The 2021 MLS SuperDraft saw D.C. United take a bit more of an active stance than in years past, with a rapid-fire sequence seeing the Black-and-Red make one top five pick, and then complete a trade with Atlanta United to go again with the very next pick.
In the end, United used the fourth overall pick on Clemson attacker Kimarni Smith, and then used the fifth spot to select Wake Forest center back and Baltimore native Michael DeShields. With their final pick coming early in the second round, United went for Stanford’s Logan Panchot, a utility player who projects as a right back at the pro level.
Let’s break down each of United’s moves on draft day:
Smith, the ACC Tournament MVP this past fall as well as the leading scorer in the country during an autumn slate that was heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, was a star forward for the Tigers, posting 8 goals and 3 assists in 11 games in his final collegiate season. That built on a similarly strong 2019, when he scored 13 goals as Clemson’s no. 9.
For the pro ranks, though, there is a suspicion that Smith will be less a pure striker and more of an attacking utility player who can play up front or out on the wing. United GM Dave Kasper told the Washington Post’s Steve Goff that this even includes wingback, an important note for a team that may well end up playing out of a back three under new head coach Hernán Losada.
Smith, 22, is 6’1” but is more of a fleet-footed, run-the-channels sort of forward, which may also suit a gameplan that requires more vertical mobility and quickness than United required from its attackers last season. With Gelmin Rivas seemingly not in the club’s plans, there is both an opening in terms of the depth chart up front, and crucially, there’s also a spare international spot at the moment. Smith, who hails from England and spent some time in Sheffield United’s academy, would require just such a spot.
Goff’s report also noted that Kasper will be talking with Clemson about the prospect of Smith playing the remaining spring college schedule. As Smith did not sign with an agent, he retains his eligibility if he chooses to pursue a few more NCAA games.
On the Smith pick, GM Dave Kasper says: "He is a player we spent quite a bit of time watching the past 2 years. Steady improvement year to year. Can play up top in two-man frontline, winger, wide MF or wing back. Very good in and around the box. Great timing with runs."— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) January 21, 2021
Seconds after selecting Smith, United took care of some more business, trading $125,000 in General Allocation Money ($75,000 this year, and $50,000 in 2022) plus the 31st overall pick to Atlanta United to acquire the 5th overall pick and the 32nd overall pick. Yes, I laughed at how marginal it is to flip-flop in the second round too, but whatever makes the deal work, right?
The context? Well, let’s get into it when talking about what they did with the pick:
After taking a timeout that appears to have not resulted in a trade, United took a local product, opting for Wake Forest’s DeShields. He’s a 6’1”, 180 lb. center back with serious wheels, which will probably be important in United’s new style. He broke into the Demon Deacons’ lineup halfway through his freshman year, splitting time between center back and right back, before becoming a full-time starter in his next two seasons.
A major reason DeShields wasn’t as high on draft boards coming in as some other candidates was a back injury that kept him off the field throughout this 2020 ACC season. It wasn’t significant enough to prevent DeShields signed a deal in November with New England Revolution 2, the Revs’ USL affiliate.
United confirmed to B&RU that they do not have to compensate New England in either MLS or USL. The breakdown is simple: if United offers DeShields an MLS contract, his Revs 2 deal dissolves and he is a Black-and-Red player. If they do not end up making him an offer, he’ll go play for New England’s affiliate.
More clarification from #DCU: If they do not offer DeShields an MLS contract, he would be under contract with Revs 2 & go play for them.— Jason Anderson (@JasonDCsoccer) January 21, 2021
The important context here is to not get caught up in the convoluted nature of all these hypotheticals. United traded six figures of GAM to get into position to select DeShields; why do that if you don’t think he’s gonna earn a contract at the MLS level?
On top of that, there’s a connection of sorts, with DeShields playing at Pipeline SC, Santino Quaranta’s club in Baltimore (DeShields played for Tino’s brother Brandon). Throw in Ryan Martin’s connections at Wake — he was an assistant there for years — and you can be sure that DeShields was extremely well-vetted by DCU.
Let’s look at the highlight reel:
DeShields shows a lot of controlled aggression from center back, and is a big fan of stepping high to snuff plays out before they develop. He’s got the wheels to recover if that goes wrong, and those qualities could be critical within Losada’s stated approach. The fact that he has some experience as an outside back may point to him being a good fit for the right-center or left-center back spots in a back three. United’s only got three center backs on the entire roster, so there are definitely openings for DeShields to step into.
Finishing up at #32, United opted for Panchot, a 22-year-old California native who has captained Stanford and the US under-17s. Panchot was an instant starter with the Cardinal, and was named captain as a sophomore. In 2019, he posted 8 assists from right back and was named to the All-Pac 12 Second Team.
My personal take on Panchot aligns really well with the one MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle had before the draft: He has struck me as a late first round-caliber player, so getting him five picks into the second round counts as a win. I’ve heard from other folks that know the college game that, within the context of getting value for your pick, landing Panchot with the 32nd pick was United’s best work of the day.
As with any pick outside the top ten these days, it remains to be seen how things will turn out for Panchot. Assuming Chris Odoi-Atsem and the club reach a deal, he and homegrown player Jacob Greene make up the list of right backs on the team, though a team playing with wingbacks may end up with Julian Gressel playing most of the minutes along the right touchline.
One note here is that, within Losada’s approach at Beerschot, there’s a tendency for the outside center backs to get very wide, which in turn requires the wingback to pinch inside and create new passing overloads. That suits Gressel, who says he would prefer to play as a no. 8 more than anything else, but it may also suit a player like Panchot, who has spent time in midfield roles. We’ll see in preseason...if preseason ever actually gets started.