If Mark McKenzie wins the MLS Rookie of the Year award, it will be an extremely rare event. Although defenders have typically fared well in Rookie of the Year voting, the league is currently on its longest ever streak without giving the award to a defender; the last to win was former Union player Austin Berry in 2012. McKenzie, though, is not just a defender: He's a teenaged, homegrown defender. The list of homegrown players that have won Rookie of the Year? Najar and Jordan Morris. The list of teenagers that have won? Just Najar.
There's a logic, of course. MLS used to pull far more heavily from the college ranks than it does now. But as teen sensations have hit the league with increasing regularity over the past few seasons, it's intriguing to see how the way they are integrated into teams — often, like Anthony Fontana, slowly and over multiple seasons — has prevented them from making much of a mark on the Rookie of the Year award. But McKenzie is that exceptional player who, thrown into the fire, emerges like Wolverine: Burned, already healing, and immediately moving forward with more determination than before. His first start in Dallas was one long recovery run, and his mistake against Atlanta on the road led to the absurdity and red cards that followed. In each case, McKenzie recovered with uncanny speed. The second half in Dallas showed marked improvement, and his performance as part of the nine remaining men that frustrated Atlanta was, frankly, incredible.
McKenzie's success is particularly remarkable because the fire he was thrown into was not already under the control of veteran, experienced firefighters. To his left, McKenzie finds top young talent Auston Trusty in the midst of his first MLS season. To his right: Keegan Rosenberry coming off a season fraught with defensive issues that ended with an extended benching. In front of the back line sits Haris Medunjanin, a deep-lying distributor that nobody will confuse with a typical destroyer-type defensive midfielder. For comparison, when Justen Glad became a regular MLS starter at 19, he had 2300 minutes of Kyle Beckerman in front of him.
And then there's this: McKenzie's likely competitors for the Rookie of the Year award can point to their basic statistical contributions. Orlando City's Chris Mueller has three goals and seven assists, while front-runner Corey Baird has eight goals and five assists. McKenzie's case for the award doesn't have such a straightforward narrative.
Or does it...
How many teenagers were part of a back line that shut out three playoff teams, and five overall? How many were in the top ten in pass completion percentage among center backs? How many held a 100 goal scorer to zero shots and zero touches in the box?
McKenzie will always stand out for his quickness — he goes zero to 60 as fast as any central defender in the league, and his top end speed is capable of moving easily with lightning bugs like Atlanta's Miguel Almiron. This means the young center back could lean on his physical gifts rather than making in-season and in-game adjustments. But this is not what has happened in 2018.
The final match of the season provides a perfect example. Early on, David Villa isolated McKenzie and used a classy hesitation move to create space for a dangerous cross. It worked. Later in that same half, Villa tried a similar maneuver in the open field. As soon as the striker slowed, McKenzie closed the space between them, but he remained a half-yard goal side of Villa and easily extracted the ball from the Spanish legend a moment later. McKenzie's season-closing battle against Villa was one of many showdowns with MLS's best. He faced off against Zlatan, Giovinco, Wright-Phillips, Josef Martinez, Kei Kamara, Nemanja Nikolic, Gyasi Zardes. He lost some battles and won others. But for a player who had less than 1000 USL minutes and only 5 college starts under his belt entering the 2018 MLS season, that quite a leap in opponent quality, and McKenzie's response has been nothing if not impressive.
While six of Baird's eight goals came against Toronto, Orlando, pre-Rooney DC, pre-winning streak Seattle, Colorado, and end-of-season New England, and Mueller contributed all of three assists and zero goals after June, the only caveat in McKenzie's case for Rookie of the Year is that sometimes he looked like a first year player against very good teams. Or, look at it this way: How many non-playoff teams did the Union lose to with McKenzie in the starting lineup? Two: Zlatan's Galaxy and Toronto FC.
The final argument for McKenzie's Rookie of the Year campaign is the simplest, though perhaps the most overlooked. Many believe that the MVP award should go to a player whose team makes the postseason (though this quickly becomes problematic when Zlatan puts up one of the greatest seasons in history and gets left off of ballots because the Galaxy built their team to win a fantasy league rather than an actual soccer league). Yet reaching the playoffs -- and how that is done -- is absent from the Rookie of the Year discussion. McKenzie's competitors either made the postseason because of the Galaxy's defense or missed it entirely because, in an impressive achievement, their defense was worse than the Galaxy's. Meanwhile, McKenzie helped his team lock up a playoff spot after 32 games, and with a roster that many preseason pundits questioned.
Mark McKenzie may not win the Rookie of the Year award, but he deserves it. What Baird and Mueller — both 22 years old with impressive and extensive college resumes — achieved in 2018 is laudable, and very worthy of note. But what McKenzie accomplished is borderline unprecedented in the modern era of Major League Soccer (particularly given that, unlike Trusty, McKenzie was not the locked-in starter from opening day). He won the starting job twice, and he won it because of his mental strength as much as his physical tools.
Look beyond the basic statistics and there is only one conclusion: Mark McKenzie was the most impressive rookie in Major League Soccer in 2018.