View from Couch: MLS Rookie of the Year race not as wide open as you think

Julian Gressel - Atlanta United - May 20, 2017

As we enter the home stretch of this 2017 MLS campaign, the award races have begun to take shape, with the final push readying to imprint its recency bias all over the votes.

There's a perception that Rookie of the Year is a wide-open race. It's not. Let's take a look:

Showing Flashes

Lalas Abubakar, Columbus Crew SC
Alex Crognale, Columbus Crew SC
Jackson Yueill, San Jose Earthquakes

The Crew SC defense could well have found a pair of foundational pieces at center back, with Homegrown defender Alex Crognale joining this year's MLS SuperDraft No. 5 overall pick, Lalas Abubakar, in earning more than a few "honorable mentions" in an informal ROTY poll of the Politboro. Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle felt most strongly, wondering why Crognale doesn't play more (16 matches | 12 starts | 1,062 minutes): "Seems like a guy Columbus could and should build around."

As for Quakes midfielder Jackson Yueill, who's begun to earn regular time under Chris Leitch, the potential is there, but the production has yet to fully translate.

The Late Break

Jonathan Lewis, New York City FC
Jake Nerwinski, Vancouver Whitecaps

Lot of love for these two … of late. It took a while for each to get on their respective parts of the field, but NYCFC forward Jonathan Lewis – this year's No. 3 overall pick – and Whitecaps right back Jake Nerwinski (No. 7) have quickly begun to establish their bonafides.

Lewis, whom a few folks feel could prove a future star with national team potential, most impressed ExtraTime Radio co-host David Gass: "Lewis has been a difference maker off the wing for NYCFC this season. He has learned to take pieces from Rodney Wallace's game to be a strong part of the unit even when not scoring. If NYCFC are going to top Toronto and head to MLS Cup, I think Lewis will be a key part of that."

Social guru Dan Stelly feels Nerwinski "looks like one of the best right backs in the league," pointing to three assists and some shutdown defense on high-level wingers; Doyle cites the "Hejduk-esque athleticism and stamina."

The catch for these two is this: It's a full-season award, and 300 minutes (Lewis) or 12 GP (Nerwinski) just isn't getting it done.

Minutes and Moments

Ian Harkes, D.C. United
Nick Lima, San Jose Earthquakes

Out in D.C., Homegrown midfielder Ian Harkes has claimed the middle of the park for his own. Per social stalwart Eric Goncalves: "Hard to find a lot of positives with D.C. United this season, but Ian Harkes has been one of them. Channeling his inner dad, he’s scored some bangers and has been a key cog in the United midfield." Harkes is a prime giant leap candidate for 2018, especially when you consider the club's late-season roster revamp.

Across the country, where Homegrown defender Nick Lima has locked down left back for the Quakes all season, we're seeing the value in absentia, as a thigh injury has put him on the sidelines of San Jose's attempted playoff push. Here's coach Chris Leitch:

“Nick has stepped in and contributed for us since Day One. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Nick since his time in the Academy and his combination of speed, physicality and intelligence is rarely seen in a 22-year-old.

“He has an incredibly bright future and his body of work this season on both the offensive and defensive ends speaks for itself. An unfortunate injury has held him out of action for the last few weeks, but he’d still be my choice for Rookie of the Year based on the immediate impact he’s had on this club.”

The Contenders

Abu Danladi, Minnesota United FC
Jack Elliott, Philadelphia Union

This year's No. 1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, MNUFC forward Abu Danladi has gradually gained more momentum, cracking a regular role in the starting lineup and also finding his scoring touch, with three of his five goals coming in the last month. At this point, considering where Minnesota lie in the standings, it's a likely possibility Danladi ends up with the most impressive statistical line of any rookie in the class.

But will it be enough?

