What makes a Rookie of the Year? Is it, like the MLS MVP Award, an honor to be given to a player who puts together an outstanding first professional season, or an award to give to a young player who shows the most potential?
Those two things may sound like they are the same thing, but they are not. With the former, we are talking about the actual accomplishments and contributions delivered in a given season, while the latter can constitute both the level of ability shown at times, and the promise of much better soccer in the future.
It is that latter example that must be why some still think this year's MLS Rookie of the Year race is between Vancouver Whitecaps striker Darren Mattocks and Chicago Fire centerback Austin Berry, and why some may actually be ready to already hand over the award to Mattocks.
It is tough to argue that Mattocks hasn't shown flashes of brilliance that make you think there just might be greatness in his future. His blazing speed has produced moments of magic, as well as his seven goals, for the Whitecaps. A closer look at his season will show, however, that the bulk of his best work, and magical moments, came in one impressive one-month stretch.
For two other rookies, centerbacks Austin Berry and Matt Hedges, their seasons haven't been filled with highlight-reel moments, or flashy contributions that stick in the minds of some Rookie of the Year voters. No, what both have done instead is spend most of the season emerging as indispensable parts of their team's defenses.
Berry has made 24 consecutive starts in central defense and has developed into a consistent force in the back while also giving the Fire a threat on set pieces (he has scored three goals this year). Hedges has had a similar campaign, rattling off 19 consecutive starts in the FC Dallas central defense after the team lost veteran defender Ugo Ihemelu. Hedges has steadily improved to the point of being the anchor of the central defense when George John hasn't been available, and he is a key reason FC Dallas is back in the playoff race. Also, like Berry, Hedges has shown an ability to find the net. He has three goals this season, including a goal in Saturday's 3-3 draw vs. San Jose that ultimately helped Dallas earn a valuable point.
Yes, Mattocks has seven goals, but he has scored in five matches this MLS season as a forward while Berry and Hedges have scored in three matches each. Not exactly a big difference considering one is a forward and the others are central defenders.
Given these statistics you would think Mattocks would be trailing Berry and Hedges in the court of public opinion by a wide margin for the Rookie of the Year race, but the sense is he is still the front-runner in the eyes of some. If that is the case, it isn't a stretch to suggest that it is because of Mattocks' potential, and not his actual production.
How else to explain how a player who has started just 14 games and played just 1200 minutes is considered by some to be a Rookie of the Year lock already. Mattocks has the potential to be a superstar, but if the Rookie of the Year award is about actual production, should a forward who has started so few games, and had an impact on so few games, be seriously considered over two centerbacks who have not only been consistent starters, but have also scored goals themselves?
It all depends on how you see the Rookie of the Year Award. If the award is a way to honor and identify someone you think is going to be a superstar, and eventually the best player in the class, then it is very easy to understand why Mattocks would be the pick.
That isn't what the award is though, at least it didn't used to be. The Rookie of the Year Award should go to the rookie who does the best job of performing during their rookie season. It's about the body of work, not the potential. I'm sure some will disagree, but if potential drives the voting then MLS might want to consider a Future Star Award to go along with the award for the rookie who actually had the best season.
Mattocks could still wind up scoring a bunch of goals late in the season to help Vancouver make the playoffs and lock up the award (assuming he recovers from the hamstring injury suffered last weekend), but if things stay as they are going, with Berry and Hedges anchoring their defenses as steady and impressive centerbacks, Mattocks isn't even in the top two for Rookie of the Year.
For my money, the front-runners for the Rookie of the Year award are Berry and Hedges because of their actual contributions on the field in 2012. Berry gets the nod at this point because he has been a steady force in central defense for one of the better teams in the league. Hedges' chances of winning the award will likely come down to whether Dallas makes the playoffs or not, but if he keeps playing at the high level he has reached over the past month he will definitely be in the conversation.
As for Mattocks, he may be a better long-term prospect than either, and may wind up being the true star of this rookie class, but as things stand both Berry and Hedges have had better rookie seasons.
So if we had two awards, one for Rookie of the Year (for production), and one for Future Star Award (potential and production), how would the voting look right now? Here is how I see the fields stacking up:
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Austin Berry
2. Matt Hedges
3. Darren Mattocks
4. Luis Silva
T5. Nick DeLeon
T5. Connor Lade
FUTURE STAR AWARD
1. Darren Mattocks
2. Luis Silva
3. Matt Hedges
4. Nick DeLeon
T5. Andrew Wenger
T5. Austin Berry
I'm sure opinions will vary on both of these lists, and if anything, it shows just how much talent there is in the 2012 MLS Rookie class that rookies like Andy Rose, Tony Cascio and Kelyn Rowe aren't on either of these lists (and yes, they certainly could be).
What do you think