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.

source:
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

source:
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.

MLS Snapshots: Opara scores a bike, SKC win; SJ thump RSL

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): I’m going to start by quoting myself (re: Sporting Kansas City), via Twitter: “This team is better in June than it was in March, and will be better in October than it is in June. Just steadily progressing.” Saturday’s 2-1 victory away to LA Galaxy (just their second road win of the season, and the team’s fourth and fifth away goals in 10 games) is the latest sign of progress for Peter Vermes’ side, as they extend their lead on the rest of the Western Conference to five points. Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara scored the visitors’ goals — the latter coming in spectacular, most unexpected fashion — before the hosts pulled back to 2-1 through Dave Romney late in the second half. LA, meanwhile, sit sixth in the West, one point clear of the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

22′ — Diop’s howler puts SKC up 1-0 — Sometimes — and this is one of those moments for Clement Diop — you just want the ground to open up and swallow you into the middle of the Earth.

35′ — Opara rides his bike to 2-0 — Ike Opara, a center back, scored a bicycle kick from a long ball played to him by Matt Besler, Sporting KC’s other center back. It’s a sequence of events you won’t see again for a long, long time.

59′ — Smith goes through Feilhaber, who is subbed off — Baldomero Toledo allowed Nathan Smith to stay on the field after this “tackle” on Benny Feilhaber.

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Man of the match: Ike Opara

Goalscorers: Espinoza (22′), Opara (35′)


San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Three Two moments that mattered

13′ — Hoesen blasts a loose ball past Rimando for 1-0 — If you fail to clear the ball anywhere inside 12 yards, you’re probably going to get scored on. Danny Hoesen got all of this one.

68′ — Hoesen sets up Ureña for 2-0 — Hoesen’s speculative through ball found its way into space, and Marco Ureñat took it from there, putting the game away and handing RSL their eighth loss in 11 games.

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Man of the match: Danny Hoesen

Goalscorers: Hoesen (13′), Ureña (68′), Hernandez (90+4′)

MLS Snapshots: Hat trick for Accam; MNUFC come back from 2-0

Photo credit: Chicago Fire / Twitter: @ChicagoFire
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The game in 100 words (or less): All hail King David Accam, the newest superstar of MLS — except, well, you know, he’s been doing this for a couple years now. It’s not his fault you hadn’t already taken notice. For too long, it was Accam and not much else for the Chicago Fire, who finished bottom of the league two straight seasons, in 2015 and 2016. Now, with the likes of Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining him in Bridgeview, Accam has ascended to his rightful throne as an MVP candidate. The 26-year-old Ghanaian international strengthened his case on Saturday, bagging three goals and an assist, playing a key part in all four goals, in Chicago’s 4-0 drubbing of Orlando City SC. Accam’s season stats now sit at 10 goals and six assists, for the Eastern Conference’s second-place team. If these kind of performances persist, don’t be surprised when Accam follows in Fabian Castillo’s footsteps, right off to Europe.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

8′ — Accam rounds Bendik for 2-0 — The long-ball distribution from Bastian Schweinsteiger is perfect, but Accam still has a ton to do from there. He corrals the ball with his first touch, quickly goes around Joe Bendik, gets his wits about him and fires through an opening to make it David Accam 2-0 Orlando City SC. This one came just six minutes after his brilliant backheel finish for the opening goal.

52′ — Accam sets up Nikolic for 3-0 — The time and space afforded Accam is inexcusable from Orlando’s midfield remaining players in their defensive half of the field, but the through ball still required inch-perfect precision to find Nikolic.

63′ — Accam converts from the spot — No doubt about this one, as Accam slams home from the penalty spot to complete his much deserved hat trick.

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Man of the match: David Accam

Goalscorers: Accam (3′, 8′, 63′ – PK), Nikolic (52′)


Minnesota United 2-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Three moments that mattered

45+2′ — Tchani heads a rocket past Shuttleworth — You’re not going to find many headers with more power behind them than this one from Tony Tchani, anywhere in the world, anytime.

50′ — Calvo heads down and past Ousted — Take, for example, Francisco Calvo’s goal five minutes into the second half… not quite as much behind it.

63′ — Thiesson hits it low, through traffic, for 2-0 — Jerome Thiesson’s equalizer needed eyes to make its way through a penalty area full of bodies.

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Man of the match: Kevin Molino

Goalscorers: Techera (17′ – PK), Tchani (45+2′), Calvo (50′), Thiesson (63′)

MLS Snapshots: Manneh inspires Crew SC; Philly, Atlanta win at home

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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Columbus Crew SC 4-1 Montreal Impact

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Higuain’s free kick beats Bush — Aided by a slight deflection off the top of the wall, Higuain put a free kick past Evan Bush to give the home side an early lead.

70′ — Manneh makes an immediate impact — The initial ball from Higuain is what you came here for, but the elementary defending by three Montreal defenders is what’ll keep you glued until the very end.

72′ — Manneh sets up Kamara for 3-1 — Kekuta Manneh had been on the field for all of three minutes, and he put a goal and an assist to his name. Most importantly, three points to that of Crew SC.

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Man of the match: Federico Higuain

Goalscorers: Higuain (17′, 88′), Jackson-Hamel (19′), Manneh (70′), Kamara (72′)


 

Philadelphia Union 1-0 D.C. United

Three moments that mattered

28′ — Blake gets down to deny Harkes from distance — Ian Harkes had picked out a spot just inside the far post, but Andre Blake was well up to the task of denying DCU’s homegrown rookie.

31′ — Picault slams Bedoya’s cross — Alejandro Bedoya’s cross has some serious loft on it, which it makes it so tough to keep the ensuing shot low and to hit it with such power. Fantastic finish from Picault.

70′ — Blake stone-walls Neagle from the spot — It’s a pretty poor penalty from Lamar Neagle, but it’s a massive moment so badly needed by Andre Blake who’s been well off his own standard this season. Don’t be surprised if it’s a season-turning save for the talented Jamaican.

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Man of the match: Andre Blake

Goalscorers: Picault (31′)


 

Atlanta United 1-0 Colorado Rapids

Three One moment that mattered

67′ — Martinez turns and beats Howard for the game’s only goal — You can’t give Josef Martinez this kind of space, and this kind of time, around the six-yard box. He’s shown us seven times already this season (in just seven games) how deadly he is from there.

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Man of the match: Josef Martinez

Goalscorers: Martinez (67′)

VIDEO: Accam’s slick backheel puts Chicago ahead

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For the last two years, David Accam has been, in my estimation, the best player in MLS that no one talked about.

[ MORE: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win NY derby 2-0 ]

Understandably so, of course, given the 26-year-old Ghanaian international and the Chicago Fire been rooted to the bottom of the league table for two years running. All of that has changed in 2017, though, as Accam finally has a forward (Nemanja Nikolic) who can not only put chances away, but create space and chances for his teammates, and a solid midfield base which allows him to cherry-pick counter-attacks just that little bit more.

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Entering Saturday’s game against Orlando City SC, Chicago sat second in the Eastern Conference, just four points back of Toronto FC, and Accam’s 7 goals and 5 assists (in 15 games) were a huge part of the why and the how. It didn’t take Accam long — two minutes, in fact, to put Chicago ahead of Orlando with a ridiculous backheel finish to Matt Polster’s cross.