Every season, the likelihood of a first-year pro earning significant playing time grows smaller and smaller in MLS. With the draft not relevant and franchises seeking to trust international talent instead of developing from within, the Rookie of the Year race is tough to predict this coming MLS season.
Only 30 players joined the league via the draft this season, with another 30 signing deals via the homegrown route (as of March 1).
So which first-year players – that are eligible for the Rookie of the Year race – can emerge on top. Eight candidates come to mind.
D Tomas Hilliard-Arce, LA Galaxy
The heart of Stanford’s back line over the past four seasons, Hilliard-Arce enters the 2018 campaign as a backup center back on a Galaxy side that’s rebuilding. While the defender had his ups and downs making the move to the pro level, LA doesn’t exactly have a plethora of options in his spot. Even if he’s not in the starting lineup from day one, Hilliard-Arce could certainly end up seeing big minutes this year and getting his name into the race.
F Jon Bakero, Chicago Fire
Previous Hermann Trophy winners have had their ups and downs when it comes to MLS. And while it may be a bit much to suggest Bakero as a strong candidate to shine as a rookie, he may have the opportunity early on. Getting a run as the No. 10 and out on the flank for the Fire in preseason, if he can make the early adjustments and start to influence the game in the final third, Bakero’s ability to score could get him in the conversation if he puts up numbers.
M/F Christopher Mueller, Orlando City SC
There is a long line of attackers that Orlando City can call upon this season in the front three, from Sacha Kljestan, Josue Colman, Justin Meram or Pierra da Silva. So if Mueller, the leading assist-man in college soccer last year, gets his chance to play, he has to make the most of them. However, he has plenty of zip, motivation and is someone that competes with a chip on his shoulder – something that Jason Kreis is sure to love as his head coach. Mueller can play up front in a two-forward line, or as a 10, 7 or 11, versatility that is sure to be helpful in the upcoming campaign. Toss in the fact that he’s an attacking player that could put up goals or assists, and it’s sure to catch attention.
D Grant Lillard, Chicago Fire
Defenders are always in with a shout when it comes to rookies getting playing time, especially if they enter the campaign as battle-teste college veterans. And that fits the bill for Lillard, a four-year star at Indiana that has the tools to be successful in MLS. The homegrown signing for the Fire, Chicago only has a couple of center backs ahead of him in the pecking order, Lillard has a clear path to minutes. However, he does start the season behind the 8-ball, having picked up a slight knock ahead of the 2018 season.
Can the outside backs at the expansion team play their way into the conversation? Both Moutinho (left back) and Blackmon (right back) have experienced MLS veterans to compete with, with Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour also on the franchise's roster. But that gives them both time to adjust to the new level, and either has the tools to stand out this season and eventually earn significant minutes. Per this story, Moutinho could be poised to start the opener this weekend, and provided he can adapt physically, could emerge as the clubhouse leader early in the season. The Portuguese defender is far and away the best soccer player in the rookie class, the task then becomes being consistent enough to stick.
D Aaron Herrera, Real Salt Lake
The Rookie of the Year has to have a couple of things going for him: ability and opportunity. That’s something that Aaron Herrera has in 2018, with a skillset to excel at right back and the potential of playing time with Tony Beltran hurt. He still has to beat out Adam Henley, a new signing, for the starting spot, though the homegrown signing out of New Mexico is capable of working his way into the running.
D Wyatt Omsberg, Minnesota United FC
Perhaps it’s a stretch to suggest that an Ivy League product can step up into the MLS ranks and stand out as one of the best first-year players in the league. But Omsberg has the potential, quickness and frame to come in, adjust to the league and eventually excel. The 6-foot-4 central defender has to add a bit of muscle to compete and shutdown strikers in the league, though he’ll have the time, starting the season behind the likes of Brent Kallman and Francisco Calvo in the pecking order. If the Dartmouth product adjusts and impresses, he could be in line to start when Calvo leaves to compete at this summer’s World Cup with Costa Rica.