Several weeks ago it was announced that Major League Soccer was doing away with its Rookie of the Year award in favor of a new award, the Young Player of the Year. To be eligible, the player has to be 22 years of age or younger.
In plenty of respects the change made a lot of sense. The league is beginning to move in a direction where lots of young talent is coming in from MLS academies, USL teams, or overseas rather than the just the MLS SuperDraft. From that angle, the move makes plenty of sense by allowing the league to honor someone like Diego Rossi, who was already a professional before joining LAFC and thereby wouldn’t have qualified for the Rookie of the Year award. Unfortunately, the move is likely to leave talented rookies out in the cold.
The final three nominees for the Young Player of the Year award this season are the aforementioned Rossi, Brenden Aaronson, and Orlando City’s own Daryl Dike. On the face of it those are good and sensible choices. But when you dig a little deeper, Dike is at a distinct disadvantage. Aaronson and Rossi already have multiple MLS seasons under their belts. Aaronson is completing his second season and Rossi his third. The Union midfielder has played in 51 regular-season games while the LAFC attacker has been in 85. Dike has played in 17. While it speaks to his excellence this year that he’s been included next to Aaronson and Rossi, the playing field for the award simply isn’t level.
It isn’t just Dike getting shafted either. Henry Kessler has been phenomenal for the New England Revolution during his rookie year, and he wasn’t even one of the finalists. Given the shortlist for the YPOTY award, it would have been tough to justify him being one of the final nominees, but it still sucks because he had a very good chance of being recognized by the league for his efforts and now that won’t happen. With Mauricio Pineda also having a good season this year, it seems to me like MLS is leaving out an important section of players.
People who disagree with this take will say that it doesn’t matter how many games of experience someone has played in, they just need to be good. That’s fair when you’re talking about players who have already been professionals and already have experience competing against professionals. But when you bring college soccer players into the mix, the conversation changes. There is a big jump both tactically and physically from the college game to MLS, and rookies who do well in making that transition should be honored for doing so.
This might be nitpicky, but the timing of the announcement was a bit odd too. The league announced the change Oct. 28, a mere 11 days before Decision Day. That isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but I do think it’s odd that the league wouldn’t wait to start the award until next year, rather than squeezing it in right at the end of the season. While they likely aren’t focused on individual accolades, it’s still a shame for guys like Dike and Kessler who have been balling out all year, only to have the goalposts moved right before kicking the game-winning field goal. While the timing doesn’t have anything to do with the actual award itself, it’s still a little strange.
To me, a pretty easy solution would be to just have both awards. Dike, Kessler, and Pineda are proof that the college pipeline is still more than capable of producing exciting young MLS talent. If the league simply afforded itself an avenue to honor both talented rookies as well as youngsters who already have professional seasons under their belts, then it would all make a hell of a lot more sense.