Accurate, balanced talent assessment has never been easy. How do you weigh a winger’s burst over short distances against his inability to separate in the open field? Or a striker’s relatively laggardly work rate against his seemingly uncanny ability to consistently be in dangerous positions in the box? Finding a medium is no laughing matter.
So then it should be fairly obvious that attempting to predict how a young player will end up in a few years? Well, that’s several orders of magnitude more difficult.
That’s partially what the recently released MLS 24 Under 24 list attempts to do on an annual basis. Pushed out for public consumption late each September, a panel of judges goes through a rigorous rating process on a selection of the 50 top players under the age of 24 by the end of the 2016 season. And for the second year running, I was one of those judges.
Notably, the Sounders landed two on the list. Cristian Roldan snuck into the final spot at No. 24, while Jordan Morris managed to pull in third behind only No. 1 Cyle Larin and NYCFC’s English phenomenon Jack Harrison. There were only a couple teams in MLS to land multiple players on this list. And the Sounders were among them.
But what does it all mean, really? And how do the judges come across their ratings?
I can only answer that for myself, but I took a relatively hard line on my ballot process. To recap how it works, judges rate each player in five categories on a scale between 1 (low) to 20 (high): technical ability, soccer IQ, physical attributes, personality and potential. For me, 10-11 were average, 12-13 above average, 14-15 multiple-year MLS starter quality, 16-17 MLS All-Star potential, and 18-19 were reserved for players who could move to a top league tomorrow.
I only gave out four 18’s. I did not give anyone a 19 or a 20 in any category.
Both Roldan and Morris made my top 24, which perhaps isn’t much of a surprise. I had Morris in fourth with a 75 accumulative score - just one spot off where he ultimately landed - and I ranked Roldan in a tie for 12th with a 70 overall, tying him with Keegan Rosenberry, Tim Parker and Josh Yaro. For some perspective, Columbus’s Wil Trapp was my top overall ranked player at 81, and Larin, who won the aggregate ballot, was my No. 2. Harrison was next, followed by Morris.
But let’s move back to Roldan and Morris. I want you to know how I assessed both, given that I’ve seen both play for several years now stretching back to their college days and, in Morris’s case, his academy days with the Sounders.
We’ll start with Roldan. Where he continually gets dinged is his physicality, and if you look at how the wider panel of judges voted, they hit him pretty hard in this category. It was unquestionably the primary reason he was held down to just 24th, which I think is pretty low. But if you really watch Roldan’s game with a pair of enhanced binoculars for any length of time, there are far more physical positives than meets the eye initially.
Of course, Roldan isn’t beating many markers in a foot race, and while he’s won a header goal this year, his ups aren’t fooling anyone most of the time. But his positioning is unreal for his age, and he’s often able to body off chasing midfielders and open up vast swaths of the field using his low center of gravity and vision. His killer ball may be lacking, but that isn’t really his game.
So I gave Roldan a 12 on physicality, which is bordering on above average. Everything else was higher: technical (14), soccer IQ (15), personality (15) and potential (14). Needless to say, I see Roldan as a starter in MLS for years to come.
Morris’s star seems a little brighter. I did keep him fourth, which was a little lower than some ranked him but higher than others. My only hangup with Morris, who ranked highly in every other category - more so than most anyone - was his technical side. I gave him a 12, which isn’t bad, but it’s firmly in the ‘room for improvement’ station as well. Morris still occasionally struggles to beat defenders in one-on-one situations, and while he’s growing in confidence in that area it’s clearly an asset he’s working on. Same goes for his touch and the use of his left. The former is in significantly better position than the latter at the moment, but both have seen marked improvement since March.
Still, everything else was high. His soccer IQ is unquestioned at 15, only Larin scored better marks in physical attributes than Morris’s 17, his even-keel and moderate personality earned him a 15, and at 16, I rated his potential behind only Trapp and Larin and on par with only Kellyn Acosta.
The Sounders took a significant amount of flack for being the oldest team in the league last year. It seemed to show through when FC Dallas ran them ragged in the second leg of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals. But credit where it’s due; the emergence of Roldan and Morris haven’t just made the Sounders a younger team. They’ve made them a better one.
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