Your guide to Major League Soccer’s annual (Super) draft

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It’s not the primetime spectacle we get from the NFL or NBA, but Major League Soccer’s annual draft has come a long way. Once an overlooked part of a fledgling league’s landscape, MLS’s annual event now serves as the highlight of the offseason, with college soccer experts, mock drafts, and live television coverage making previously anonymous collegiate stars into symbols for professional hope. There may not be any Jabari Parker- or Andrew Wiggins-level stars in the field, but for one day, somebody will be the Jabari Parker of Major League Soccer.

For North American professional soccer, that day is Thursday (noon ET), though as with every Major League Soccer SuperDraft (yes, they do call it “Super”), any description of event come with disclaimer on its changing identity:

The Big Story

Each January, MLS officials convene on the NSCAA convention, ready to draft a new platoon of talent. Each January, the rest of the MLS world debates why they continue to do so. With more talent coming into the league as Home Grown Players or foreign free agents, with wages and the rising level of competition keeping more talent in the league, it’s becoming more difficult for drafted players to make an impact in Major League Soccer. The league has grown beyond its dependence on the college pipeline.

source: AP
In 2011, Darlington Nagbe was the Timbers’ first ever draft pick, going second overall. In 2013, he helped his team to the best record in the Western Conference. (Photo: AP.)

Even if the draft is less super than it used to be, it still has serves a purpose. Andrew Farrell, Deshorn Brown, and Dillon Powers went from first round picks to starters on playoff teams last season. Kelyn Rowe, Nick DeLeon, and Austin Berry were top nine picks in the 2012 draft, while Darlington Nagbe, voted the league’s best player under 24 years old last season, was selected second overall in 2011. Perhaps the draft’s waning influence has increased the importance of higher picks, but the process hasn’t reached irrelevance. Yet.

Who’s going number one

Thanks to an aggressive offseason makeover, D.C. United, holders of the first overall pick, doesn’t have a clear area of need. They’ve brought in goal scoring (Eddie Johnson) and defense (Jeff Parke, Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin) to a team that already had Perry Kitchen, Luis Silva, and Nick DeLeon in midfield. While Ben Olsen’s three-win squad still has weak points at all levels of the field, it’s just unclear which one they need to address first.

That’s why you see a number of different players occupying the number one spot in mock drafts:

Steve Birnhaum, D, California – Just short of his 23rd birthday (Jan. 23), Birnhaum is seen as the most MLS-ready player on the board. A center back with size (6’2″) and the ability to play with the ball at his feet, Birnhaum has been evaluated as a strong passer whose only potential physical drawback is the lack of top-end speed. The other obvious drawback: At 23 years old, he’s approaching “what you see is what you get” territory.

Christian Dean, D, California – A natural left-footer with the athleticism to play wide, Dean is a central defender whose 6’3″ frame sometimes overshadows his skill on the ball. A converted attacker, he reportedly can still show his lack of defensive experience. While on one hand, that means the 20-year-old may not be as polished as some other prospects, it also means his best is yet to come. He’s also two years younger that his highly-rated teammate, and with D.C. United potentially needed a left back to go with their other offseason acquisitions, a year’s apprenticeship out wide could be the perfect transition period for Dean.

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Patrick Mullins, right, scored 16 goals last year for the University of Maryland. He’s projected by some to be the first pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. (Photo: AP.)

Patrick Mullins, F, Maryland – The 6’1″ forward out of Maryland scored 16 goals in 23 games during his senior season, but like Birnhaum, he may have less upside then somebody like Dean. For a D.C. United team that was shy on goal scoring last year, that may be a good thing, as could the local connection of somebody who spent four years with the Terrapins. Mullins’ ability off the ball means he could potentially mesh well with Eddie Johnson, and with D.C. making other “win (more) now” moves this offseason, going for Mullins’ combination of polish and first could make sense for Dave Kaspar and Ben Olsen.

Others: Jamaican goalkeeper Andre Blake (Connecticut) is the draft’s best No. 1; teams looking for midfielders could focus on Marlon Hairston (Louisville), J.J.Koval (Stanford) and Brazilian Pedro Ribeiro (Coastal Carolina), Maryland’s Schillo Tshuma and Georgetown’s Steve Neumann are other attackers who could go in the top 10.