Not for ESPN analyst Sebastian Salazar: "We can't be prisoners of the moment with Danladi. He's trending up, but there's context there – Danladi's uptick is almost completely synced up with when Christian Ramirez got hurt. He's coming back soon, so no guarantee that the opportunities from a minutes standpoint and a chances standpoint that [Danladi] has gotten the last six weeks, will he get over the next six weeks. It would take not just a continuation of this uptick, but for me, a massive uptick from the uptick."

On the other end of the pitch, both literal and proverbial, we have Philadelphia Union rookie Jack Elliott, an Englishman who played four years at West Virginia before Philly tabbed him – at No. 77 overall – in this year's SuperDraft. Elliott surprisingly snagged a spot in central defense early in the season, and refused to relinquish the post, playing a rookie-high 2,082 minutes in 24 matches (23 starts).

As coach Jim Curtin put it after a recent contest: "He's been one of our best players this year. He is, for me again, the Rookie of the Year. He's been great … whether it's been on the right side or the left side of center back. He's been a real rock back there for us and has been a leader.”

"For a young guy who was drafted 77th overall, he's really achieving some things right now. He's playing well in every game, and a guy that we really trust.”

Stelly calls Elliott "steady" while Goncalves opts for "heir to the throne" of rookie backline breakouts (following Keegan Rosenberry; wherefore art thou?). Doyle points to a solid performance for a "mostly solid" Union defense, and Opta's on/off statistics – with their usual small-sample-size caveat – show the Union 0-2-2 in the four games Elliott's been out, with 7 goals allowed (1.8/game) vs. 32 (1.3/game) in the other 24.

"I would actually put Jack Elliott No. 2," Salazar says. "Logic tells me it should be much easier for a defensive player to make an immediate contribution to an MLS team than an attacking player based on where the few, limited big-money bullets are spent in this league. It's a [higher] likelihood of much more competition for an attacking player joining an MLS team."

And yet, Salazar concedes, the deck is stacked against Elliot – outside of Austin Berry (2012), no defensive player has truly threatened the award since Sean Franklin (2008) and Omar Gonzalez (2009) went back-to-back to cap the previous decade.

"Jack Elliot's stats are pretty impressive. If you look at what the Union are like with him and what they are defensively without him, full credit there. But then you get into the conversation of, 'What is his team doing?'"

The answer, per the standings, is "not much."

The Pick

Julian Gressel, Atlanta United

The Atlanta United rookie stands alone. He did in our midseason straw poll and does again down the stretch. Not even their first choice on draft day (that would be No. 2 overall selection and Generation adidas signee Miles Robinson), midfielder Julian Gressel has managed to appear in every one of the expansion side's 25 matches in this inaugural season – perhaps one of 2017's truly shocking MLS developments considering all the attention (and dollars) Atlanta paid to their attack.

Gressel has forced his way into time, somewhere, every match Tata Martino has rolled 'em out there, and, given Atlanta's double-game-week-every-week finishing flourish, he figures to continue playing a key role in a likely playoff run.

"Let's be honest, he's not a rookie," Salazar says. "He's a kid who, because of his background [in Germany] has played full seasons of top-level soccer and had to fight for spots before. You see him on the ball, and you see a technical calm that is very, very rare and a speed of thought and a speed of play that is extremely rare coming out of our college system. He is on the same wavelength as the guys around him, and every touch seems to be one thought ahead.

"To keep up with the guys around him, and look that smooth, never really look out of place, that's just such a testament to his quality."

Described by the Politboro as "a key cog" who plays "well beyond his years" and praised for a two-way presence that makes him "the obvious pick", Gressel has rolled up three goals and six assists, which should provide all the statistical base he'll need to stave off any late runs by the competition.

With Atlanta landing what looks to be a long-term piece at No. 8, Gressel's relative cost and positional flexibility should allow plenty of roster maneuvering around him as ATL UTD attempt to build on the successes of this opening campaign. It says here that Gressel's development – and impact – go down as one of the most impressive. He'll have a trophy to prove it.