The MLS Superdraft is upon us once again, and it brings with it a tendency towards a weird state of semi-panic. Somehow, the mix of being in a crowded convention hall, surrounded by every other GM and coach in the league, a bunch of media nerds desperate for something interesting to write about, and a herd of fans who get bored around the 10th pick every year without fail lends itself to teams opting to make moves, regardless of how sound they actually are.
Let’s get into a few things to expect tomorrow:
Someone makes a big deal to move up
Pay close attention, D.C. United fans. There are already rumors floating around that the Philadelphia Union may or may not want to trade up into the top three picks, and in each of the past two years, NYCFC has at great expense made a dramatic trade to move up into the top four. United has previously benefited from this sort of thing, playing the Union and the Vancouver Whitecaps off each other to squeeze a decent GAM haul out of Philly, move back a spot, and still pick Steve Birnbaum (who was their top target all along).
With LAFC a hard team to predict and the LA Galaxy kind of a mess these days, there are no guarantees that United ends up being the team to trade down or out. However, Dave Kasper has made a bunch of draft day deals, most recently trading up a couple of spots to land Julian Buescher. GMs know that if they call D.C.’s phone, they’ll get someone willing to listen.
Who’s the #1 pick going to be?
Many, if not most, signs are pointing to Stanford center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce, whether LAFC does it themselves or someone trades up. Hilliard-Arce may never quite crack the USMNT pool at center back, but he seems to have a very high floor and should end up being a viable MLS starter for years. Think of his long-term prospects as similar to Bobby Boswell, and you won’t be too far off. He may never be a star, but we’ll be seeing him starting somewhere for a long time.
He’s also saying all the right things, impressing teams during the combine’s interviews (which is low-key the most important thing that happens at the combine). His actual play at the combine hasn’t been great, but remember what the combine is: three hastily arranged pick-up games where many players are playing out of position. Teams have four years of tape on Hilliard-Arce with the Cardinal, who have won three straight national championships (shutting out their opponent in the final each time).
If it’s not Hilliard-Arce, a pair of Generation Adidas players come to mind. Francis Atuahene would require an international spot, but the Ghanaian winger/forward’s direct style of play and raw speed are going to be very tempting for a lot of teams. He’s already looked the part against pro talent, doing damage in last year’s Open Cup while playing for the Michigan Bucks of the PDL.
The other possibility is Mason Toye, a 6’3” 19 year old who scored 10 goals as a freshman at Indiana. Toye is the only domestic GA player available, increasing his value, and he looks mature as a target man despite his young age. Teams taking him are probably thinking about a full year of USL soccer on loan, but with the proper guidance he could be the player with the highest ceiling in this pool.
Teams that have free international spots are going to have a good day
Most MLS teams are intentionally trying to use their international roster spots on important starters or players with a big future in front of them, which is another way of saying not the kind of player you get out of the draft. However, as is increasingly the case, the bulk of the elite prospects available are going to require an international spot.
If Wake Forest forward Jon Bakero counted as a domestic player, he’d be a potential #1 pick (and no worse than #2). The Spaniard, whose father played for Barcelona and picked up 30 caps for Spain, is an immensely talented, intelligent player capable of playing as a second forward straight away, or even leading the line on one of the league’s more “keep it on the ground” sort of teams.
Joao Moutinho is in a very similar spot. The Akron defender will enter MLS as one of its best passers out of the back immediately, but the native of Portugal will probably still be on the board after several lesser players because of his international status and some concern over his lack of athleticism compared to the MLS norm for a center back/left back. The team that picks him up, provided they want to hoard possession and are willing to choose a technician over a beast, is going to be delighted with the Sporting Clube product.
The list goes on. We’ve talked about Atuahene, but he’s not the only Ghanaian winger in the GA class. Ema Twumasi’s smooth, entertaining style will probably have the fans of his MLS club calling for him to get more minutes by the end of April. Syracuse defensive midfielder Mo Adams has quietly impressed, and the Englishman seems sure to fight his way into a team’s rotation. Maryland forward Gordon Wild needs to land with a team that plays two up front, but if the German recovers his 2016 form the team that lands him is going to be thrilled. VCU playmaker Rafael Andrade Santos also looks to have the tools to make it at the next level.
