I remember talking to Mwanga about a month ago privately, and our conversation about his playing time was one riddled with such words as "annoying," "frustrating" and "confusing." Words you never want to hear from a 20-year-old brought in pro bono, courtesy of MLS' developmental deal with adidas that footed the bill for his six-figure salary.
Mwanga joins a heap of MLS first-rounders who struggled to find success after being drafted. In fact, two first-rounders who have had success are on the Union's payroll. Alecko Eskandarian, drafted by D.C. United in 2003, went on to be one of the best to ever wear that uniform, winning an MLS Cup in 2004 and becoming a two-time MLS All-Star before his career was chopped down because of recurring concussions. The following season, United (then led by Peter Nowak) got its hands on midfielder Freddy Adu, who scored five goals in his rookie season, spent some time as a journeyman in Europe and has been a major catalyst for the Union at only 22.
Others have found success, such as Seattle's Steve Zakuani (2009) and former Toronto FC defender Maurice Edu (2007), but, for the most part, a sizable list of names coincides with the phrase, "Where are they now?"
Look most recently at Vancouver's first pick, Omar Salgado. He was a heralded top pick coming from Mexican youth systems and playing on youth national teams before immigrating to the United States and joining the national youth ranks here. His talents made him an instant Generation adidas prospect, lauded as the future of that franchise. But Salgado has amassed only 20 matches in two seasons and hasn't scored since April 2011.
Mismanagement? Maybe. But the pressure of being the first pick, without question.
Here are some others things that are interesting. According to an article online at Soccer America, no first pick has ever played more than seven seasons in MLS, and no No. 1 was ever selected to the end-of-season MLS Best XI list.
This move is one that bodes well for Mwanga — and for the Union. It remains to be seen how Perlaza will strengthen this attack, but with his pedigree and playing alongside a pair of forwards who speak the same language in fellow Colombian Lionard Pajoy and Costa Rican Josue Martinez. The best-case scenario is that herein lies a head start in building continuity on attack.
Worst-case scenario? Perlaza will amount to putting fresh paint on a lemon. Hope they thoroughly checked the Carfax.
As for Mwanga, he couldn't be set up any sweeter returning to Portland, the city where is family still lives. He is known for being a beast among soccer circles during dominating years at Jefferson High School and his two seasons at Oregon State. It's up to Mwanga now to write his own future or become another statistic.
"Every player has a moment where you're struggling and you're trying to find yourself and things were a little bit tough sometimes," Mwanga said. "When you are comfortable, you are a better player, and I am already comfortable knowing I'll be able to continue my career in Portland."
Food for thought
Against all odds, the Union has shown signs of improvement. However, it's with a ragtag display of youngsters who usually don't see much playing time.
The Union has won its past two matches — albeit in Open Cup play — with a group normally not among the starting 11. Sharing the center back spot with captain Carlos Valdes has been midfielder Amobi Okugo.
But here's the thing?…
Okugo has played surprisingly well and looks mentally and physically in tune with the rest of the back four. Perhaps the biggest example of this was in the 2-1 win over D.C. United on Tuesday, when United tried to play uber-physical against a young back line that featured Okugo and rookie Raymon Gaddis, but the pair battled right back. On attack, the inclusion of another rookie, Antoine Hoppenot, led to the team's game-winner, and Josue Martinez has emerged as the striker the club and its supporters alike hoped the 21-year-old would be. You even have these young kids talking with swagger. After scoring the game-winner against United, Hoppenot chimed, "Coach Nowak put me in the game and he told me to just go out there and do what I do, and I mean I got a goal today, so I am happy about that."
So with a group that's bringing in wins, what do you do when the club returns to full health and guys such as Gabriel Gomez return from international responsibilities? For instance, does Okugo go back to sitting in the plush seats in manager's row once defender Sheanon Williams returns from his toe injury?
Most likely, but don't tell me that's not criminal.
Also up top, with Perlaza coming, do the budding "developing" youngsters such as Hoppenot, Martinez and Chandler Hoffman resume watching and learning?
If anything, this is a good problem to have, but this technical staff does has quite the conundrum to solve before MLS play resumes on June 16.
Odds and endlines
Fan voting for the July 25 MLS All-Star Game begins Friday at noon. Fans can place their picks via www.MLSsoccer.com or by texting the player's last name to 22442. Goalkeeper Zac MacMath, defenders Carlos Valdes and Sheanon Williams, midfielders Gabriel Gomez and Freddy Adu, and forward Lionard Pajoy are among the nominees representing the Union?…?Also, MLS plans to announce on Monday pregame festivities before the All-Star match against Chelsea at PPL Park. In the past MLS, has kicked off with different events around the host city. Could David Beckham be kicking a ball up the steps of the Art Museum, or through the "O" in the statue at LOVE Park? It's possible?…?MLS' annual 4-vs.-4 Futbolito tournament returns to Philly on Aug. 12 at Science and Discovery High School in Chester. For more information or to register, log onto www.mlsfutbolito.com. n
Email Kerith Gabriel at email@example.com. Follow Kerith on Twitter @sprtswtr.