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The MLS Grinder: Four Under 24

Written by Will Parchman

Serna-jersey

We’re doing something a bit different here today. The Grinder is a mountain of many names, and we’ve done some terraforming around the place. Today, we go lobbying.

Since 2010, the MLS 24 Under 24 series has thrust out a ranking of the best 24 players under the age of 24 playing in MLS at a given time. It hasn’t been without it’s controversy (we’re ranking here, something we at TDS know plenty about – controversy is inevitable) but it’s also done something of immeasurable importance for the future. The ranking and its attendant fanfare thrusts, at least for a time, the conversation back on the league’s young faces. And with my #playyourkids initiative evergreen (It. Never. Stops.), the importance of that point is paramount. Any excuse.

So today, the Grinder kicks aside game and team analysis and cuts directly to the white of our most comfortable bone. I’m going after four of MLS’ youngest hot shots, and my caveat is that they can’t have appeared on the 24U24 list before. I’ll grade each on the five-part rubric used by the selection team (Technical, Tactical, Physical attributes, Personality, Potential) and mark down some notes on each. Note that it’s a scale of 1-10.

There are players who will deserve their returning spots like Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes. You know them. But I’m here to lobby MLS’ Capitol Hill on behalf of a couple rising stars who’ve never made this list before. And they should. Here’s why. My ballot starts now.

Dillon Serna
Technical: 6
Tactical: 7
Physical: 7
Personality: 6
Potential: 8

Notes: Before we go anywhere, I want you to watch this effort from Serna’s over the weekend.

Just about every scout has a different technique for judging talent, but they tend to work like pack animals. Leagues develop reputations based on the player values they espouse, and scouts are like a mobile echo chamber for those values. It’s a generalization, but MLS spent a decade building up a scouting reputation for jealously hoarding two-way midfielders it’s still trying to shed. The scout sees the need (MLS is a bigger league, need midfielders able to stand up to its rigors, play up and down, etc.) and pulls the trigger. It’s no one’s fault in particular. It’s simply the set of values we’ve chosen for ourselves.

Simply valuing (and occasionally overvaluing) a certain type of player isn’t dangerous in itself. Brazil’s done just fine over the past half century in that regard. The issue arrives when you begin terraforming other players into the same patch of dirt you’ve been working with for years. For instance, I genuinely believe the system let Justin Mapp down. He spent so many years playing away from his strengths that I don’t think he’ll ever authentically find his ceiling, or anywhere near it. Some of this was on Mapp’s end, but he’s one of many.

What you see out of Dillon Serna is a product of the slow, steady change of the age. Under Brian Crookham with the Rapids academy, Serna was allowed to be whimsical from the loam of his developmental soil. The leash was shorn off and Serna was allowed to try, for lack of a better word, things. Have a crack from deep. Allow your lyrical feet to pen a few notes. Do something gasp-worthy at an important time. And at least for American youth players, this one is paramount: allow yourself to fail.

There’s a reason why my fellow youth talent evaluators and I sit up a bit straighter when Serna does something like this. It’s because Serna occasionally does very silly things that end up looking incredibly brainy. Serna is one of those rare talents whose boots are some unholy combination of dancing shoes, anvils and scud missiles. And it’s clear in his “Show your work” section that his teachers taught him to use all three implements.

Serna is raw, but not so raw as you might think. When I spoke with him after the Homegrown game, he was chastened by his rookie experience but hopeful with the minutes he’s gotten that his impression on the senior staff was already neck-deep. As a wide player – and a left-sided wide player at that – Serna has an immediate in to higher call-ups. But watch his fanciful play and it’s obvious that Serna’s more than just wide filler. He’s one of MLS’ brightest young phenoms. Vote accordingly.

Harry Shipp
Technical: 7
Tactical: 8
Physical: 4
Personality: 7
Potential: 8

Notes: Notre Dame men’s soccer is an interesting place. Bobby Clark is one of the game’s legends, but he has an interesting quirk about not starting younger players. Whether he was ready or not (which, based on what we know now, seems to be a bit of a redundant question), Harry Shipp didn’t start a single game during his junior year. He played in all 22, but a player who made the All-Big East third team never once started in 2012.

It’d be foolish to question Clark’s customs considering his recent track record, and in the end Shipp got his national title as a senior before shipping off to Chicago. But it does create this interesting developmental dichotomy where Shipp is concerned. While he sprints headlong toward an MLS Rookie of the Year trophy, he wasn’t a consistent starter in South Bend until he was 21. Go figure.

One of the reasons why I like Shipp so much is the very reason he got demerits on his scouting card; his size. Shipp is the antithesis of the strapping box-to-box marathon runner with clumsy feet and a workable but only passable soccer IQ. This is my favorite goal of Shipp’s, and it’ll better help me illustrate why he means so much to MLS.