All of these players are likely to fall at least a little bit due to needing an international spot to fit them in. The teams that can pounce are probably quite happy about it.
Fans are going to spend a lot of time worrying about players who aren’t that big of a deal
This is the other side of the draft. We wring our hands over not having enough picks, or we scramble to find out more about a player, we project his spot on the depth chart, we talk about the possibility of a dubious current starter being pushed out by summer...and then the kid is released in the second week of February. It happens across the league to every team.
How common is this?
66 players were taken in rounds 2-4 of the 2017 #MLSSuperDraft. Most MLS minutes played in that group:— Jason Anderson (@chestrockwell14) January 17, 2018
2621 - Jack Elliott
709 - Marcus Epps
539 - Josh Smith
269 - Øyvind Alseth
180 - Walker Hume
127 - Connor Maloney
53 - Brandt Bronico
The top two players on this list are with Philadelphia, a team stuck in neutral whose fanbase is bordering on outright insurrection. Smith might have broken 1,000 minutes if not for injuries, but things fall off from their. Alseth, Hume, Maloney, and Bronico combined for about a dozen total appearances. More importantly, we’re talking about seven players from a cohort of sixty-six.
Aside from the third overall pick, United is up again at #49, #71, #74, and #91. In 2019, that would probably mean a few guys to keep an eye on for United’s USL affiliate (let’s just call them Loudoun United for the time being). In 2018, there’s a distinct chance that United passes at 71 or 74, and whoever they select with the 49th pick is probably a distinct longshot to make it to the second leg of camp.
Who are the sleepers?
Everyone wants to be the team that makes the best sleeper pick. Turning any pick after, let’s say #15 into a legit contributor is a big deal these days, and while certain teams will probably consider bailing early for lunch, there are some interesting players that will probably be around as the draft becomes a slow, bleary-eyed crawl.
What I’m trying to say is that everyone’s looking for their own Jack Elliott. This year, though, they’re not likely to find a center back. The best players who seem set to fall out of the first round but still make an impact on the 2018 season are, largely, on the attacking side of the ball.
One player I’m very high on is Frantzdy Pierrot, a Haitian-American striker out of Coastal Carolina. Like Atuahene, Pierrot has scored in Open Cup play (in this case, with Reading United, a PDL team with a very close relationship with the Union). Pierrot has already received a call-up from the Haitian national team, and the 21 year old was a force last season (10 goals, 4 assists in 22 appearances for the Chanticleers).
What really draws the eye with Pierrot is his combination of size (6’4”, 200 lbs), soft feet, and speed. Despite being built like a linebacker, Pierrot finished tied for 10th in the combine’s 30 yard dash test. He’s raw, to be sure, but the team that snags him could find themselves with an impact substitute that defenses are ill-equipped to deal with.
There are other international strikers that could end up panning out despite probably being picked after the first round. Virginia Tech’s Marcelo Acuna scored 23 goals and added 6 assists in two seasons with the Hokies, and has experience in Saprissa’s very strong academy as well as with the Costa Rican under-20 national team. Spanish goal poacher Albert Ruiz saw his stock drop in 2017 due to an injury-plagued senior season with Florida Gulf Coast, but in 2016 he was a M.A.C. Hermann Trophy finalist (he lost out to Ian Harkes) after scoring 22 goals in 20 games.
Getting away from the strikers, Stanford midfielder Drew Skundrich is another potential sleeper. The Pennsylvania native went to Hempfield High School, just like Russell Canouse and Travis Worra before him. Skundrich is more of a midfield glue guy, but as a three-year starter with the Cardinal, he’s shown a lot of the intangible qualities that tend to apply to players who make the grade in MLS. Whether he ends up as a midfield ball-winner, playing the box-to-box role he had on the three-time national champions, or converting to right back, don’t be surprised to see Skundrich end the preseason with an MLS contract in hand and a spot in his team’s gameday 18 come March.