By Dario Camacho - MIAMI, FL (Jun 15, 2012) US Soccer Players -- As we approach the midpoint of the season, the obligatory prognosticating of post-season awards begins. It’s par for the course. An American pastime in and of itself. When it comes to sports, it’s almost compulsive to a degree. We have to document and statistically arrange players onto a list that signifies who is best at what they do. Most Valuable Players, best strikers, best defenders and so on. Anywhere you see a depth chart that isn't put together by the actual coach, it's this process at work.
It’s no surprise then that amongst all the different categories we have for the various end-of-year awards, Rookie of the Year should already enter the conversation. The importance of such an award could be argued, since MLS recruits begin with an asterisk especially if they're college players. The college system doesn't exist in the rest of the professional soccer landscape. Rewarding a player for having a remarkable debut season as a 22-year-old professional might not make a lot of sense to the rest of the world, but it's standard practice in the USA.
The Rookie of the Year award matters. It's an indication of a young player getting it right at his earliest opportunity as a pro. The current US World Cup qualifying team currently holds three recipients of the award. One of them is Clint Dempsey, currently the American player with the most upside in England's Premier League. As indicators go, the award is significant.
So what about this season? Who is emerging as a first year player worthy of being in the conversation with other award winners? At this stage of the season, it's an open argument. Any time any rookie makes some noise in any given week, they are championed as the undisputable choice.
The current clubhouse leader is Vancouver's Darren Mattocks. His two goal performance against Houston on Sunday turned plenty of heads. After all, we're talking about a player who missed time earlier this season after sustaining burns due to a cooking accident. What if he'd been healthy all year? Would the Rookie of the Year race already seem like it was over? Perhaps. Mattocks is a good player, and it's not just the goals. That's impressive enough, but he sustained a quality throughout the game that demanded attention. Enough so that Eric Hassli, a designated player, may have some tough competition for a starting spot...or so some soccer writers are saying.
Yet his performance, as noteworthy as it was, was under a vacuum. There was nothing comparable since the Vancouver-Houston game was the lone match of the week. In other words: It was the easy thing to talk about.
Any rookie is capable of making a splash one week, and fade away the next. It’s the erratic performance of some of these players that makes it difficult to pick out an early season favorite. Our player of the game one week could be struggling to keep his starting job the next. Consistency is a necessity. Mattocks, Kelyn Rowe and others drafted this year have to prove that on any given week, they can be effective, quantifiable.
Make no mistake, teams use the SuperDraft to try and find that one unquestioned success. Dempsey wasn't an overall number one pick. Other players have emerged from even deeper in the selection process to make a lot of clubs wonder what they were thinking. As much as MLS teams like to talk about role players when it comes to the draft, everyone is looking to win the lottery.
Then there's the Red Bulls. If any team in MLS works against the idea of the entry draft, it's New York. Their choices show a preference for the foreign player over the domestic, their own developmental program over trusting the college game to fill that role.
It’s surprising then that the 31st pick in the 2012 SuperDraft is now the starting goalkeeper for the Red Bulls. With New York's peculiar approach to creating its squad, Ryan Meara is a contradiction to that philosophy. An anomaly that has worked out in favor of the Red Bulls.
Meara is having a heck of a season. Already registering eight wins and three shutouts, the surprising rookie has also maintained that consistency throughout the campaign that often first year players have trouble maintaining. It's no small feat, especially with New York's unstable defense. This is a team with a rotating roster of players darting in and out of the defensive line this season due to injuries. With such a suspect line of defense in front of Maera, New York is still in 2nd-place in the East.
Goalkeepers are supposed to serve a long apprenticeship before establishing themselves as the #1. In New York, they had Zach Thornton and Tim Howard as backups before both proved they were starters. Howard showed he as a superstar, with the MetroStars playing through an MLS season with a goalkeeper good enough to start for Manchester United.
Should New York's season continue at this pace and this no doubt the contribution of their rookie goalkeeper will be a major reason. Meara has form and consistency, and he's already working his way up the League's depth chart in his position. That's what a Rookie of the Year caliber season should look like.
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