Your Must Knows

  • The four-round, 77-pick draft lasts two days, with the first two rounds televised via ESPN News on Thursday.
  • The third and fourth rounds take place via conference call on Friday.
  • A number of players are members of this year’s “Generation Adidas” class (Blake, A.J. Cochran, Dean, Hairston, Damion Lowe, Eric Miller, Tshuma). They’ve already signed league deals and will not count against their teams’ salary caps as long as the remain in the GA program.
  • Philadelphia and Vancouver each hold two of the top seven picks, while New England has three first round picks (4, 12, 19).
  • Sporting Kansas City, LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, and Chivas USA do not have picks in the first round.

The Picks

Round 1
1. D.C. United
2. Philadelphia Union (acquired via Gabriel Farfan trade with Chivas USA)
3. Vancouver Whitecaps (acquired via Eric Hassli trade with Toronto)
4. New England Revolution (acquired via Michael Parkhurst trade with Columbus)
5. FC Dallas
6. Philadelphia Union
7. Vancouver Whitecaps
8. Seattle Sounders (acquired via Jhon Kennedy Hurtado trade with Chicago)
9. San Jose Earthquakes
10. Montréal Impact
11. Colorado Rapids
12. New England Revolution
13. Chicago Fire (acquired from Seattle)
14. Columbus Crew (acquired via Hector Jimenez trade with LA Galaxy)
15. Toronto FC (acquired via Bobby Convey trade with New York Red Bulls)
16. Houston Dynamo
17. Portland Timbers
18. Real Salt Lake
19. New England Revolution (acquired via Benny Feilhaber trade with Sporting Kansas City)

Round 2: Chivas USA, Seattle, New York, LA Galaxy, Toronto, Philadelphia, Portland, Philadelphia, San Jose, Montreal, Vancouver, New England, Houston, Colorado, New York, Colorado, Portland, Montréal, Sporting KC

Looking back – last year

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Deshorn Brown went from the University of Central Florida to the Colorado Rapids and the Jamaican National Team in 2013.

The five best picks from last year’s draft (a.k.a., “Why the draft is still relevant, now”):

1. Deshorn Brown, F, Colorado (Central Florida) – Scored 10 goals in his debut and played his way into the Jamaican national team.
2. Dillon Powers, M, Colorado (Notre Dame) – Immediately started in Colorado’s midfield, and won Rookie of the Yea.
3. Andrew Farrell, D, New England (Louisville) – Was a regular at right back for the Revolution after going first overall.
4. Devon Sandoval, F, Real Salt Lake (New Mexico) – Make the team as a second round pick and played a vital role as Álvaro Saborío’s replacement as RSL won the Western Conference.
5. Kofi Opare, D, LA Galaxy (Michigan) – By season’s end, the second round draft pick had won a spot in central defense for the defending MLS champions.

Looking back – RECENT HISTORY

source: Reuters
Omar Gonzalez was selected third overall out of Maryland in 2009. In 2014, he will likely start in central defense in Brazil. (Photo: Reuters.)

The five best picks from the draft’s last five years (a.k.a., “What the draft can do for you”):

1. Omar Gonzalez, D, LA Galaxy – Selected third overall in 2009, Gonzalez has become a U.S. international, Defensive Player of the Year, All-Star and earned a Designated Player deal with the Galaxy. In 2012, he was the Most Valuable Player at MLS Cup, winning his second league title.
2. Graham Zusi, F/M, Sporting Kansas City – The best value pick in recent history, Zusi went 22nd overall in 2009, one spot behind former Michigan State forward Doug DeMartin. Now one of the league’s best midfielders, Zusi is contention to start for the U.S. at Brazil 2014.
3. Matt Besler, D, Sporting Kansas City – For many, Besler is Gonzalez’s equal in defense. Selected eighth overall in 2009 out of Notre Dame (the same year as Zusi), Besler has also worked his way into the U.S. National Team, winning the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor in 2012.
4. Darlington Nagbe, F/M, Portland – Selected second overall out of Akron in in 2011, Nagbe has 17 goals and eight assists in three years with the Timbers. His nine goals in 2013 helped his team to their first playoff appearance, with the Timbers finishing first in the West during the regular season.
5. George John, D, FC Dallas – Perhaps overshadowed by Gonzalez and Besler, John is still one of the league’s best central defenders. Selected 14th overall in 2009 out of Washington, John has already flirted with a move to England, earning a loan spell with West Ham United in 2012.

