When MLS announced its end-of-season awards shortlists, there were no Red Bulls to be found.
Cue entirely justifiable headscratching, bemusement, irritation, maybe even anger. Or laughter, because we've been watching media folk contort themselves around various arguments for Bradley Wright-Phillips not being all that before it was even necessary to make a case against him.
Once he did pull level with the all-time greatest single-season scorers in the history of MLS...well, there was basically a golf clap from the media who cover this league and everyone moved on to gush about Lee Nguyen.
And this is fine. There is no objective standard for determining what makes a player Most Valuable. Lee Nguyen is a very good player, and he had a great season, and he set a record for scoring goals from a position where you don't generally expect someone to score a lot of goals (ish..."midfielder" is a very loose definition of a variety of tactical roles...Thierry Henry has arguably been a midfielder for most of the past two seasons; Landon Donovan has pretty much played a unique position called "Landon Donovan" in his career in MLS). You like Lee Nguyen, you vote for him.
Or Robbie Keane. Or Obafemi Martins. Or Donovan. Or anyone else who you feel made a contribution to their team's cause that outstrips that of any other player in the league. There will almost always be a clutch of candidates of roughly equal merit contesting league MVP, and its primary value as an award is to throw a little light on that collective group of top performers.
Someone will win the league's MVP award, and it won't be BWP. We move on. Acclaim won't make him any better next season, just as it doesn't make his achievements this year any less all-time great. He did something for the ages this year, regardless of whether his contemporaries realize it.
And he had a shot. MLS releases quite long shortlists of players for every category of its end-of-season awards, with multiple candidates (if qualified) for every team in the league. Those votes have been tallied. The identity of each and every winner of each and every award is known. MLS's shortlist of three players per category is basically just a tease: here's the top three, but we're not telling in what order until the big reveal.
We may find out quite how far down the list of candidates BWP fell in the final voting, we may not.
On the subject of the also-rans in the end-of-the-year awards, however, we have found out something: Chris Duvall, the New York Red Bulls' rookie right back, finished fourth in the voting for MLS Rookie of the Year.
Huge thanks to everyone who has supported me this year. 4th place for rookie of the year is an honor but the MLS Cup is the primary focus
— Chris Duvall (@chrisduvall91) November 24, 2014
He wasn't a true contender for the title: Duvall got 3.87% of "club votes" (coaches and the like), 1.20% of media votes, and 1.11% of player votes. His "weighted total" was 6.18, which was some distance from third-placed Steve Birnbaum's 63.08.
There was no great campaign for Duvall to win Rookie of the Year. Largely because the top three candidates pretty much named themselves: Harrison Shipp was a regularly one of the better players on a terrible team; Birnbaum stepped in to anchor DC's defense when Jeff Parke went down injured; this year's RoY winner, Tesho Akindele transformed from an unknown to a player being fought over by the US and Canadian national teams.
Those guys had great seasons, and their achievements overshadow those of Duvall.
But there should be no question: Duvall is RBNY's rookie of the season. He dropped into the starting right back position on May 24, for the home game against the Portland Timbers. The Red Bulls lost that game. It was their third defeat in a row and fifth of the first 13 matches of the season.
After losing to the Timbers, RBNY had one more point (14) than games played (13).
Petke had turned to Duvall more out of frustration than anything else. Richard Eckersley started the year as first-choice right back, but was supplanted by Kosuke Kimura. Neither was great; Eckersley seemed destined to be remembered as one of the club's all-time worst off-season signings (a reputation subsequently retrieved, fortunately).
It should be noted Duvall, the 22nd overall pick of the 2014 SuperDraft, wasn't definitively projected as a squad member, let alone a potential starter when he was signed. Befitting his modest draft position, he was a player about whom RBNY had modest expectations: "We hope he comes in and does something to earn a contract. We'll bring him in and push the others," said Mike Petke after Duvall was selected.
That he got a look for the Timbers game was testament to his work in training. When Petke lost faith in Eckersley and Kimura, he still had several options: right back is one of a multitude of positions Connor Lade might conceivably play; Ibrahim Sekagya is an experienced and versatile defender (though not perhaps quick enough to be the overlapping full back Petke likes in his back line); in a pinch, Michael Bustamante might have been considered; Ambroise Oyongo has recently emerged as a right back for the Cameroon national team.
