With the end of the regular season behind us and playoffs coming up soon, it is time for us to reflect on the season that was and talk about the year's awards. D.C. United have candidates for many of these awards, but today we will start with Rookie of the Year, and D.C. United's candidate is center back Steve Birnbaum. Birnbaum was drafted with the second pick in the MLS SuperDraft, and was considered the most "MLS-ready" prospect in the draft. After the injury to Jeff Parke, Birnbaum has stepped in next to Bobby Boswell and helped anchor D.C. United to the second-best defense in the league.
Steve Birnbaum was a late contender to burst onto the scene for Rookie of the Year, with early season favorites like Patrick Mullins and Harrison Shipp dominating the early conversation. Mullins quickly faded from conversation, but another candidate burst into the picture just as Birnbaum was starting to get some notice: FC Dallas' Tesho Akindele. Nick Hagglund was considered to be a candidate for awhile, but Toronto FC's general collapse will prevent him from getting much consideration.
The case for Steve Birnbaum
One word: consistency. After stepping in for Jeff Parke in June, Birnbaum has started every regular season game. He is the fourth highest-ranked play on the whoscored.com stats for D.C. United, behind only Fabian Espindola, Christian, and Chris Rolfe. He has been excellent in the air. surprisingly quick on his feet, and puts himself in good positions to block shots so that they don't become shots on goal. Finally, like young attackers do, both Harrison Shipp and Tesho Akindele have gone through long cold spells throughout this season, whereas Birnbaum has had a bad game here and there and then immediately bounced back. Shipp, for example, went without a goal in half of July and all of August and September and Akindele's hot streak lasted for a month and a half in July and August.
The case against Steve Birnbaum
He is not a flashy player, an attacking player, or a flashy attacking player. He is not winning defensive plays because of freakish athleticism, but instead by playing smart and positioning well. This will require voters to sample more of Birnabum's body of work to get a true appreciation for his play. The other two leading candidates, Tesho Akindele and Harrison Shipp, both have reels of goals and assists (including both having hat-trick games) that are easier for voters to digest, compare, and reward. Both also have similar numbers to last year's ROTY, Dillon Powers.
Chance of winning
70%. At the end of August, when Akindele's hot streak was still in everyone's mind, MLSsoccer.com went with Birnbaum in fourth place behind Akindele, Shipp, and Nick Hagglund. Since then, Akindele has no goals and one assist, and Shipp has one goal and one assist. Birnbaum, on the other hand, has helped D.C. United's defense through a brutal stretch in August and September, helped locked down the group stage of the Concacaf Champions League, and helped D.C. United to the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the next edition of the CCL. MLSsoccer.com recognized this in their September rookie rankings, jumping Birnbaum to first, and he has continued to perform while the other candidates have faded. There is only one choice for 2014 MLS Rookie of the Year, and his name is Steve Birnbaum.