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.

CCL: Toronto wins; Wild Herediano comeback

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On a single-digit Tuesday that severely limited the attendance at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, where the Colorado Rapids and Toronto FC dueled in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

Jonathan Osorio’s second half goal put the Reds in front and Sebastian Giovinco had a goal and an assist and the visitors take a 2-0 decision back to Ontario.

The best chance of a preseason quality first half saw Dominique Badji flub the best chance of the stage into the feet of Alex Bono.

Toronto took the lead, nabbing the away goal through Osorio’s header of a Sebastian Giovinco cross. And the Atomic Ant got on the board with a goal of his own off an Auro assist with 17 minutes to play.

[ MORE: Georgia teen heading to Schalke ]

Tuesday’s other first leg saw Herediano and Tigres play to a 2-2 draw in Costa Rica, with the Liga MX visitors taking a pair of away goals but shocked by a pair of stoppage time concessions.

Francisco Meza scored in the 15th minute and Lucas Zelarayan seemingly put it to bed with 15 minutes to play.

But Yendrick Ruiz converted a 90th minute penalty kick before ex-DC United forward Jairo Arrieta did this ahead of the Feb. 22 second leg in Mexico.

Another American heads to Schalke: Zyen Jones

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Schalkamerica?

Bundesliga mainstays Schalke have added yet another American, this one 17-year-old Zyen Jones of Atlanta United. Jones is a forward with the U.S. U-17 national team.

Like Josh Sargent, who signed his deal with Werder Bremen on Tuesday, he’ll head overseas and sign a pro contract on Aug. 25, his 18th birthday.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Barca recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

Jones will join several potential USMNT teammates in Gelsenkirchen, including injured senior team midfielder Weston McKennie and youngster Nick Taitague (19). Forward Haji Wright is on loan at Sandhausen.

Report: Simon Dawkins making move to Minnesota

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The Loons are taking a flier on Simon Dawkins.

The London-born Jamaican international hasn’t done a ton since returning to MLS from Derby County, and turned 30 over the offseason, and Paul Tenorio says the player is on his way to Minnesota United.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Barca recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

Dawkins scored 14 goals between 2011-12 with San Jose, but scored just five times in his return to California and was blanked in 14 appearances last season. He registered just 10 shots in those matches.

The left winger would join an attack with Christian Ramirez, Kevin Molino, Ethan Finlay, and a pair of Generations Adidas forwards: Abu Danladi (2017 SuperDraft) and Mason Toye (2018).

Champions League Weds. preview: Sevilla-Man Utd, Shakhtar-Roma

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Jose Mourinho says Manchester United is one round away from having legitimate hopes of winning the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Chelsea-Barca recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

That makes the Round of 16 tie against Sevilla — beginning Wednesday in Spain — a bit of a dream qualifier for the Red Devils.

“I normally say that Champions League dreams start around the quarter-finals and not yet in the last 16,” Mourinho said on ManUtd.com. “Last 16 still looks a long way to go. When a team reaches the quarter-finals, I think it’s the moment where even the teams that are not favourites – which is our case – they start realising that anything is possible.

The injury-hit side got a bit of a boost on Tuesday in Sevilla, where Paul Pogba, Antonio Valencia, Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera all trained ahead of the first leg.

As for the hosts, manager Vincenzo Montella admitted that he hopes Pogba won’t play, and joked that he’d prefer to tie up and “padlock” Alexis Sanchez in a bid to defend against the Chilean star.

The final Round of 16 tie to start will be Roma’s pairing with Shakhtar Donetsk, with the first leg taking place in Ukraine.

Shakhtar hasn’t played in some time, but the great equalizer is the bitter cold at Donbass Arena, where the temperature is set to be between 21 and 28 degrees Fahrenheit come kickoff.

Don’t worry, Roma fans, Daniele De Rossi is busy breathing fire into any teammates angling for excuses:

“The cold weather could affect things a little because we’re not used to it but at the end of the day it comes down to how well you perform out there. We must be mentally ready from the get-go because the cold might hit us in the opening minutes.

“If it was that much of a factor, these teams would win the Champions League every year. You don’t go through because of the weather.”