FC Dallas extends the contract of Oscar Pareja

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After winning the club’s second-ever U.S. Open Cup title and first-ever Supporters’ Shield last season, plus a hot start to the new term, FC Dallas has extended the contract of manager Oscar Pareja.

Pareja, who was hired as FC Dallas manager in 2014, will be at FC Dallas “for years to come” according to the club, although the terms of the contract, including the length, were not released.

“We are excited to ensure Oscar will be our head coach for many years to come,” said FC Dallas chairman and CEO Clark Hunt in a statement by the club. “As a manager and a developer of talent, Oscar has proven himself to be among the elite in our sport, and we look forward to even greater success under his leadership in the future.”

As the former head of the FC Dallas academy, Pareja has been hailed not only for his tactical abilities, but as a cultivator of new talent. His most prized possession is young midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who made his U.S. national team debut on Tuesday, and young defender Walker Zimmerman cracked the roster but has yet to debut. The club also boasts homegrown players Victor Ulloa and Jesse Gonzalez, and the official club roster features a whopping 20 players 25 years old or younger, six of whom are teenagers. The nine homegrown players are the most on any roster in MLS.

Pareja, a former FC Dallas player who made 176 league appearances for the club, said he is loving life in the city he built his career. “On behalf of my family and the people who work with me, I would like to extend my gratitude to Clark and Dan Hunt and the entire FC Dallas family for having the confidence and belief in us,” Pareja said in the statement. “Our ultimate goal is to continue developing the model, with a commitment to young players, that makes FC Dallas so successful.”

“When I came [to the United States as a player] in ’98, after a few months I had the desire to go back home. I found it difficult for me, my wife and my daughter to adjust to the culture because we didn’t know the language and that creates a little bit of a gap,” Pareja said. “The people here in Dallas, they were terrific with us and made us feel very comfortable. I started growing into the culture and in that moment things started changing. I did not for one moment, though, think that I was going to be here this many years.”

The 48-year-old Colombian stated he still desires for an MLS Cup, something which evaded FC Dallas last year after losing to Seattle in the conference semifinals.

Top PL Storylines: Merseyside Derby, relegation special

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The international break is over and the Premier League is back.

[ MORE: What’s left for each PL club? ]

This stretch run begins now, as teams have around eight more matches left in league play with which to move up or down. Who will climb the table, and who will lose spots? The best picks are below:


Merseyside clubs clinging to European places

Liverpool vs. Everton — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Everton and Liverpool doesn’t need any sideshows to hype up the heated rivalry, but a little added spice won’t hurt anything. Spice is what we have as the two teams clash at Anfield Saturday as both teams are battling for European places.

Liverpool comes into the game in fourth, four points ahead of Manchester United for the final Champions League spot. A return to Europe’s top competition is overdue for Jurgen Klopp and the Reds, having made the tournament just once since 2010. It’s been a dogfight all year at the top of the table (aside from Chelsea, of course), and Liverpool is right in the mix. A misstep here would give Manchester United the chance to climb just one point back, really putting on the pressure. For Everton, they sit in seventh, level with Arsenal on points and just two behind Manchester United. They still have a good shot at Europa League play, and any spot in a European competition is a welcome moment for an Everton team that has appeared just once since 2010.

Both teams have to contend with injuries suffered over the international break. Everton’s Seamus Coleman is out at least for the rest of the season after his nasty leg break, while Liverpool will miss Adam Lallana who aggravated a muscle injury while on duty with England and will likely be out a month.

Will Arsenal or City turn their season around?

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 11:00 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Arsene Wenger continues to find himself under more and more pressure. It seems Pep Guardiola takes one step back for every one step forward. As the two managers meet at the Emirates on Sunday, will either man manage to get a high-profile win to boost its season’s fortunes?

