When Jay Heaps became head coach of the New England Revolution last December, one of the first things on his to-do list was draft a player in the 2012 SuperDraft that could contribute immediately.
And size wasn’t a prerequisite.
Heaps’ list of potential draftees initially included more than a dozen players, but by the end of the MLS Combine, he knew that if Kelyn Rowe lasted until the third pick, UCLA’s 5-foot-8, 150-pound sophomore midfielder would be his man.
“Kelyn just kept showing well,” Heaps told MLSsoccer.com. “At the combine, we saw his creativity. He’s aware where players are and his decision-making is fluid in transition. That’s something I personally really liked. As the draft unfolded, when he was available, we didn’t hesitate.”
Mike Levitt's Rookie of the Year Rankings
1. Kelyn Rowe (NE)
Not only did the 20-year-old have one of the great preseasons of any rookie in recent memory, he has transferred that form into quality appearances for the surging Revs with a goal and four starts in four games.
2. Tony Cascio (COL)
Yet another rookie with a goal in the early going. Cascio, the UConn graduate, has started four of the team's first five games, three of which have been victories.
3. Sebastien Velasquez (RSL)
Truly one of the most intriguing rookies of the young season and a definite to keep an eye on. The 21-year-old attended Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina before RSL invited him to December camp. Velasquez has huge upside.
Rowe, 20, who earned his first All-Conference selection as a freshman, spent the following spring with the Under-23 US national team and that summer training with Bundesliga club Cologne, has fit perfectly into a midfield laden with talent.
His versatility, passing ability and goal-scoring potential has allowed him substantial freedoms considering he is a rookie among veterans.
The Revolution, who managed only five league wins a year ago, went 6-0-1 this preseason, and Rowe piled on four goals and four assists from the right side of midfield. His preseason highlight came when he scored both goals in a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, including a left-footed curler into the top corner.
Though New England dropped their first two regular-season games, Heaps was adamant about not letting his team succumb to grumbling cynics (they had to play roughly 75 minutes of a 3-0 loss at Kansas City with 10 men, after all). Back-to-back wins in the next two games, including a 3-1 win at LA Galaxy that included Rowe’s first MLS goal, cemented belief in his free-flowing, attack-oriented philosophy.
And Rowe has become an integral part of the team’s success.
“We give Kelyn, Lee [Nguyen] and Benny [Feilhaber] a lot of freedom, but that freedom comes with a price,” Heaps said. “For me, the versatility is what midfield is really about. The interchange. When we’re playing well, we do have a holding midfielder, but the other three are free to find pockets and lanes.”
Though Rowe says he’s most comfortable in the playmaker role of the traditional No. 10, he has embraced Heaps’ faith and is happy just for the chance to play.
“Once Jay picked me, I knew I’d get my chance to shine early,” Rowe said. “In the back of my mind, I definitely told myself to make a run for it and make a big impact to start my career.”
That opportunistic mindset has worked for Rowe at every level of the game. He’s been turning heads since he was a kid playing a year above his age group in Federal Way, Wash.
But even when you’re that successful in high school, you’re going to take some knocks when you’re barely five-feet tall.
“They beat the crap out of me,” Row quipped. “I hit my growth spurt in high school, but it wasn’t that big, obviously. I just got used to it and learned to jump tackles and time headers so I could win them. You have to learn to be tough and get through tackles in different ways.”
His signature moment, meanwhile, was the goal he manufactured with a stunning on-the-run volley against Rutgers in the 2011 College Cup that former coach Jorge Salcedo can’t stop talking about.
“The thud off his foot,” recalled Salcedo, UCLA’s head coach and a former MLS defender. “You could hear the thud from the bench. It was incredible. I wish I could show more people that volley against Rutgers. Unbelievable technique. He didn’t score, but we did [on the rebound]. He had to let it fly over his head to his left foot and hit the full volley.”
In the second half of the Galaxy game, Rowe gave a national audience a glimpse of that technique. After LA failed to clear his in-swinging corner kick, the ball fell to him at the corner of the box. Without hesitation, he picked it clean, firing a low volley that keeper Josh Saunders spilled in front of goal. This time no crashing striker poked it home, but the wow factor was still there.
Salcedo took it one step further.
“Kelyn is someone that will always be in the conversation of being one of the best ever to play at UCLA, even though he only played for two years,” said Salcedo, who says he has played with, against, or coached every one of the 62 Bruins that have played in MLS. “Quality players score quality goals, and Kelyn has proven at every level of the game that he can score quality goals.”