ALSO FILE UNDER: This thing might just go away in 5 or 6 years
As player acquisition tools evolve in Major League Soccer, January’s annual SuperDraft seems destined to shrink in relevance. Even this year the process already is shrinking, literally, reduced to just two rounds. That’s down from four rounds just two years ago.
The reduction in rounds is partially because more teams are participating now, 19 this go-round as expansion Montreal joins for Major League Soccer’s 17th campaign. Just six years ago, only 12 teams were choosing from the litter.
But the diminishing draft is also about process evolution. Rosters now are increasingly stocked with signings from the teams’ youth academies. And clubs are filling more holes through the recently created re-entry draft (for players out-of-contract or those whose options have been declined by their current teams). And that’s not to mention the recently expanded Designated Player options. Why take a college kid, after all, when you can go pluck Robbie Keane from the English Premier League?
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But the draft (it’s the "MLS SuperDraft" officially) still has its place. And based on last year’s proceedings, the top 6-8 players selected can have an immediate impact, either as a consistent starter or as one of the first names called off the bench.
It all goes down Thursday from the Kansas City, where Montreal, Vancouver, New England and Toronto (in that order) have the first four picks. (ESPN2, noon ET)
"This is still important tool," Chicago Fire coach Frank Klopas told me by phone earlier this week from Fort Lauderdale, where the annual MLS player combine was wrapping up. "Maybe two or three years down the road, as more teams get the opportunity to develop and sign more home-grown talent, maybe you’ll see more players getting signed that way. But for now, this is still important."
MLS commissioner Don Garber hasn’t minced words about it either, calling the draft and its place in things an "evolutionary process." Sure, seven of the Galaxy’s 11 starters during the successful MLS Cup final in November came originally from the draft. But it’s changing, and the commissioner hopes in 10-20 years that most roster spots will be filled through the teams’ developmental academies.
"In the early days of the league, almost every player came out of college or was an international star," Garber told MLSSoccer.com while in Florida. "Today there is really a nice mix of players that are coming out of the college ranks, they’re coming out of the Generation adidas program, they’re coming as youth internationals and all of those signings have an impact on what the draft looks like. But the draft is still an important part of our league’s structure.
For expansion Montreal, director of soccer operations Matt Jordan has shown little desire to trade out of that top spot, despite plenty of apparent interest (perhaps from clubs testing the new guys, hoping they might be hooked by something appetizing). Barring something unforeseen – and last-minute, draft-day trades do frequently happen – they’ll probably take University of Akron striker Darren Mattocks.
But it’s no slam dunk. Duke's Andrew Wenger, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 and 2010 and a U.S. Olympic candidate, is the other consensus top pick. Wenger may be this year’s Perry Kitchen; the versatile Blue Devil looks like professional stock already, one who can play center back or right back, but who may end up as a holding midfielder. That’s just what everybody said last year of Kitchen, whose rookie year at D.C. United was a highlight around RFK in 2010.
Theirs is always the possibility of a curve ball. In this case, his name could be Chandler Hoffman, a UCLA striker whose instincts and timing around goal are drawing comparisons to Mexican international and Manchester United striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. High praise indeed. No one would be too shocked to see Hoffman go ahead of Mattocks or Wenger, not after Vancouver stunned the room last year, defying convention and consensus and taking a flier on project-striker Omar Salgado. (The jury is still way out on that one.)
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, a big beast of a center back from UConn and Kelyn Rowe, a technical gifted creator from UCLA, are other likely top picks. And like Hoffman, South Florida’s Dom Dwyer also performed well at the combine, so he may have moved up on some lists over the last few days.
Others may have seen their stock drop while in Fort Lauderdale. But Klopas says the wise coaches, GMs and technical directors won’t read too much into a couple of bad days, where fitness or system unfamiliarity can gum up the works for some individuals.
"Like always, you have to make sure you have an opportunity to see players in their own environment," Klopas said. "Because you might not see them in top form at the combine. You have to have scouted them through the (college) season, see them two or three times before you even come here."
Despite the usual last-minute scuttlebutt over trades or hot names from the combine, Mattocks, technically sound and blessed with game-changing speed, would be the safe pick for Montreal. Not only is he the consensus as top selection, but everyone knows that Akron men tend to be safe choices. Clearly, whatever Akron coach Caleb Porter is doing in daily sessions, it is effectively preparing his men for a higher level. One year ago Akron’s Darlington Nagbe, Kitchen and Zarek Valentin became the second, third and fourth choices in the 2011 SuperDraft. Each one started at least 21 games in MLS last year.
While no team is likely to dominate this year’s draft the way Akron a year ago, Louisville, UCLA, Indiana, Creighton and North Carolina all figure to have multiple selections.
As always, Generation Adidas signees will be pure gold. The budding stars who sign as part of the league’s development initiative are salary-cap exempt, providing clubs the opportunity to develop them without denting the pay structure.
Toronto, with picks Nos. 4 and 12 overall, is the only club with multiple first-round choices for now. Ironically, it was TFC and coach Aron Winter who showed last year that gems can also be found toward the bottom of the selections. They took little-known, diminutive Ecuadoran winger Joao Plata. With three goals and five assists, and with Plata still just 19 years old, his future looks bright.