MLS rookies who come from the college ranks face the same problems that rookies in other North American pro sports face. Struggling to get minutes in their first season, if they can manage to get on the field, they often find the occasion is a bit too much at first, and even if they don't, they hit the "rookie wall" at some point and are unable to perform at a consistent level.
We saw that with Carlos Alvarez last season, who showed his class in some games but could not be counted on regularly on what was admittedly a very bad team last year.
But Chivas USA's latest top draft pick, Thomas McNamara has shown major promise in his first two games. Is it a small sample size? Of course. But his performance through two matches is as notable for its quality as it is for the versatility shown.
McNamara was an attacking midfielder in college, and it was a bit of a surprise that Chivas coach Wilmer Cabrera started the Clemson/Brown product as a forward alongside Erick Torres last week against the Chicago Fire in the opener. After a half in which the pair didn't really look like they were on the same page, they rampaged in the second half of that game, with Cubo drawing and scoring a PK and McNamara scoring his first goal in his MLS debut (he shares that in common with Alvarez, too).
After that game, Dan Kennedy spoke of McNamara's capability on an MLS stage: "You can tell he's not too nervous of a kid, the moment is not too big for him. He's pretty calm, pretty cool guy."
On Sunday, Chivas were put in a tough situation when Agustin Pelletieri was shown a straight red card in just the 13th minute against the Vancouver Whitecaps. As Cabrera and several players said after the match, it's not really in a team's plans to go down a man within the first 15 minutes, and adjustments happened on the fly.
The most notable positional shift in the game was that McNamara moved from playing up top to the midfield. As he explained to me after the game, given the choice between him or Cubo, a pure striker, dropping into the midfield, the choice was obvious.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. McNamara didn't just occupy a spot alongside Oswaldo Minda -- he slotted in seamlessly as a holding mid. Among his highlights was a slide tackle of Sebastian Fernandez early in the second half that was risky but executed perfectly.
After the game, he was relaxed as he explained that while he hadn't played holding midfielder for quite some time, his experience playing in central midfield, coupled with the support he got from Minda and central defenders Bobby Burling and Carlos Bocanegra allowed him to get the job done.
When asked about the learning curve, McNamara acknowledged he's adjusting, but seemed confident in his abilities to rise to the occasion.
"I felt a little more comfortable in this game than the first game. I think in each practice and as each week goes by I'm getting more comfortable and confident, and I think I've been improving. Hopefully it continues that way for the rest of the season," he said.
Will he hit the rookie wall? Find a patch of inconsistency? Probably. But one couldn't ask for a much better debut in MLS than that delivered by a versatile McNamara in his first two games.
Of course, his hair, dubbed the "McMullet," is reaching cult status already among fans. What do his teammates make of the 'do?
"That's a pretty dodgy haircut, but as long as he keeps scoring goals, we'll let it stand," Kennedy said following the Chicago win.
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