UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Learning may go hand-in-hand with a rookie season, but few first-year players have done as much of that in 2012 as Connor Lade of the New York Red Bulls.
The 22-year-old has figured consistently in the starting lineup of a talented Red Bulls team that has its sights set on an MLS Cup. A big reason for that is Lade's willingness to play a number of positions, even if they are unfamiliar to him.
“I feel that if they see me kind of as a utility player, then I’m going to definitely embrace that role, because it’s going to in turn lead to more playing time,” Lade told MLSsoccer.com “To be honest, being in my rookie year, I’m just trying to play, no matter where on the field that is. I’m just going to totally 100 percent put myself in that role and stick to it and just learn.
"The more positions I’m playing, the more I’m learning about the game and just trying to be more well-versed. And it’s worked out so far.”
Lade has been used in several roles this season by head coach Hans Backe, and the St. John’s product has put forth positive outings in each of them. Lade got his first few appearances at his more natural left back spot before filling in at left midfield and then at right back. That versatility has been key in making him a Rookie of the Year candidate and one of the league’s up-and-coming players.
WATCH: Shep Messing chats with Connor Lade
Juggling the responsibility that comes from playing so many positions has not come without its difficulties for Lade, however, and he credits his coaching staff and teammates for helping him adapt.
“It’s definitely been tough, but the coaching staff and the players have been so good,” Lade said. “They’re really good before every game at making sure you know what spots you have to be in and who we’re playing and what we’re going to be up against to the point that you can’t help but be prepared. So there’s really no excuse when you go on the field, because between the coaches and the players, everyone’s giving you advice.
Lade did not make his professional debut until more than a month into the season, coming off the bench to fill in for the injured Roy Miller in a draw with the San Jose Earthquakes in April. A week later, Lade started for the Red Bulls in a demoralizing 4-1 loss to rivals D.C. United and the youngster endured as poor a first half as he has had this year.
“My nerves were definitely very high before the game, especially being a big game with D.C. and all that,” Lade said. “The first half definitely wasn’t my best performance but I came in the locker room and I just put it behind me and realized you can’t do anything about it and just trying to come out and do better in the second half. “
WATCH: Lade featured on MSG Network
That type of attitude and the type of strong performances Lade has had in his 20 league games this season (not to mention a pair of US Open Cup matches in which he scored in and a big friendly against Tottenham Hotspur) are what Backe and his coaching staff are surely hoping to get more of in the future from other academy players.
Lade signed with New York as a Homegrown player last December after spending years in the academy, and he believes there is more talent in the pipeline ready to burst onto the scene.
“You look at the academy now, you’ve got guys in residency, you’ve got guys going to the top 10 schools in college and it’s really great to see because I’ve played with a lot of those players,” Lade said.
“I’ve seen them play and I know what they’re capable of. The U-16s just won a national championship and all signs point to more kids coming through the system and being able to hold onto these guys and just try to develop them and keep them here because that’s the main goal.
“Hopefully I can be here to help them along the way, because I’ve been in their shoes and I know what to expect coming in.”
After all, Lade has uncovered the secret as to what it takes to get on an MLS team and stick in his first year.
“So far it’s been everything expected and more,” Lade said. “I just wanted to come in and fight for some playing time in the beginning and I was able to kind of grind through the first couple of games, first couple of months and then start playing a bit and just doing everything I can to stay on the field.
"It’s been a great process so far and I’m really enjoying it and I’m looking forward to what’s going to happen in the next few months.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at Franco8813@gmail.com.