MLS understudies seize opportunities

With the CONCACAF Gold Cup taking away key players from several MLS teams, the month of June was always going to be the prime opportunity for reserve players to step up and stake their claims to larger roles in the 2011 season.

Real Salt Lake’s Jean Alexandre, New York’s Stephen Keel, Los Angeles’ Josh Saunders and San Jose’s Steven Lenhart are just some of the players to have all stepped up in place of Gold Cup departures, and all four will be key to helping their teams cope with important personnel losses.

Saunders is no stranger to stepping in for Donovan Ricketts, having impressed in previous cameos. His first start of the new season yielded a shutout in a scoreless draw against D.C. United, with Saunders providing a mistake-free performance and some solid saves to help the Galaxy earn a point from United. With Ricketts potentially helping guide Jamaica to the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup, Saunders should have a handful of games to continue showing why some consider him one of the best back-up goalkeepers in MLS.

Alexandre had the best performance of the week among players called in to replace Gold Cup departures, playing up top in place of Costa Rican star Alvaro Saborio. Alexandre has played more as a defensive midfielder since being drafted in 2009, but RSL made him a first-round pick because of his play in college as a forward.

He showed just why on Saturday, pulling off a beautiful move to score RSL’s first goal, then laying off a perfect pass on the team’s second goal. While it did come against a shaky Vancouver defense, Alexandre’s performance bodes well for a long run as a starting striker.

Lenhart isn’t exactly starting because of Chris Wondolowski’s U.S. national team call-up, but with the Earthquakes leading scorer on Gold Cup duty, Lenhart will be called on even more to lead the San Jose attack. His return from pre-season knee surgery has coincided with a pretty dramatic turnaround for the Earthquakes, and with Wondolowski on national team duty, Lenhart becomes an even more important figure for the Earthquakes in a stacked Western Conference.

One of the more surprising revelations among the Gold Cup fill-ins has been Keel, who has slid into the Red Bulls starting lineup and been a rock in central defense. Having spent the past two years playing for the Portland Timbers in the second division (and having been a long-time reserve with the Colorado Rapids before that), Keel’s addition in pre-season didn’t register much attention, yet he could be key to helping New York survive June without starting centerbacks Rafa Marquez and Tim Ream.

With so many MLS teams missing key players for the Gold Cup through June, how well reserves like Saunders, Keel and Alexandre do (and how much starters like Lenhart can step up their games) will determine which teams survive the plethora of Gold Cup absences and which teams wind up being much lower in the standings by the time their Gold Cup stars return.

Player of the Week

Real Salt Lake’s Jean Alexandre gets the nod for his goal and assist in RSL’s 2-0 win against Vancouver. A midfielder for most of his time with RSL, Alexandre showed the flash at forward that made RSL select him as a first-rounder in the 2009 MLS Draft. The Haitian showed great feet and a nose for goal. San Jose striker Steven Lenhart was a close second for this one.

Rookie of the Week

It was an outstanding week for MLS rookies, and there were a slew of worthy candidates for this award. Columbus Crew midfielder Rich Balchan gets the nod for his stoppage-time equalizer that helped the Crew escape Red Bull Arena with a valuable point.

Team of the Week

The San Jose Earthquakes get the nod for beating a tough Houston Dynamo team, 2-0, and doing so without star striker Chris Wondolowski. The defense posted another shutout, and Steven Lenhart led the way for a San Jose side that gone unbeaten in five matches (3-0-2) after starting the season 1-4-3.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.