With Nick DeLeon on the shortlist for the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year, D.C. United became the only club in League history to boast four consecutive finalists in as many seasons. Chris Pontius (2009 finalist), Andy Najar (2010 winner) and Perry Kitchen (2011 finalist) are current teammates who were once Rookie of the Year contenders. Three other clubs – Columbus (1996-98), New England (2003-05) and New York (2001-03) – have had Rookie of the Year finalists in three straight years, but United now stands atop that category.
While DeLeon, Kitchen and Pontius were all first-round selections out of the MLS SuperDraft in their respective years, Najar is a Generation adidas product. On March 22, 2010, Najar became the second player to sign directly with the senior squad from the D.C. United Academy. Standout goalkeeper Bill Hamid was the club’s first-ever homegrown player to make the jump in 2009.
“If you look at the players who are a big part of our success, you can start by looking at players we have drafted in the last several years, as well as to our successful Academy,” said General Manager Dave Kasper. “I view Bill [Hamid] and Andy [Najar] as equivalent to the No. 1 overall draft pick in Major League Soccer in any respective year in the last four years.”
Pontius, selected seventh overall in 2009, notched eight goals and six assists across all competitions in his inaugural campaign. Najar, who at 17-years-old in 2010 became the ninth-youngest player to start in an MLS match, had an equally impressive first year. He scored seven goals and tallied two assists across all contests, and would go on to earn the club’s Volkswagen MVP, Volkswagen Fans’ Choice and Golden Boot awards. In 2011, Kitchen, a University of Akron product along with teammate Chris Korb, became the only rookie in United’s 16-year history to lead the team in minutes played (2,276) during his inaugural season.
“Our strategy starting in 2009 was to build the foundation of our team with youth who could compete for trophies together for many years,” said Kasper. “We look for guys who can fit into our philosophy and overall style of play, guys who can bring a lot of energy on both sides of the ball, players who can think creatively and guys who, we believe, are going to bring their lunch pails to work everyday.”
And there was no drop-off with DeLeon. Scoring six goals – a D.C. United rookie record – and adding four assists in the regular season, DeLeon has proven that he has what it takes. Two additional strikes in this year’s playoffs – United’s first playoff berth in five years – have been crucial for the squad, and are a big part of the reason why the team is on the verge of returning to its first MLS Cup since 2004.
Of DeLeon, Kasper remarked: “We just saw an amazing amount of talent, a player who we thought had a massive ceiling and a guy who is just a warrior.”