By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 29, 2021) US Soccer Players – In 2020, MLS made a change to its roster of annual awards. Out was the Rookie of the Year, an award whose history went back to the dawn of the league. The Rookie of the Year honored the best first-year professional during the season and counted among its winners names like Steve Ralston, Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, and Jordan Morris. In was the Young Player of the Year Award, an honor earmarked for the league’s best player age 22 or younger throughout the season.
In the first year of the change, LAFC’s Uruguayan attacker Diego Rossi took home the trophy. The eligibility of Rossi, a player with multiple years of success in MLS before he took home the Young Player of the Year, means true rookies like Henry Kessler and Daryl Dike missed out. Before 2020, the New England Revolution center back Kessler and his college teammate, Orlando City striker Dike, would have been leading candidates for Rookie of the Year.
The shift from “first-year professional” to “young player” brought the award more in line with soccer’s culture around the world. It also reflected Major League Soccer’s focus on becoming a place for young players to develop before moving on to bigger and brighter stages through big-money transfers.
It was no coincidence that MLS morphed “Rookie of the Year” into the “Young Player of the Year” in the same season it introduced its U-22 initiative. If MLS was going to induce teams to spend money on talent with an eye on burgeoning its reputation as a selling league, then it only made sense to highlight the brightest gems it had to offer.
Changing the rules might have moved MLS a little closer to other leagues in places like Europe and South America, but it also pushed away from its very American roots. The league’s leadership created the Rookie of the Year Award in 1996 exactly because American sports fans understood the concept and because MLS was, like pro leagues in basketball and football, dependent on college programs to provide new young players to the competition.
Shifting from the Rookie of the Year designation to a Young Player of the Year designation is an acknowledgment that college soccer’s influence has waned dramatically in just the past few seasons. A peek at the 2021 SuperDraft is all you need to see the impact of academies and other developmental tools on the influence of collegiate players in MLS in their first season.
Of the first-round selections this past January, only two players have racked up significant minutes in their first professional seasons. If the Rookie of the Year still existed, it would be difficult to choose a winner and not for good reasons.
Austin FC’s Daniel Pereira arrived in Texas from Virginia Tech as a ball-winning defensive midfielder whose technical abilities were ahead of many of his college peers. A consensus first overall choice at the time of the draft, Pereira was immediately expected to play at the MLS level.
Through week 27, Pereira has appeared 19 times and started 14 games for the expansion side. It’s certainly worth asking if Pereira would be getting the same chance if he didn’t play for a brand new franchise in MLS, but breaking into even an expansion team as a rookie is not an easy feat.
Vancouver fullback Javain Brown beats Pereira for playing time so far in 2021 and is the only other player from the SuperDraft to crest the 1,000-minute mark. The Whitecaps chose the defender with the 23rd pick of the SuperDraft out of the University of South Florida. So far in 2021, Brown has 17 appearances with 13 starts.
Loans are the order of the day for the vast majority of draftees. MLS relationships with USL clubs, both as wholly-owned reserve outfits and through affiliate partnerships, give MLS teams options for their young players. Rather than let a new professional languish on the bench or get only spot minutes, clubs opt to send them off to lower-division teams.
The system is still evolving and will change again when MLS launches its own third-division competition in 2022. With every MLS team operating a club in the new league, loans figure to become an ever-larger part of the developmental plan. The number of draft picks to earn more than 1,000 minutes can’t fall much lower. Next season might put that to the test.
MLS clubs no longer give key roles to new professionals because they don’t have to. Despite the league’s slow progress on lifting spending restrictions in place to maintain the stability of the business and ensure parity across the competition, the modern salary budget allows for replenishing a roster from year to year in a way that makes first-year professionals less desirable.
Andres Jasson of NYCFC is one of the few other true first-year professionals to earn a place in the rotation at an MLS club in 2021. Jasson has six starts and 18 total appearances for the Bronx-based club in his first year as a professional after signing a Homegrown contract in November of 2022.
Jasson intended to play soccer at Yale, but the Covid-19 pandemic derailed the season and he signed with NYCFC instead. The forward has yet to score in his limited time, but he’s providing cover at a thin position. He’s also doing it for a team in a playoff spot. With Heber back in action after a long injury layoff, Jasson may find playing time tougher to find.
The heyday of the first-year pro in MLS has come and gone. The new normal is young players who have played one, two, or even three years as teenagers in USL competition before rising to the senior club. College draftees no longer go from the short NCAA season and limited training with a dash of developmental summer soccer thrown in directly into the rough-and-tumble world of the top division.
While there may be a few Dempseys and Bocanegras left in the system, those players are more likely to leave school early and start their pro careers below the MLS level than to emerge from college as 22-year-olds fighting an uphill battle for playing time.
It all changed very quickly, and probably for the better. But spare a thought for the players who might get a chance to shine in their first pro season but no longer have an award to call their own. Goodbye to the Rookie of the Year. To the award, and to the type of player who would be eligible.
More From Jason Davis:
- MLS moves on from Rookie of the Year as the league changes scope
- At closer to full strength, Minnesota United tries for a late season push
- The Philadelphia Union model is working
- Dark horses in the East and West
Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com