Any fan, supporter, masochist – all three? - that has stuck around will have noticed the condition of the Toyota Park pitch in recent weeks. The large, sandy brown patches, along with the gopher-hole divots haven’t just drawn the ire of players, but are a microcosm of the entire season for the Fire. Green pastures are surrounded by decay and negligence, not only on the physical pitch, but in the games, the results, and the long-term plan.
Green pastures do exist, though. This organization, long questioned for its lack of Home Grown Players - despite being at the frontier of the movement - has pulled a complete 180. Thanks to the evolution of their plan regarding HGPs, the Fire now have a candidate worthy of being named 2014 Rookie of the year.
This season, Victor Pineda finally cracked the first team in his third full season with the club. Pineda still is a relatively unknown commodity. It didn’t take long before fans and staff alike knew there weren’t going to be many minutes for the Bolingbrook native in a Quaker shirt this season. Regardless, Victor isn’t considered a rookie. Two of his fellow HGPs are. Northwestern product Chris Ritter has shown promise, with a side of frustration sprinkled in. Quick to adapt and learn on the fly, Ritter has the makings of the next Logan Pause, maybe even better. He’s flown completely under the radar this season, but compared to some other rookies around the league, his minutes are miniscule.
One simply cannot mention the 2014 MLS Rookie of the Year race without acknowledging Harry Shipp. Clearly the jewel of the aforementioned HGP trio, Shipp has been a front runner for this award for a majority of the season. The midfield maestro leads all rookies in minutes played (1830) and has started 21 games in 27 appearances. 6 goals coming from midfield is an impressive feat, arguably topped by his matching assist number. On a team with such inconsistent ability to finish, it’s a huge credit to Shipp and his vision that he’s created a relatively vast amount of chances. In fact, in the article announcing him as one of MLS' '24 Under 24' - honoring the best young players in the league - it is noted that his 2.51 chances created per 90 minutes is best in MLS.
May 10 at Red Bull Arena was the day Shipp truly made his presence felt with a hat trick in a 5-4 Fire victory. A major setback to the creator from Notre Dame, was the proverbial rookie wall that he hit in August. Having only played 276 out of a possible 450 minutes that month gave the youngster a cooling off period. Last week’s game vs DC United where Shipp chipped in with an assist, was his first start since late August. All that rest may have done his body good, but also made way for other rookies around the league to state their case.
From reach to real deal
It’s not that anyone hated FC Dallas’s selection at number six overall. Many simply felt the pick was a reach. Some mock drafts had Tesho Akindele dropping into the second round. As the MLS season has progressed, the little-known prospect from a little-known college has helped Head Coach Oscar Pareja prove people wrong. In 22 appearances – including 17 starts – Akindele has scored 7 goals and notched 3 assists. His goal total ranks fourth on FC Dallas only behind Blas Perez, Fabian Castillo and dead ball specialist Michel.
On the rookie landscape he sits well ahead of the highly touted Revs first rounder Patrick Mullins (4 goals) and the Dynamo’s second rounder Mark Sherrod (2 goals). The highlight of the Canadian native’s season came on August 16 against San Jose when he netted a hat trick on 3 shots on goal. Akindele’s production - on a team very close to clinching a playoff - can give him the edge in the Rookie of the Year race, especially if he bags more goals in FC Dallas’s final four games.
Putting the D in DC United
A consensus top-three pick in just about every mock draft, Steve Birnbaum ended up going second overall to United, after some wheeling and dealing very typical of the Philadelphia Union. Lauded as the most MLS ready prospect, Birnbaum wouldn’t have seen much playing time if it weren’t for a foot injury picked up by veteran starting defender Jeff Parke.
In 16 starts as Parke’s replacement, the former Cal Golden Bear, alongside Bobby Boswell helped DC United rack up eight victories – five of them clean sheets. Shutout victories against the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City are the crowning achievements of his rookie resume, along with never having picked up a yellow or red card. Birnbaum has played a huge role in his team sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, and will indubitably be an anchor in their backline for many years. His playing time might not match that of Shipp’s or Akindele’s but his impact cannot be understated.
A bloody big first season
Ever heard of this Nick Hagglund guy? From any outsider looking into Toronto FC this year, it’s very possible they haven’t. The acquisitions of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Defoe overshadowed anything TFC did in the draft. With the mystery surrounding Defoe’s long term prospects, the appreciation for Hagglund has risen to the surface. 19 starts in 21 appearances puts him ahead of fellow defender Steve Birnbaum, and ahead of Akindele in minutes played.
TFC has won only seven of Hagglund’s starts, but five of them were clean sheets. An impressive stat is that the Xavier product has 3 assists to his name. His first minutes of the season came in an April 5 start vs Columbus, helping his team to a 2-0 victory. Needless to say it was a great start to a solid rookie campaign.
Honorable mention to the right side of Red Bull
As a second round pick from Wake Forest, Chris Duvall was an unused sub in the first eleven games of the season. The attacking right back has made waves since late May, starting 17 games. Duvall doesn’t have the numbers that Hagglund or Birnbaum have, but he does have tremendous upside going forward.
What could have been
The New England Revolution seemed to have hit the draft jackpot back in January. In exchange for the rights to Michael Parkhurst, the Revs acquired the number four selection from the Columbus Crew, which they spent on midfielder Steve Neumann. Despite only two starts, Neumann has come off the bench 18 times but he has only played more than 20 minutes six times.
What many considered to be the steal of the draft came at number eleven for Jay Heaps and company. Two-time Hermann Trophy award winner Patrick Mullins somehow slid out of the top ten, despite going top five in numerous mock drafts. Thus far, Mullins has scored 4 goals, all of which came during consecutive weeks in May. The subsequent cool down plummeted what chance Mullins had at Rookie of the Year. Unless Heaps decides to feature Mullins heavily in the final month, and his left foot catches fire, he’s out of the running.
So, who wins R.O.Y?
The final month of the season is huge for the first four names mentioned. If DC United hold on to win the East and maybe even the Supporters Shield behind the defense of Birnbaum, he would be deserving. Hagglund is a bright spot on Toronto FC team that is not meeting lofty expectations, but is it enough for him to garner the individual award? The race likely comes down to Tesho Akindele and Harry Shipp.
Akindele plays a position that will allow him a chance to better pad his stats. His sparse use through the first two months of the season has allowed him to keep fresh legs, but a playoff push by FC Dallas may handcuff his opportunities. Shipp has the potential to start every remaining game, but whether he has enough in the tank to go the full 90 minutes is questionable. With two new strikers to provide service to, and the eye for creating his own chances, it’s likely we haven’t seen the last Harry Shipp goal or assist.
It’s hard to tell, but win or lose, the Fire and their fans can be proud of at least something in 2014. In a season full of brown spots, Shipp has been the green grass. If he’s not Rookie of the Year, he’s destined to be an All-Star. We can’t fully say for sure if it’s going to be him or Akindele that takes the Rookie honors at seasons end, but hey, at least it won’t end in another damn tie … will it?