The offseason in MLS always seems interminable, yet gets shorter each year. The 2012 season ended a mere five weeks ago, yet we're already gearing up for the rapidly approaching MLS SuperDraft (January 17th, starting at noon). Many teams are planning to start their preseason camps the day after the draft. So much for the winter break, amirite?
For D.C. United, the SuperDraft has been a great source of quality talent over the past few years. Say what you will about Dave Kasper's work as a GM - particularly when it comes to players with no connection to MLS - but United has been among MLS's best at turning draft picks into good players. Nick DeLeon (2012), Perry Kitchen, Chris Korb (both 2011), and Chris Pontius (2009) are all important players for United. Even our last bust of a first round pick - Bryan Arguez back in 2007 - ended up netting the club a $500,000 transfer fee (thanks Hertha Berlin!).
Other than Korb, however, all of those picks were early in the first round. Kitchen fell to United at #3 back in 2011, while DeLeon and Pontius were both taken 7th overall. In most years, a pick that early that doesn't turn into a starter should be viewed as a mistake.
Things are a lot different when you're in the situation United faces this time around: Picking 17th overall in a draft pool that can safely be called "shallow." This is not the 2011 draft, from which nine of the first eleven picks are now starting for their respective clubs. With potential #1 picks like Patrick Mullins (staying at Maryland for one more year) and Gyasi Zardes (signed by the LA Galaxy as a Homegrown player) off the board, the chances of DC picking a player who can help us in 2013 are already somewhat dicey that late in the first round.
The more time I've spent thinking about this, the more I have become interested in seeing the #17 pick shopped around. In MLS, "first round pick" still carries a certain value, even if the league has almost doubled in size since 2004. I think we're in a situation where the player we take at #17 is, at best, a long-term project to become a reliable mid-level starter (think: Korb). At worst, we whiff on the pick and end up cutting the guy loose at the end of the preseason. That's not unrealistic; players like Corey Hertzog and Victor Estupiñan are out of MLS right now, and they went 13th and 14th as recently as 2011. The last two #17 picks - Enzo Martinez (RSL) and Bobby Warshaw (Dallas) - are not likely to even make the gameday squad with their clubs at the start of 2013.
I don't want to hype the value of the #17 pick on the open market; we're not going to acquire a starting player for it unless someone does something monumentally stupid. Instead, if I were making the trade inquiries, I'd be looking for young players who are capable of making our bench today. Replacing Dudar as our third center back, or finding a true right midfielder to give us depth now that Andy Najar is a) a full-time right back and b) may be leaving soon anyway...that's more the sort of player I'm talking about.
We could also go for allocation money or perhaps a young player not quite ready for regular substitute action along with an international roster spot. Just as an example, FC Dallas added Stephen Keel to a group of center backs that includes George John, Matt Hedges, and Ugo Ihemelu (not to mention several other players who have filled in there without causing a disaster). Keel won't start in Dallas and he won't start here, but if Emiliano Dudar isn't coming back, we could do worse (and pay a higher salary than Keel's $65,000).
Another potential player to go after would be New England's Ryan Guy, who is a natural right midfielder but filled in ably at right back, central midfield, left midfield, and even as a forward in 2012. We're looking for players that would fill a need on the roster while approaching a Lewis Neal level of play at a similar price tag.
That's not to say that actually drafting a player would be the worst use of this pick. There are players with promise that should be available. Travis Clark, who knows more about this crop of NCAA players than just about anybody, brought up Virginia forward Will Bates as well as Georgetown duo Tommy Muller (a center back) and Jimmy Nealis (a left back capable of playing left midfield). Bates probably has more potential than Long Tan - who at 24 should be further along in his development - while Muller and Nealis would both be in the discussion of "best player available" by the time we're picking, which fits United's approach to drafting.
There's also the possibility of players like Jose Gomez out of Creighton and UConn's Carlos Alvarez being around when we go on the clock. Both are "undersized" (Gomez, at 5'9" and 155 pounds, is basically the size of Ben Olsen, so take that with a grain of salt) and come with questions about work rate. However, both are right at the top of the pile in terms of skill on the ball and creativity. Given that United isn't even sure that Rafael Augusto will be back for 2013, these are players that could get minutes if they're willing to commit to the hard work Olsen demands from all of his players. It's easier to get a skilled player to work hard than it is to get a hard-working oaf to become skillful, after all. (Edited to note that taking Gomez carries a risk, as he has a trial with Mexican champions Club Tijuana)