some homegrown players are being squeezed out of the equation and forced to find clubs elsewhere. 

Only eight Americans were among the active designated players in MLS this season. There were just six before Tim Howard and Alejandro Bedoya joined during the summer transfer window. 

The top 10 scorers in the Golden Boot race all represent foreign nations. Morris, Chris Pontius and Chris Wondolowski were the top Americans in the competitions with 12 goals each, which was good enough for an 11th-place tie. 

The addition of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) in the last year has made it easier for MLS clubs on tight budgets to go out and acquire big names from other parts of the globe. 

Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl reported this week that the league will provide another significant boost to the TAM funds in the coming weeks, with an $8.8 million increase in funding coming for 2017.

As Wahl reported, that is an extra $400,000-to-$1.2 million for each club to spend, depending on how much TAM the club spent in 2016. 

The acquisition of Bedoya by the Philadelphia Union was one of the only uses of TAM on an American player in 2016. Most teams improved their quality by bringing in players like Ola Kamara in Columbus and Jelle Van Damme in Los Angeles, both of whom instantly made impacts on their respective teams. 

With few teams willing to develop prospects in MLS from the start, TAM has become a valuable asset in order to add a key player or two who will take a club over the hump from bottom feeder to playoff contender, or from playoff team qualifier to MLS Cup contender. 

With few Americans in the talent pool at home or abroad worthy of earning big money in MLS because of their quality on the pitch, clubs have turned to South America or Europe for exciting playmakers and rock-solid defenders. The infusion of American talent into a roster usually comes at a cheaper price, with the majority of the players being signed for less when they're young.

All you have to do is look at expansion side Atlanta United for a perfect example of how most teams mold their rosters. 

Atlanta went out and spent big money on Miguel Almiron, Kenwyne Jones and Hector Villalba while adding young Americans Brandon Vazquez and Andrew Carleton. 

Steps are being made in the development of American players. The New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy are good examples. 

The Red Bulls worked homegrown players Connor Lade, Sean Davis and Alex Muyl into the starting lineup this season, while the Galaxy employed Daniel Steres, Gyasi Zardes and a cast of reserves that came out of their academy.

FC Dallas are the gold standard of player development in MLS, as they've brought along Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman and Kellyn Acosta as stars of the league and have plenty on the way, but the time for them to shine won't come for another couple of years. 

The same can be said for the countless young players earning valuable playing time in the USL, which will soon be the second-division league in the United States after the contraction and potential collapse of the NASL. 

There's no doubt progress is being made at the lower levels, with all of the clubs in MLS having some type of affiliation with a club in USL, whether it be through a direct feeder club or an independent affiliate like the ones in baseball's minor league system. 

But for the time being, there are a select few Americans in charge of proudly waving the flag for domestic players. 

Toronto forward Altidore and Bradley were a part of a movement started by Dempsey that saw plenty of big names return from Europe and boost the quality of the league. 

That goal has been achieved, as the trio have put their clubs in a spot to contend for the MLS Cup year after year. Dempsey's move from Tottenham Hotspur to Seattle also influenced Sporting Kansas City's Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to stay at home and achieve success domestically under designated-player contracts. 

The current crop of American stars took a risk a few years ago, as they rejoined MLS to the chagrin of then-USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann, but now the pressure is on the next generation to create a homegrown superstar whom MLS can promote more than anyone who has played in the league. 

Morris has the potential to be just that. The Stanford University product opted to stay at home in Seattle after interest from Werder Bremen in the offseason. Morris has reaped the rewards up top for the Sounders, as he's shown no fear leading the line with Dempsey out of the picture. 

The 22-year-old may not match the hype of 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, but his success in MLS is as important as Pulisic's achievements in Europe. 

For years we've known that the path to success in Europe works. Countless Americans in the last two generations have gone overseas to enjoy long playing careers, and some, like Earnie Stewart and Steve Cherundolo, rose through the ranks of the technical staff as well after retiring. 

Now it's time for MLS to create the same success at home. The pieces are in place for the league's 20 current clubs and two expansion sides in 2017 to grow young players through their academy systems and eventually see them star for the first team. 

Fending off European interest will always be a challenge for MLS sides. There will always be players who want to make the move overseas, and MLS will undoubtedly lose out on a few studs to bigger clubs. But if the league finds a way to limit its losses in that department, more players like Morris will be on the marquee for future MLS Cups. 

