Ahead of each MLS SuperDraft, every year we get to pose as D.C. United and pick college players. It’s fun, and occasionally you even get it exactly right (and other times, you miss badly). Last year, without the option to trade up like United eventually did, we selected Fabian Herbers, who went on to be a solid contributor for the Philadelphia Union as a rookie.
This year, United has three picks in the first two rounds (mercifully, our mock draft does not extend past that point). Their first round pick - the 12th overall - is just one earlier than where they entered draft day last year (at 13th overall). The difference this year is having the 34th and 43rd overall picks, which is to say two picks in the back half of the second round. The last time United picked up a player who made an impact at that stage of the draft was Chris Korb in 2011, but most of the picks since then have come very close to making the roster.
Here are our three selections:
School: Providence Friars
Position: Forward/attacking midfield
This might come across as a reach at #12. Top Drawer Soccer, for example, has Gressel listed as the 20th best prospect in the draft pool right now - but Gressel is the real deal. I’m of the opinion that he has been underrated because a) he’ll count as an international (Gressel is German) and b) people are not sure what his position actually is. He mostly played as an attacking midfielder during his time with the Friars (where he played in all 83 games Providence had during his time there, starting 82).
However, this year Gressel was a first team All-American as a striker, often doing the job by himself. The stuff that makes him a good midfielder - the instincts to combine and create for others, the first touch, the ability to play while someone is forcing him away from goal - are all things United requires of a starting forward in the 4141 they’ll be using in 2017. At 6’1" and 185 lbs, Gressel has a target man’s build as well.
In a lot of ways, Gressel reminds me of Patrick Mullins, United’s current first choice striker. Like Mullins, Gressel had to be the creative hub for his college team while also being their top goalscoring threat. Gressel scored 15 goals in 21 games this year, and still found time to provide 6 assists. Teams came into games against the Friars knowing that he’d be alone up top, and that shutting him down meant shutting down the Providence attack, and he still delivered in a big way. It’s a remarkably similar set of circumstances to Mullins’ senior year.
I mentioned the lack of certainty about his position, and that’s been a deterrent for MLS teams in the past. Gressel played as a midfielder during the first day of the MLS Combine (where, per MLSsoccer’s Matt Doyle, he showed well). This also reminds me of Mullins, who despite two straight M.A.C. Hermann Trophy-winning seasons as a striker was saddled with the dreaded "tweener" tag heading into the 2014 draft. Mullins was shifted wide left from time to time as a tactical wrinkle, and plenty of folks in MLS read that all wrong.
I think the same thing is happening with Gressel. He’s a striker who happens to be able to play in the midfield, rather than a midfielder who can also play up top in a pinch. Gressel has good instincts for a striker, and while he’s not quite as talented as Mullins, he brings a similar skillset to the fold (he may actually be a bit quicker than Mullins, judging from his agility test results at the Combine).
United has good players backing Mullins up, but both Jose Guillermo Ortiz and Alhaji Kamara prefer to face goal and run the channels rather than play back-to-goal. Those are good options when United needs a change-up, but what happens if Mullins is unavailable when he’s what they need? Gressel fits that bill, and United shouldn’t let the tweener thing, his international status, or the perception of this being a reach get in the way of taking a player that would contribute right away.
School: Penn St. Nittany Lions
Position: Withdrawn forward/winger
A tough, scrappy attacker who despite being a bit undersized capable of making big plays at key moments who hails from central Pennsylvania? Sounds more than a little bit like Ben Olsen, frankly. Maloney might fall a bit because Penn State didn’t have a great season and because MLS is still a league where being 5’6" and 145 lbs means being regarded with suspicion.
However, at 34, United might be able to benefit from those fears. Maloney was a withdrawn forward in college, using his speed, work rate, and tenacity to generate chances for the Nittany Lions. A four-year starter, Maloney started his college career as more of a set-up man before improving his goalscoring prowess as time went on. From his sophomore year onward, Maloney scored 24 goals in 52 games. Not bad for a guy who also produced 10 assists and continued to be a good chance generator throughout his time in State College.
For United, Maloney would be more of a project to convert him into a right winger, but the Black-and-Red are set up for that right now. There’s no need for a new right winger who can contribute in 2017; Maloney’s role if selected by D.C. would be to learn the job, most likely on loan with the Richmond Kickers. The tools - speed, a bit of flair, and a willingness to work hard and bring the trademark bite that Olsen demands of anyone on his roster - are there to make it happen.
School: Penn St. Nittany Lions
Position: Center back
It’s no mystery that United should be planning for their future at center back. Even with Steve Birnbaum signing a new, extended contract, his play with the USMNT is going to continue to draw European admirers. Bobby Boswell will turn 34 as the season starts up, and Kofi Opare needs to prove 2016 was an aberration as far as his form goes. Jalen Robinson’s progress was good to see, but United should still be looking for a potential partner for him that can dominate in the air. It was no accident that United selected Ohio State’s Liam Doyle last year; they’re interested in getting younger at this position.
Sagel fits that bill. At 6’3" and 175 lbs, he would fit the bill of a traditional MLS center back in terms of size and strength. Much was made of his need to prove he has the lateral quickness and ability to change direction coming into the combine, and he answered the call by finishing with the 8th best time in the agility test (a 5 yard/10 yard/5 yard dash that requires running back in the opposite direction for each segment). In soccer, this sort of speed is often more important than straight-line speed, particularly for defenders.
Sagel doesn’t have a freakish goalscoring record like Birnbaum did at Cal (5 goals in 68 games spread between two years with Temple and two with Penn State), but that’s OK. His job as a center back is, you know, to defend, and he seems like a sneaky-good pick that isn’t getting enough attention. I’d argue that after Generation Adidas player Miles Robinson and Notre Dame’s Brandon Aubrey, there’s not much of a difference between Sagel and more hyped center backs like, say, UNC’s Walker Hume or Dayton’s Lalas Abubakar.