Rookies aren’t what they used to be in MLS, either by definition or impact.
They can come straight out of college, as has been the traditional path, but nowadays they can also be academy products and/or Homegrown signings. Some, like Harry Shipp of the Fire, qualify as a Homegrown Player as well as a college product (in his case, Notre Dame).
A player in his first year of professional soccer is classified as a rookie by MLS. Contract status takes priority over other factors, such as age. Take the case of Philadelphia players Brian Brown and Pedro Ribeiro. Brown is only 21, yet he’s on loan from Jamaican club Harbor View and thus is not a rookie. Ribeiro, a native of Brazil, is 24 but was drafted last January out of Coastal Carolina and has never been under a pro contract, so he’s a rookie.
The class of 2014 isn’t a stellar one in regards to first-season impact, though a few players such as Shipp and D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum took advantage of injuries to establish themselves as first-teamers. Evaluating a draft class is best done two or three years down the road; a great example is 2012 selection Ethan Finlay, who broke through this season to share the team lead in goals (11) and assists (seven) for the Crew.
In order of preference here are the top candidates for Rookie of the Year:
1. STEVE BIRNBAUM, D.C. UNITED. He’s been a mainstay in central defense since veteran Jeff Parke underwent inner-ear surgery in June. He’s averaged seven clearances and 3.2 interceptions per game while paired with veteran Bobby Boswell, and United’s record in 21 consecutive league games with him as a starter is 12-5-4.
2. TESHO AKINDELE, FC DALLAS. Before he left the Rapids to take over at FCD, head coach Oscar Pareja got a bead on Akindele, who played collegiately at the Colorado School of Mines. The No. 6 overall selection, Akindele got some time early in the season as a wide midfielder and also played up top while scoring seven goals and logging three assists in 26 games (18 starts).
3. HARRY SHIPP, CHICAGO. Season-ending surgery for Mike Magee opened up opportunities for Shipp, who started 26 of 33 games and delivered solid numbers of seven goals and six assists. He lit up the Red Bulls with a hat trick in early May to register his first three pro goals but managed just four the rest of the way. Still, he led the team with those six assists.
4. NICK HAGGLUND,TORONTO FC. He started 23 of his 25 appearances while often paired with another young player, Doniel Henry, and showed enough promise to merit a favorable long-term outlook even though TFC left its fans frustrated and disappointed once again.
5. PATRICK MULLINS, NEW ENGLAND. In May, he scored in four straight games but lost a regular starting spot as Charlie Davies regained fitness and form. The two-time Hermann Trophy winner ended the regular season with 21 appearances (14 starts) and an assist to go along with those four goals.
6. TOMMY THOMPSON, SAN JOSE. The son of former U.S. international Gregg Thompson, the attacker is very confident in tight spaces and looks capable of handling the pro game though he failed to score in his 13 appearances (eight starts).
7. MARLON HAIRSTON, COLORADO. Stuff happens with him on the field, though his pace and energy sometimes leads him into blind alleys and double-teams. He started nine of 22 games (one goal, one assist) and on a roster stacked with young players he won’t find it easy to progress.
8. JJ KOVAL, SAN JOSE. The Quakes collapsed in the second half of the season and the presence of veterans Sam Cronin and Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi didn’t allow for many opportunities in central midfield, yet the former Stanford player made 22 appearances (nine starts).
9. CHRIS DUVALL, NEW YORK. He’s been on the bench for the last four league matches after starting 18 consecutive games at right back from May 24 to Sept. 28. Some very solid games while learning the ropes in a difficult position offer hope for the future, but he’s a ways down the depth chart.
10. PEDRO RIBEIRO, PHILADELPHIA. Scored two goals in nine games (three starts), including a winner shortly after entering the match Oct. 18 against Sporting Kansas City. He’s a big forward (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and could be in the mix to replace Conor Casey down the road.