PARIS (AP) – Every year MLS fans spend the fall watching their teams battle for playoff spots, or in some cases, wondering who their team might be able to add in the transfer market or MLS Draft.
Once considered a crapshoot with few true gems (and fewer players capable of making immediate impacts), the MLS Draft has grown increasingly important, with the past three years producing some of the strongest drafts in league history.
The 2012 MLS Draft promises to be another strong one, with several standout prospects set to draw considerable attention throughout the college season. Some are stars who have made their names at the collegiate level while others have enjoyed equal success on the youth national team front.
Not all of the top college talents go through the draft though. While some head to Europe, we saw last year a number of standouts go directly to the MLS teams that developed them before college, such as DC United's Ethan White, New York's Matt Kassel (Maryland), Houston's Alex Dixon (North Carolina) and Columbus' Aaron Horton (Louisville).
This year, however, most of the top prospects in the nation (save for standout Duke centerback Sebastian Ibeagha, Houston Dynamo, and Akron midfielder Scott Caldwell, New England), will likely go through the draft.
So who are the players that MLS scouts will be paying the most attention to this fall? Here is a rundown of the Top 20 MLS Draft Prospects heading into the 2011 college season:
Kelyn Rowe, UCLA
The US Under-20 midfielder has seen his stock skyrocket over the past nine months, and his playmaking abilities have him right at the top of most MLS draft boards. Only a sophomore, Rowe will be a prime Generation adidas target by MLS.
Andrew Wenger, Duke
The versatile junior can play as a centerback or central midfield, and his skill, vision and strength make him a dream for MLS scouts. He would have been a first-round pick in 2010 and could rival Rowe for the top pick in the 2012 MLS Draft, assuming he leaves Duke.
Darren Mattocks, Akron
The physically gifted goal scorer was very close to leaving school a year ago after just one year at Akron, but instead he'll return and be the focal point of the Zips offense. He had a strong 2010, but faded a bit late. A strong 2011 could catapult him right to the top of this list, and it's all but a lock that MLS will push hard to make him a Generation adidas signing.
Dillion Powers, Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish midfielder has excelled on the US Under-20 front as well, but injuries have plagued him in 2011. That shouldn't stop scouts from continuing to rave about his tireless motor and pin-point passing. With the Notre Dame poised to have a strong team around him this season, Powers should shine, and he'll be chased by MLS to leave South Bend a year early.
Billy Schuler, North Carolina
Another former US youth national team standout who struggled with injuries last year, Schuler is a technically gifted striker capable of being one of the best players in the country if he can stay on the field. He will be the leading goal-scoring threat on a potent Tar Heels attack
Eric Schoenle, West Virginia
A skillful centerback who can pass well out of the back as well as provide a scoring threat on set pieces, the 6-foot-4 Schoenle could be the first pure centerback off the board in January, assuming he decides to leave school a year early.
Casey Townsend, Maryland
The first senior on the list, Townsend has been on the MLS radar ever since his standout freshman season as a top striker on the 2008 Maryland national championship team. His quickness and finishing ability make him an ideal option for teams looking for forward help to step in right away.
Dylan Mares, Louisville
Whether playing as a playmaker or second striker, Mares has a nose for goal and an ability to set up his teammates. He's a threat on set-piece deliveries and is just a dynamic attacking threat. His success as a freshman for Louisville helped earn him a US Under-20 national team look, and another strong season for the Cardinals should lead to a potential early departure to MLS.
Brian Span, Virginia
Another sophomore with loads of potential, Span's blazing speed on the wing makes him one of the most appealing flank options in the college pool. Some might consider him still a bit young and in need of more development, but there will be multiple MLS teams ready to push the league to sign him as a Generation adidas player.
Brian Ownby, Virginia
An absolute speedster who has only been slowed by injuries over the past year, Ownby is a former US Under-20 national team player with bags of potential but question marks about his ability to stay healthy.
Tyler Polak, Creighton
The sophomore left back first made a name for himself as a standout on the US Under-17 national team, but as a freshman for the Bluejays, he quickly stood out as one of the premier fullbacks in the nation. With quality left backs such a rare commodity in MLS, Polak will get a long look as a potential Generation adidas target.
Sam Garza, UCSB
Once a very promising US Under-20 national team prospect, Garza was sidelined by major knee surgery in 2009 and spent 2010 working his way back to his old form. Having impressed scouts with his ability to power his way into good positions and eye for the net, Garza can play his way onto the MLS Generation adidas radar with another big season for the Gauchos.
Enzo Martinez, North Carolina
The junior playmaker should play more of a central role for the Tar Heels now that 2010 playmaker Michael Farfan has moved on to the pros. His vision, creativity and ability on set pieces make him a quality prospect, though he may have to battle for one of the precious Generation adidas slots.
Ethan Finlay, Creighton
The senior striker has a good goal-scoring rate in college, but he has just as many skeptics among MLS scouts as he does believers. If he can thrive in Elmar Bolowich's new system, Finlay could climb up MLS draft boards.
Hunter Jumper, Virgina
A bit of a forgotten commodity after playing out of position in 2010, Jumper returns to his natural left back position for the Cavaliers in 2011 and should thrive in the role. Though not the first left back on this list, he's a good bet to be the first left back selected in January's MLS Draft, assuming he doesn't test the waters in Europe, where he spent time training this off-season.
Colin Rolfe, Lousiville
The 2010 Hermann Award finalist was Louisville's leading scorer in 2010 and should do so again this season. His nose for goal and quickness in the area make him a threat at all times, but concerns about his fitness level and ability to handle heavy minutes hurts his status as a high draft pick. That hasn't stopped European clubs from keeping an eye on him.
Carlos Alvarez, Connecticut
The Huskies playmaker is the key to UConn's high-powered attack, and while Tony Cascio gets the headlines for his goals, Alvarez is the player who has scouts thinking about the next level and what he could do.
Chris Balis, South Florida
The lone goalkeeper on this list, Blais was key to Michigan's impressive 2010 run, including the school's first Big Ten title and first trip to the NCAA College Cup semifinals. The 6-foot-4 shot stopper has transferred from Michigan to South Florida, but could become the next Washington state native to find professional goalkeeping glory.
Raymon Gaddis, West Virginia
Arguably the best right back in the country, Gaddis brings intelligence, toughness, speed and passing ability to the right flank. A Mountaineer captain since his sophomore year, he brings maturity to the table that should help him make a smooth transition to the pros.
Austin Berry, Louisville
The senior centerback was one of the Cardinals' key standouts in 2010 and should be one of the best defenders in the nation in 2011. A threat to score on set piece deliveries with his strong aerial game, Berry has already drawn some interest from Europe and will be a first-round pick option in January's MLS Draft.