A victory has already been achieved at home by having Bradley, Altidore and Morris accompany Sebastian Giovinco and Nicolas Lodeiro on the marquee for Saturday's championship match, and it helps the league immensely that it can promote USMNT stars playing its biggest game. 

An even bigger step will occur if one of the three turn in an incredible performance in a match set to have all eyes on it. 

All it takes is one inspiring performance by a USMNT star to motivate a young crop of Americans to play in MLS and win the league's biggest prizes. The same thing is already taking place in Canada, as Toronto and Montreal played a thrilling Eastern Conference Final that further developed their rivalry and brought the sport to the forefront of the nation. 

The stage is set for Bradley, Altidore or Morris to thrive in the MLS Cup, and after a tumultuous 2016 for the USMNT in which Klinsmann was sacked and disappointing results were delivered, an MVP-caliber performance from one of the three on Saturday night would be exactly what the doctored ordered for the growth of the game at home. 

           

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter; @JTansey90. 

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Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan: The Hottest Bromance in Sports Right Now
MLS News
Friday, 09 December 2016 08:59

One of the best moments of the 2016 Major League Soccer season came early in the playoffs. On October 30, the Seattle Sounders hosted FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals.

The squad from the Pacific Northwest won 3-0, continuing a remarkable resurgence after being left for dead midseason. It was the type of complete performance that has the Sounders on the brink of winning their first MLS Cup: solid defensively, organized in the midfield and opportunistic on the attack.

The second goal epitomized the new-look Sounders at their best. In the the 55th minute, rookie sensation Jordan Morris picked up a loose pass near midfield, then used his searing pace to sprint into the six-yard box. Rather than shoot, he calmly slid a cross to Uruguay international Nicolas Lodeiro, the midseason pickup who was been nothing short of spectacular, with eight goals and eight assists in 18 matches.

Lodeiro tapped the ball into the net, meeting Morris behind the goal to celebrate as fire shot up from two nearby pillars and nearly 40,000 supporters screamed.

For the long-suffering franchise, which boast the league's largest fanbase, it was quite a moment. The best part, however, came a few hours later. Major League Soccer loves some meme action, and the Sounders' social media staff posted an Instagram image of Lodeiro and Morris running at each other following the goal with the caption "When you spot your BFF across the room #ThisMoment."

The club's rabid fanbase began liking and commenting. "This is why it's the greatest game in the world," one commenter posted. "Yasssssssss," wrote another. Typical supporters stuff. One comment, however, stood out from the rest. It came from Cristian Roldan, second-year rising Sounders star, who posted, "That's not his bff."

Roldan and Morris—21 and 22 years old, respectively—were both enjoying breakout seasons and became best friends this year. It's no surprise that Roldan, jokingly we have to assume, took offense at someone else stepping on his turf. You've got to battle for your boys. No hard feelings, though. Two comments later, Morris responded, tagging his buddy and sending a heart emoji his way. Potential bestie crisis averted. All was well in Sounders world.

For Seattle, and for MLS, the burgeoning bromance between Roldan and Morris couldn't have come at a better time. The league is improving slowly every year, the quality on the field increasing, the television ratings ticking up and the money growing. But it lacks flair and struggles to find compelling narratives around its young players, especially its American ones.

For an organization that caters to the millennial and youth demographics who are more interested in soccer than older generations, that's not great. David Villa, Frank Lampard and the rest of the aging Designated Player lot are fine and dandy, but MLS desperately needs young phenoms such as Morris and Roldan to succeed. The fact that they are enjoying themselves on and off the field, only too happy to share their friendship with a bit of social media savvy, adds to the appeal.

The Morris-Roldan bond is both unlikely and completely understandable. They are two young men with plenty of differences in how they grew up and developed as players, brought together by sport and shared professional experiences.

Morris, whose father is the Sounders' team doctor, shot to prominence in August 2014, when Jurgen Klinsmann called the then-Stanford star into a United States senior team camp after watching him during a pre-World Cup scrimmage. He returned to college for his sophomore and junior seasons while continuing to play for the Stars and Stripes, and then he chose to forgo his senior season to turn pro.

After flirting with and ultimately spurning Germany's Werder Bremen, Morris signed the richest homegrown player contract in MLS history to join the Sounders. He struggled initially during his rookie season, needing six games to score his first goal, but he grew stronger and more confident as the year progressed.

He continued to rely upon his exceptional pace but also added some necessary deception and vision to his game and aptly handled the increased offensive load he was asked to carry after Clint Dempsey went out with a heart ailment. Morris finished his first MLS regular season with 12 goals and four assists in 32 starts, winning the Rookie of the Year award.