The Gunners are in serious peril. Wenger has never missed the Champions League in his 20 seasons in charge, but that could all change this year as Arsenal sits in 6th on 50 points, six back of fourth position. There is little to no room for error the rest of the way, and even against a strong opponent, the Gunners cannot afford to drop more points. For Pep Guardiola, City still sits in an envious position in third place and five points clear of dropping off the top four, but it’s not been without bumps and bruises. City is without a win in its last three matches, having dumped out of the Champions League and drawn a pair in league play over that time. Both managers are struggling. Will either turn things around?

A relegation special

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Middlesbrough is in the relegation zone. Swansea City isn’t out of the weeds yet. Premier League status could be on the line.

As the two teams meet at the Liberty Stadium, Middlesbrough can go a long way towards climbing out of the bottom 3, while Swansea City can build space from it. Boro sits in 19th place, on 22 points, five back of safety. In that final safe spot is Swansea, on 27 points, and depending on the results of this match, things could get hairy for the loser. A draw helps nobody, so expect both sides to go all out.

Spurs with a tough road test

Burnley vs. Tottenham — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Spurs sit in second, 10 points off the top but in control of the tight Champions League battle. Yet, they face a difficult challenge on Sunday. Burnley has lost just twice all season long at home, the latest coming January 2nd. Their away form has been miserable, but at home, they’re a completely different team.

Enter Tottenham, who has won three Premier League games in a row, but it’s not all rosy for the title contenders. They’re still without Harry Kane, who has returned to light training but still remains sidelined with his ankle injury. Sean Dyche can coach with the best of them in the English top flight, and it remains to be seen if Mauricio Pochettino can break down a strong Clarets defense. Spurs managed a 2-1 home win over Burnley, but a similar performance won’t get it done at the fortress of Turf Moor.

Former DC United keeper sues club plus Espindola, Olsen

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Former DC United goalkeeper Charlie Horton has filed a lawsuit naming D.C. United and Major League Soccer defendants along with Fabian Espindola and manager Ben Olsen.

The lawsuit alleges assault by Espindola which left Horton with career-ending concussion symptoms which he claims still haunt him today. Horton, born in London, was on D.C. United’s roster in 2016, but never saw the field as he failed to crack the pecking order which boasted Bill Hamid, Tally Hall, and Andrew Worra. Eventually, Horton was sent on loan to the Richmond Kickers to gain playing time.

According to the lawsuit, Espindola attacked Horton at the team training facility in late March of 2016 after an argument involving an incident in training weeks earlier. Horton did indeed officially miss seven weeks with a concussion that season, the first of two injuries he suffered that year (a broken hand ended his season).

However, the lawsuit states that Horton was not entered into MLS concussion protocol immediately, instead allowed to practice that day and only entering protocol and missing time when he reported his symptoms the following day. Horton was cleared to play in May, and was then sent on loan to Richmond.

The lawsuit states that the lingering concussion symptoms caused the end of Horton’s career. “Due to the severity of his ongoing post-concussive neurological symptoms, which directly inhibited his ability to perform at a level necessary to continue his professional career, Mr. Horton was forced to officially retire from professional soccer.”

Horton claims that Espindola’s attack was a blindsided attack, an elbow to the temple after Horton had turned to walk away from the altercation.

Manuel Neuer injured, will miss two games

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A long streak will come to an end on Saturday when Bayern Munich hosts Augsburg at Allianz Arena.

Manuel Neuer, who has started 65 straight Bundesliga matches for Bayern, will be forced to the bench after injuring his foot in training on Wednesday. That means a streak of 5,850 straight minutes played will be snapped.

The injury required minor surgery, which was performed by club doctor Markus Walther, and a club release said it “went optimally.”

The injury will see Neuer miss at least the Augsburg match plus the midweek visit to Hoffenheim. That leaves the two big matches up in the air, with Bayern set to travel to Westfalenstadion to take on Borussia Dortmund on April 8th, followed closely by the first leg against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals the following Tuesday. There was no mention of either game in the club release.

The last time Neuer missed minutes in a Bundesliga game was a home game against Eintract Frankfurt on April 11, 2015. The last time the 31-year-old missed more than three league games in a season was 2008/09 when he played for Schalke and missed the first six games of the year with a broken foot.

With the club 13 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table, the injury is likely to have little effect on the final league standings, but should Neuer end up out for either the Dortmund game or, more importantly, the match against Real Madrid, it could affect the club’s position in the Champions League.