My favorite things about this sequence are in the margins. They don’t have a ton to do with the shot itself (though that was nice, too).  In particular, look at Shipp’s touch to cut free of Gonzalo Pineda at around the 12-second mark. That’s such a small thing, but it’s so deceptively difficult, and he makes it look so easy. Shipp simply lays on a pass, then runs back onto the feed before – oh, here’s the fun part – taking on space and challenging defenders. Be still mine beating heart. And that joystick move inside to set the table for the shot was prettier than the shot itself. Give this man a medal.

No, Shipp can’t win all his headers and sprint down attackers from behind and execute perfect spiraling slide tackles. But here’s the thing – I don’t care. It’s about time we segmented the midfield and did more in the way of specialization. The one-size-fits all model is fine in pockets, but not as a general rule. Shipp’s speciality begs for attention. Kudos (KUDOS) to the Fire for recognizing that immediately. Hopefully more teams follow suit.

Tommy Thompson
Technical: 9
Tactical: 6
Physical: 3
Personality: 7
Potential: 8

Note: Here. Go nuts.

Players with feet like Thompson’s don’t swing around the block all that often. Anywhere. The problem you’ll run into with Thompson is the same you’ll get when reading Faulkner: excess. Wordiness. You want a player like Thompson to walk the tightrope between a within-himself provider and flamboyant ball wizard, and he seems to be doing that as well as can be expected with Sacramento. You just hope that doesn’t get ironed out of his game by some overly defensive coach at some point in the future. San Jose, you’ve got your work cut out.

I won’t spend too much time on Thompson because I’ve written about him plenty before, but let me just say this. If you want to talk about the league advancing technically savvy players, signing Thompson to a HG deal was a coup. I’m not sure how many players there are in MLS with more cushiony feet than Thompson’s, but the list is incredibly small. Much like Shipp, if Thompson can climb over the decades of scouting detritus whipping away at his size, he’ll be a professional stud somewhere.

In the same way MLS needs Serna’s combination of speed and experimentation, so too does it need Thompson’s willingness to reach deep into his grab bag and pull out the sublime and unexpected. If MLS wants its old reputation to continue melting away, push Thompson into increasingly brighter spotlights and let him work. If this list is about talent and not necessarily about the sometimes strange outside factors that contribute to starting minutes in MLS, Thompson belongs.

So yes, Thompson’s had a grand total of one MLS minute so far. You still put him on this list. Don’t let San Jose’s mistake become yours.

Wil Trapp
Technical: 6
Tactical: 9
Physical: 5
Personality: 7
Potential: 9

Notes: Wil Trapp has a higher ceiling than any player on this list, and I don’t stop shy of saying that. I think it’s a combination of his positional strides over the past year paired with his unbelievable calm in the midfield. The things he does at times don’t make any general kind of sense in the moment. It’s only when you rip out the machinery to see where he connected the solenoids that you understand how he did what he did. And even then, it doesn’t make sense.

Look at this. Beauty in the fine print.

But what Trapp does better than anyone in MLS right now, aside from Michael Bradley, is stick these 30-yard diamond-cutters on the nose right on the tops of a teammate’s laces. He hits these with such regularity and with such inherent accuracy that you almost wonder if he’ll ever miss. By mid-July, Trapp was completing 9.8 passes of 25+ yards per game at a rate of 86 percent. You can see how that stacks up with some of the world’s best under 25 in this excellent article from Alex Olshansky, but the cliff’s notes here is that it stacks up favorably.

So favorably, in fact, that Trapp is the best of any player surveyed here. Including Toni Kroos and Marco Verratti.

Trapp has his limitations. He can occasionally overplay his hand and yank himself too far from home base, and he can succumb to the young-man’s disease of simply trying too much too quickly. But the exciting thing for Trapp is more or less everything he tries, he has the ability to do, whether that’s today or in another year or three. I have zero qualms with rocketing Trapp from out of this list a year ago into the top seven this year.

I’ll leave you with this sequence here, because it so perfectly encapsulates everything about Trapp’s game. A dispossession in a dangerous area, a cut-free sprint into space and an absolutely perfect 25+ yard diagonal ball on the run. We call this the Trapp Trifecta. Study it. Live it. Love it.

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3 Comments
  • RaceCar Jones

    You’re so right about Justin Mapp. I agree 100%. He could have been a World Cup player, but he got screwed.

  • Jason

    My son’s MLS academy coach told him to attack space and challenge the defense, and he is a centerback! It sounds like the shackles may be coming off.

  • Audie Murphy

    Thompson came on during the Quakes 5-0 thrashing by the Texans. Played about 20 minutes. If the Quakes don’t give him more minutes after his effort I give up.

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