Roldan's introduction to the American soccer community came much earlier, although few would recognize him today. As a child, he starred in an iconic Adidas commercial, picking up plastic bags that he turned into a soccer ball.

The son of Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants was a standout at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, California, winning the 2012-13 National Boys Soccer Player of the Year award after scoring 54 goals and tallying 31 assists in his senior season. He found his way to the University of Washington, where he led the Huskies to a Pac-12 title in 2013, playing as a central midfielder.

He fell down the draft board to the Sounders at No. 16 and had an up-and-down rookie campaign in 2015, appearing in 22 games but starting just 11 and earning a single assist.

Roldan was learning to play the professional game, first from former Mexico national-teamer Gonzalo Pineda and then from Ozzie Alonso, with whom he's partnered to great effect this season. 

"The kid is a sponge, and he works really hard," Sounders GM Garth Lagerway said, as per Jeff Carlisle of ESPN FC. Roldan started 28 games in 2016—playing all but seven minutes of the team's final 19 regular-season matches—scoring four goals, getting three assists and providing stout and tactically smart defense. He hasn't missed a second in the playoffs, helping the Sounders concede just two tallies in five fixtures on their run to Saturday's final.

Since the summer, Lodeiro has been the team's best player, but the emergence of Morris and Roldan ranks just behind his arrival in terms of importance on the field. Off it, the dynamic duo are the stars, bantering back and forth with the easy jabs of kindred spirits. Back in August, Morris charmingly interrupted a Roldan interview about how good Morris was becoming by scoring in the background.

Two months later, Roldan tweeted a series of photos of Morris signing his jersey along with the comment, "They say your heroes [aren't] approachable."

A couple of weeks after that, Roldan and Roman Torres attempted to get Morris dancing in the locker room following yet another victory. That the forward, who says he's so pigeon-toed that it's easier for him to hit a ball with the outside of his right foot than his left, has less than no rhythm wasn't the point. The fact they were having a good time and sharing it with the world—and letting the fans in too—was.

For the Morris and Roldan Show to work, the pair required a couple of factors to come together. Most importantly, the team had to start winning. It's a lot easier to be happy-go-lucky and smiling after a 2-0 victory than it is when you're sitting in last place midway through the season. Their divergent personalities—Morris, the staid and withdrawn straight-talker; Roldan, the more outgoing joker—play well off each other.

And they needed to be good individually. Both had strong seasons, finding their place in the starting lineup and finishing third and 24th respectively on MLSSoccer.com's annual 24 Under 24 countdown. It all came together, worked beautifully. And here they are, 90 minutes form hoisting MLS Cup, having given casual fans a reason to root for them.

For MLS at large, this model indicates a way forward. In mimicking Morris and Roldan, the league could find a path toward gaining a stronger foothold in American culture. Let the personalities shine. Other efforts like the Gargs & Gordo Guide, featuring Sebastian Lletget demonstrating the proper selfie technique, and The Benny Feilhaber Show, in which the Sporting Kansas City midfielder and Sal Zizzo wore sunglasses while discussing anything and everything, were more formal but in the same spirit.

Morris and Roldan are the next step, a natural friendship between emerging talents who are genuine and approachable. While not every team will can have two young stars who love to hang out with each other and post about it on social media, there's nothing wrong with making that a goal, encouraging those bonds to occur and promoting them when they do. MLS needs its youth, especially its American youth, to be good. It also needs its youth to be goofy. When it's appropriate, let that freak flag fly high.

With each passing year, soccer around the world loses a little bit of its soul, especially in Europe, where corporate money drives endless rules and regulations. The cash exists in the U.S. too, but it's less, making the sport a bit more malleable. It's a growing game here, and the league is finding its way and figuring out what works.

MLS might never get to joga bonita, but there's no reason it can't get joga diversao. Sports are supposed to be fun, and the Seattle duo's amusing act goes a long way toward achieving that goal. Their team's midseason turnaround and the astounding run to MLS Cup is the best story of the 2016 season. Their friendship is the best part of the Sounders' season. The obvious joy they take in expressing that bond is the best part of the friendship.

MLS fans—and league executives—should support, like and love their antics.

If they come together to help the Sounders beat Toronto FC on Saturday night and win the MLS Cup, expect Roldan and Morris to bring their bromance to the next level.

Read more MLS news on BleacherReport.com

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