Ask any veteran in the league, and they will tell you that the Major League Soccer season is a grind. At the 2012 season's halfway point, some Crew rookies are starting to find that out as they hope to avoid the dreaded "rookie wall".
"It's been a grind for almost a couple weeks now," rookie midfielder Kevan George said. "It's obviously longer than the college season, and now you're really starting to really feel the effects on your body."
"(The MLS season) is definitely a lot longer than I'm used to," added forward Aaron Schoenfeld. "Your body starts to have little aches and pains. Every day is a grind. The college season is a fourth of this, if that. There's not nearly as many practices. It's a big transition."
Crew head coach Robert Warzycha has relied heavily on rookies at various moments throughout the first half of the season, including the season opener in Colorado. Midfielder Kirk Urso started the Black & Gold's first five matches and took most set pieces during that time, while Finlay made his debut 12 minutes into the Colorado match to replace an injured Dilly Duka.
"Coming into camp, my goal was to make the team and compete. Obviously, you're fighting for a spot, (starting in the season opener) was really awesome," Urso said of his first MLS experience. "I was grateful for the opportunity."
"I feel like I lost that rookie tag after the first game being subbed in after 12 minutes, because at that point, you're there," Finlay added. "I feel the pressure now that (the Crew coaches) have seen me as a player that can play. You're not just a rookie anymore, you have to play beyond what a rookie would play. That's where the pressure has been, meeting those expectations that I have for myself and the ones that the coaching staff and we have as a team."
Additionally, central midfielder Kevan George was thrust into the Crew lineup when Danny O'Rourke went down with an ankle injury in Seattle on May 23. Forward Aaron Schoenfeld has made nine appearances and three starts for the Black & Gold. The Crew rookies have embraced the pressure that comes with the responsibilty of contributing on the field for Robert Warzycha.
"All of us rookies, we've all played a very important role this year, maybe more than some other teams. It's definitely put a little added pressure on us," Finlay said.
Injuries have also affected the development of many of Crew rookies. Urso has been sidelined by groin surgery received in May, while Schoenfeld has missed seven matches with a foot injury and Finlay has been fighting through the rookie wall after missing almost a month with a concussion.
"After I had the concussion in May, I was out a little while and then you get back, you're trying to get back into shape after two weeks," Finlay explained. "Then it really kind of hit me like, 'Wow. We have 18 games left still.' at that point. I think that's when I kind of hit my wall. Now, I'm just trying to fight through it to realize we still have half the season left at this point."
Added Urso, "It sucks, there's no way around it. To go from getting picked up late in the draft, to starting and contributing, and then to be out completely and hurt--it's really frustrating. Injuries are just a part of (soccer)."
Homegrown signing Ben Speas sat out the first two-and-a-half months of the season after sports hernia surgery and is finally getting back into the groove.
"Now that I'm back, I'm excited. I'm just happy to be out there. I'm working hard every day, trying to help the team. I don't think I was frustrated, but I definitely missed (playing)," the two-time NCAA Champion said.
Although fellow Homegrown signing Matt Lampson hasn't seen MLS action yet, the Ohio State alum has been in the gameday 18 in all but two matches this season. The tutelage of playing with veteran Andy Gruenebaum has paid off for the young goalkeeper.
"It's a great experience, and I think it's been very valuable. I've seen my play progress throughout the year, because with the opportunity to play in the 18, I get a lot of reps that way," Lampson said. "Hopefully with these types of experiences and learning from Andy, I can eventually be the number one in the next few years."
One of the struggles rookies face is that the biggest chance to prove themselves comes in the MLS Reserve League, where the matches are few and far between.
"I think the most important part of being a goalkeeper, is getting games because you can only do so much in training. Replicating game-like situations is a lot more difficult," Lampson explained. "The reserve games and reserve league is very important for young players and for injured players coming back. I take what I can get and learn from every game that we have."
What's more, without reserve games coming each week, it is difficult for rookies that aren't in the regular gameday 18 to keep matchfit.
"It's not easy. Probably three or four times a week, I do fitness after practice which isn't the most fun, but that's what happens," Speas elaborated. "You've got to be ready if (the coaches) call on you and I feel like I'm ready if they need me. I'll be ready to help the team. I feel like I can go out there and help the team out for sure."
With the struggles that come with adjusting to MLS, the Crew rookies have leaned on each through the growing pains.
"We're just kind of learning the ropes," Speas said. "It's nice to have other guys who are going through the same things."
Added Finlay, "We definitely encourage each other, because we know we're capable and we hope to be together in the future."