Like most of the MLS postseason awards, there is no clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. And like other awards, this too is not as easy as simply comparing numbers and picking whoever comes out on top.
Not only is this one of the few awards where players in different roles and positions are supposed to receive equal consideration -- let's face it, MVP is effectively an offensive award -- but since it's also the only award with an element of youth, there's often a desire to make it at least partially about potential.
For me, this award is about current performance. The ROY should go to the player who had the best season, not the one who we think will have the best career. That eliminates from consideration players like Ike Opara, who missed more than half the season, and goalkeepers Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, who might just turn out to be the next great American keepers but were not good enough on a consistent basis to merit a post-season award.
Among the players I think deserve serious consideration (in no particular order) are Teal Bunbury (five goals, two assists, .75 PP90), Michael Stephens (eight assists), Danny Mwanga (seven goals, four assists, 1.14 PP90), Andy Najar (five goals, one assist, best highlight package) and Tim Ream (most significant addition to a defense that allowed 11 fewer goals this season than last).
Of this group, three have really separated from the pack: Mwanga, Najar and Ream.
Of these three, I have been least impressed by Ream. I'm sure that makes me sound like an unobservant idiot to some of you, but I've watched five to seven Red Bulls games and he has never stood out to me. He's not an imposing physical presence like Omar Gonzalez or Opara; he doesn't provide anything offensively; and I haven't seen him be a great ball-winner. It can't be ignored that he has by far the most minutes played of any Red Bulls player -- and 750 more than any defender -- and much smarter people than I have been very impressed by him. While I'm willing to accept that he is one of the best young American defenders -- and maybe even a top five centerback this season -- I'm just totally uncomfortable casting my vote for a player based on the opinions of others.
That basically leaves us the Union's Mwanga and United's Najar.
Now this is not really an apples to apples comparison, either. Mwanga is a striker, so that fact that he has scored at a significantly better clip (Mwanga has played about 400 fewer minutes) than Najar does not tell the whole story. Najar is much more of an all-field player, chasing down balls in the corner, harassing opposing players and working as more of a distributor on a team that simply has no finishers.
In my own experience, I've been thoroughly impressed by both players. Both of them have shown remarkable skills for players their age (Mwanga is 19, Najar is 17) and hopefully the U.S. National Team is working overtime trying to get one or both to play for the country where their careers blossomed. Quite honestly, if one of these players wants to commit to playing for the U.S., I'm not above selling my vote for the cause.
Martin Shatzer of Black And Red United says he'll be voting for Najar based on several issues. One of them I found particularly compelling: At 17, Najar is among the most versatile players in MLS.
Najar started his career with the Youth Academy as a right fullback. In early reserve matches, he was used as a central defensive midfielder. He's started 20 games for United as a right winger, but also has been moved to forward when the situation calls.
This is where Najar may have sealed the deal for me. Mwanga is an undeniable talent. That he has put up the numbers he has after spending much of the early part of the season the bench is a testament to his ability to keep working even when he wasn't getting the chances he deserved.
But if I'm heading to the playoffs next week and can select one of the players to take with me, I think I'd have to go with Najar. Whether you need a late goal, some help in the midfield or even an emergency defender, Najar has show the skills capable of helping a team in multiple ways.
It might not be the fairest way of making my decision, but that's definitely the way I'm leaning right now.