The ‘rookie wall’ is something that often gets trumpeted as a narrative in various sports.
As professional seasons go longer, rookies enter uncharted territory for how long they’ve been in-season. Sometimes performance takes a dip and the ‘rookie wall’ is to blame. Some growing pains occur and adjustments to the rigors of a long professional season are made.
The Chicago Fire entered the season with six young players new to Major League Soccer on the roster, three of which have earned fairly regular playing time. Brandon Vincent began the season as a spot starter before earning more consistent minutes lately. Rodrigo Ramos was a regular earlier in the season, but hasn’t played in the past six MLS matches. Jonathan Campbell earned his starting spot at centerback very quickly and hasn’t given it up since.
Even Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave his own version of the rookie wall when talking about young players like Ramos and Campbell.
“I think Jonathan Campbell continues to give everything he has,” Rodriguez said on Thursday. “I just think he’s tired. I think he’s mentally tired, but even in the game against D.C. where the backline struggled under the weight of playing with 10 men and three games in eight days, he still gave everything he had. He’s a smart enough young man to start to learn, ‘I have to play differently when I’m tired.’ I see progress there in a moment where the result was difficult.”
While Rodriguez didn’t explicitly say Campbell’s performance has dropped, he did say the North Carolina product was tired. That’s not how Campbell sees it though.
The Fire’s 6-2 loss at D.C. last weekend was the team’s third match in eight days. Midfielder Khaly Thiam picked up a red card in the first half, which put more stress on an already stretched team. Campbell thinks that had more to do with any signs of fatigue than the long season.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say hitting a wall,” Campbell said after Saturday's 3-0 win against Philadelphia. “I think it’s just when you have games really tight, obviously a lot of people are going to be tired at this point and when you have three games in (eight) days I think everyone will be feeling it. After you’ve been playing for a whole season it’s going to be very difficult. I think those points are just really hard and you have to do a lot with recovery.”
Campbell is second on the Fire both in games played (25) and games started (23), only behind Johan Kappelhof by one in each category. The Fire have asked a lot of the rookie defender and for the most part he has answered the call.
Campbell says he has put a lot of focus on recovery and doing all the right things to prepare his body for the grind of a professional athlete. The veteran goalkeeper behind him, Sean Johnson, has noticed that.
“I think he’s a model professional,” Johnson said of Campbell. “Even though it’s his first year he does everything he can to make sure he’s the best he can be when he steps on the pitch. For us to support him as a first-year player, he’s done a fantastic job so he’ll do what he can to recover and be 100 percent every single game.”
Adjusting to the little things in preparing for each match and day of training is something Campbell says he has prioritized.
“From the beginning I’ve tried to focus a lot on recovery, just doing things off the field and making sure that I’m ready for the next practice, the next game,” Campbell said. “Mainly I was just trying to stay very consistent with that so it hasn’t changed too much, but it’s pretty difficult to maintain doing that day in, day out.”