There’s been plenty of Rookie of the Year talk on these pages the past couple years thanks to the rookie seasons Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Elliott turned in en route to becoming finalists for the annual award in 2016 and 2017.
That talk will be somewhat muted this year, thanks to eligibility rules that limit candidates to only those who have signed their first professional contracts within the past few months.
As young as the team has become (relatively speaking) with four Philadelphia Union Academy grads making their MLS debuts this season, Mark McKenzie is the only player who fits the league’s description of a rookie.
It’s a shame considering the season Auston Trusty has had so far, playing every minute in central defense after making his MLS debut in the season opener. The 19-year-old Media native has shown moments of inexperience, but overall has been a solid presence on the back line that has conceded the fourth fewest number of goals in the Eastern Conference.
Trusty hasn’t been eligible for the award since the end of the 2016 season, having signed his first professional contract with the Union in August 2016.
According to a league spokesman, a rookie in MLS, is “defined as a player who has no prior professional soccer playing experience before his MLS debut and/or has completed his college/high school eligibility within the last year.”
McKenzie made eight appearances (2 in 2016, six in 2017) for Bethlehem Steel FC but the clock on his rookie season didn’t start until he signed a professional contract in 2018.
Anthony Fontana is a bit of a different case. The 18-year-old from Delaware signed a homegrown contract with the Union in July 2017 and while he wasn’t added to the first team roster until January 2018, his rookie status expired when he appeared as a professional for Bethlehem Steel FC last season, according to a league spokesman.
Left back Matthew Real signed his first professional contract with Bethlehem Steel in January 2017 so his rookie status expired at the end of the 2017 USL season.
Olivier Mbaizo, who was signed from Bethlehem Steel FC last month, signed his first professional contract with Union Douala in his native Cameroon in 2016.
This leaves McKenzie — and potentially any of the five would-be eligible players under Steel contract should they sign first team deals — as the club’s only chance to land another Rookie of the Year finalist. Steel players who meet the criteria include Aidan Apodaca, Mike Catalano, AJ Paterson, Drew Skundrich and Michee Ngalina.
McKenzie has made three appearances and two starts so he has some catching up to do before he becomes part of the conversation, but the job he did helping to shut down Montreal Impact star Ignacio Piatti is a step in that direction.
A total of 58 players are eligible league-wide. The full list is available on the MLS website.
Like the SuperDraft that distributes college players into the league, the Rookie of the Year award has been losing some of its luster in recent years as more players follow the path that Trusty and company have taken to first team minutes.
It might be a good time to either reconsider these eligibility requirements or add an additional award that could recognize the best player under age 21, the most outstanding teenager or something similar to honor young players who have made an impact on the league.