Petke watches these players in training. His defense wasn't working, and he threw a chance to Duvall which the rookie grabbed and didn't let go of until he hit a wall in September (the wall was called Landon Donovan).
College soccer doesn't adequately prepare its products for a professional season, so there is no mark against Duvall for running out of gas after 18 league starts (he has made 22 appearances this year; 19 in MLS, one in US Open Cup, and two in CONCACAF Champions League).
Instead, there should be nothing but gratitude.
Duvall was a crucial part of turning this season around. His direct contribution: steadying the ship. In the 18 game stretch that marks his tenure as the first-choice right back for RBNY in 2014, the team lost five games, drew five, and won seven. Not stellar, but a drastic improvement on the 3-4-5 record the club was carrying when he stepped into the lineup.
Furthermore, his ability to perform at an entirely acceptable level for a MLS right back, rookie or otherwise, appeared to give Mike Petke more confidence in his training-ground evaluations. Duvall opened the door for first-team debuts for Matt Miazga and Ambroise Oyongo. The former will get more minutes next year; the latter may well be playing for his country in the Africa Cup of Nations in January.
The truth about Petke's coaching instincts, as we saw in 2013, is that he tends to prefer experience over youth. Sure, he wanted to give youth a chance, but he didn't often do so as he guided a mostly veteran line-up to a Supporters' Shield.
Then Chris Duvall came along, and suddenly Petke was transformed into a guy who was all about the kids. Miazga got looks when the center of defense was banged up or misfiring; Oyongo displaced Bobby Convey and Jonny Steele as the go-to left-sided player not named Roy Miller or Thierry Henry.
In 2013, when his back was against the wall, Petke generally reached for experience over potential. It was a plan that worked out very well, and one wouldn't have blamed him for sticking with it. But in 2014, Petke flipped his script and pitched the younger players into the fray in situations of real need.
And there was real need for most of the season. Fourteen points from the first 13 games of the year is terrible. The club never really recovered from that start to seriously challenge for even the Eastern Conference title, let alone the Shield.
In 2013, RBNY picked up 20 points in its last eight games to win the regular season title. In 2014, it wasn't too far away from that pace: 16 points in the last eight matches. Those points were good enough for fourth in the East; the four extra points the 2013 team picked up in the same stretch the previous year would have merely lifted the Red Bulls to third this season.
In other words, the bad start put RBNY in a hole so deep it needed to raise its level to something exceptional (two points per game is Shield-winning form) just to sneak into the playoffs.
Duvall helped retrieve the situation, get sufficient points laid down that the team could at least stay in the hunt for the post-season once it found the wherewithal to kick into a high gear, and gave his coach a boost of confidence in his own talent-spotting abilities that helped bring through other young prospects who made their own contributions to the cause.
Red Bulls fans know this about Chris Duvall. One assumes, Red Bulls fans appreciate this about Chris Duvall. He is arguably the true unsung hero of this season. A season that will finish no worse than one game short of the very last game of the playoffs: a run only once matched and once exceeded in the 19-year history of this club.
What is heartening is that some small number of MLS coaches, players, media folk and whoever else gets a vote saw Duvall's contribution also, and thought it worth acknowledging.
He's still way under the radar in MLS, let alone in any broader context. But he's on the rise.
Akindele was the sixth player picked in the 2014 draft; Birnbaum got snapped up by DC with the second pick; Shipp was a homegrown signing Chicago would never have got close to if he'd been allowed to slip into the draft (the Fire traded away pick #8 for some defenders, but Shipp was highly-rated and likely would have been selected in the top five).
From the 22nd pick in the draft to fourth in the Rookie of the Year vote is a bigger jump in reputation - as implied by draft position - than Akindele, Birnbaum or Shipp enjoyed this year.
Just as BWP's MVP snub doesn't make him a less good player, finishing fourth in RoY voting doesn't make you the fourth-best rookie in the league. But it does suggest you're doing something right, and a few people have noticed.
Keep it up, Chris. And congratulations.