Rookie striker Danny Mwanga came into the Union’s inaugural season with arguably the highest expectations of any member of the 2010 draft class, and rightfully so. After all, the now-19-year-old was selected number one overall, ahead of each of his peers.
This year’s class has proven to be a strong one, highlighted by Mwanga, DC’s Andy Najar, New York’s Tim Ream and Tony Tchani, LA’s Michael Stephens, Kansas City’s Teal Bunbury and Chicago’s Sean Johnson. San Jose’s Ike Opara was impressive as well before breaking his ankle on July 31.
At this time of year, the million-dollar question invariably becomes: Who has been the very best, thus deserving Rookie of the Year honors?
Without claiming to be unbiased, here’s why Mr. Mwanga deserves to take home the hardware:
While numbers rarely tell the full story, in this case they’re overwhelmingly in Mwanga’s favor. The dynamic youngster leads all rookies in goals with seven (next highest in Najar with five), is second in assists with four (Stephens leads with eight), and paces all rookies with 11 combined goals and assists (next best is Stephens with nine). Looking no further, go ahead and hand Mwanga the trophy.
But let’s dig deeper. It’s awfully tough to put up numbers when you’re not on the field, so it’s only fair to consider minutes played as context for discussing raw numbers. That’s when Mwanga really begins to shine.
Compare Mwanga’s per-minute numbers to Najar, who appears to be one of the Congolese striker’s chief competitors (plus it’s impossible to compare numbers with Ream, who is a defender), and what we have on our hands is nothing short of a rout.
Despite Mwanga’s nine-match goal scoring drought (partially due to a separated shoulder that has limited his minutes and effectiveness), he’s still scoring at an impressive clip of once every 190.4 minutes, compared to once every 360.6 minutes for Najar. Goals and assists combined? How about once every 121.2 minutes for Mwanga and once every 300.5 minutes for Najar? Percentage of shots that find the back of the net? 28 percent for Mwanga, 16 percent for Najar. Moving on.
The Clutch Factor
Only two of Mwanga’s seven goals haven’t been directly responsible for points in the standings. Beginning his career with three stoppage time goals in consecutive matches, Mwanga single-handedly accounted for two results in those matches, a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas and a 3-2 win in Houston in which he scored the game-winner. He then capped off the PPL Park opener with an insurance goal, before scoring early in a 1-1 draw vs Chivas USA. Throw in two 1-1 ties at home to Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids in the same week, and Mwanga’s tallies have been the difference between either a loss and a draw or a draw and a win on five separate occasions. That’s as many goals as the next best rookie … overall.
How about his four assists? Three came in go-ahead scenarios, one game-tying. The man simply knows when to step up.
Many others shine in this category as well, but Mwanga has that “it-factor.” You know, that he’s-only-showing-glimpses-of-his-scary-potential factor. As deadly and efficient as the former Oregon State star has been in stretches this season -- deadlier than anyone else in this year’s rookie crop -- it’s easy to see that Mwanga is nowhere near reaching his ceiling. With finishing ability that belies his age and experience, speed and strength to spare, deft dribbling skills that are only beginning to flourish and a levelheadness to compliment his natural gifts, the sky’s the limit for Mwanga.
Not to insinuate that potential should be a consideration in Rookie of the Year voting, but you want to look back at any given year’s top rookie and say “man, that was only the beginning.” Look at the list: Steve Ralston (1996), Ben Olsen (1998), Carlos Bocanegra (2000), Clint Dempsey (2004), Michael Parkhurst (2005), Jonathan Bornstein (2006), Maurice Edu (2007), Omar Gonzalez (2009).
Again, a number of others in this year’s class have immense potential -- a welcome development for the future of U.S. Soccer -- but the combination of Mwanga’s physical attributes and his performance this year suggest the most room for growth of the lot.
When you boil it down, what are you looking for in a Rookie of the Year? Raw numbers? Mwanga has the substantial edge there. Per-minute productivity? No contest. Contributions to the standings? Hard to compare attackers to defenders or goalkeepers, but the Union rookie has clearly scored when his club needed goals most. Someone who just looks like a Rookie of the Year candidate? Maybe not the most valid criteria, but Mwanga has that area covered and then some.
Ultimately, arguments will be made in favor of several top candidates and certain points favoring other candidates may very well be valid. But who has, all things considered, been the very best in 2010?
Danny Mwanga for Rookie of the Year.
Note: All statistics as of October 14.