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.

Pique: For first time in career, Barca star feels “inferior to Madrid”

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Gerard Pique does not have the sort of personality that makes admitting defeat an easy proposition.

The longtime Barcelona center back is raging after his side was beaten 5-1 over two legs by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: Barca releases statement on terror attacks ]

And for the first time in his life, he thinks Barca is a step behind its El Clasico enemies. From The Telegraph:

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Barcelona looked very poor in the second leg of the Super Cup, though the club did hammer the woodwork on multiple occasions. Real is the best team in the world, which makes being its rival a real hassle.

In fact, both clubs have been 1-2 in the world for some time, which has to make it extra perplexing when you’re No. 2 to only the club you despise more than any other.

Bundesliga preview: Schalke, BVB chase Bayern Munich

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The last time Schalke spent a season outside of European football, the celebrated German club finished second in the league en route to a Champions League semifinal the following campaign.

That’s one of the only silver linings from last season’s disappointing 10th place finish, 19 points behind fourth place Hoffenheim.

[ MORE: Schalke’s teen American impact ]

“Naturally, nobody is happy about not playing international this year,” center back Benedikt Howedes told ProSoccerTalk. “During the week we currently have more time to focus on the next opponent. We will battle the European positions with many teams this season. I think, the race is up in the air. The Bundesliga is very balanced.”

World Cup winner Howedes has 334 appearances for Schalke (Getty Images).

Schalke’s tumulutous 2016-17 season started poorly and never really found its footing. The club lost its first five league matches under Markus Weinzierl, who was fired in June, and saw marquee transfers Naldo, Breel Embolo, and Coke miss a lot of time through injuries.

Enter 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco. Don’t let the age fool you, he’s the boss not a player, and youth will be part of the team as well. Schalke still has Embolo, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, American teen Weston McKennie has been promoted to the first team, and Amine Harit has arrived from Nantes.

From the outside, that puts an emphasis on veteran leadership. Fortunately for Schalke, it has living club legend Howedes and ex-Man City defender Matija Nastasic amongst others in the fold.

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie told PST. “It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

[ MORE: Guide to two promoted Bundesliga teams ]

In the case of Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, his 24 years carry a lot of experience. He’s thrived at Fiorentina, become a staple of the Serbian national team, and rebounding from his injury-hit time at City and is a leader at Schalke.

And those young guys can learn from Nastasic, who’s seen it all at 24.

“When I just arrived in Italy I was only 18 and it was the first year out of my country,” Nastasic told PST. “I didn’t expect at the beginning that I would play that much. Then I changed to England, and it was totally different. Italy is more tactical. Football in England is physical with a lot of tempo and running. I was young also without so much experience but when I was fit I think I played good.”

Schalke will need its young attack to find more goals. Its defense was Top Five in goals conceded last season, but its 45 goals was mid-table.

“Everyone knows that last season was not as good as we had expected,” Howedes said. “With our new coach, we want to improve our game and make our fans happy again. We are training hard and I am sure, that we will be more constant and improve our performances this season.”

[ MORE: First female ref to make Bundesliga debut ]

“From the team I expect a much better season than last year,” Nastasic adds. “We are not playing international games so maybe that’s an advantage for us. We can concentrate on the Bundesliga.”

Both Nastasic and Howedes heaped praise on McKennie, as well as American teammate Haji Wright, who will spend the season on loan to Sandhausen, and the game overseas in general.

“Haji Wright started spectacular,” Howedes said. “For young players the most important thing is to play. On loan in Sandhausen the chance is greater than here. I rejoice for him he get this opportunity. The step in the 2.Bundesliga can be a good beginning of his career.

“The American soccer is really developing the last years. It is no coincidence that a lot of great players like Kaka and Gerrard joined Major League Soccer. And who knows, I also can imagine to play there some day in the future.”

Different champs (but probably not different champs): Bayern Munich will neither have Xabi Alonso nor Philipp Lahm this season, but that doesn’t mean they are runaway favorites to claim its 27th title and sixth-straight since Borussia Dortmund’s two-year reign ended with the 2011-12 crown. Carlo Ancelotti has reloaded with James Rodriguez and Corentin Tolisso, and will be favored to hold off BVB for the crown.

Here’s to the new Bosz: USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic is already making an impact in the mind of his new coach, Peter Bosz, and the manager will be pleased to note that reports say Pulisic has no interest in looking into his future until after the 2018 World Cup.

Sleepers? Eintracht Frankfurt dropped into 11th last season, and may benefit from not finishing in a European place. The club has added Mexican national teamer Carlos Saucedo, Dutch star Jetro Willems, and well-traveled Jonathan De Guzman for its new season.

Americans Abroad:
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
Julian Green (Stuttgart)
Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
McKennie (Schalke)
Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen *expected to be sold)
Caleb Stanko (Freiburg)

Old faces, new places:
Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim, on loan from Bayern Munich)
Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Dortmund, from ‘Gladbach)
Mathew Leckie (Hertha BSC, from Ingolstadt)
Sven Bender (Bayer Leverkusen, from BVB)
Marcel Heller (Augsburg, from Darmstadt)
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Hamburg, from Bayer)
John Brooks (Wolfsburg, from Hertha)
Paul Verhaegh (Wolfsburg, from Augsburg)
Holger Badstuber (Stuttgart, from Bayern)

New faces, new places:
James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich)
Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha BSC)
Reece Oxford (Gladbach, on loan from West Ham)
Harit (Schalke)
Jonathan de Guzman (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Viktor Fischer (Mainz)

Opening weekend
Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Hamburg vs. Augsburg — Saturday
Hertha Berlin vs. Stuttgart — Saturday
Hoffenheim vs. Werder Bremen — Saturday
Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Dortmund — Saturday
Mainz vs. Hannover 96 — Saturday
Schalke vs. RB Leipzig — Saturday
Freiburg vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — Sunday
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Koln — Sunday

FC Barcelona releases statement after terror attack

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FC Barcelona found tragedy at home on Thursday when a terrorist plot unfolded in Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Las Ramblas is just a 20-minute ride from the Camp Nou, and the Catalan club hosts Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

A terrorist-driven rental van was driven at 50 mph through a crowded plaza. As of post time, two men had been arrested but the driver remained on the loose.

Saying it was sickened by the attack, FCB announced it will fly flags at half-mast, wear black arm bands during the match and hold a minute’s silence.

Here’s the full statement:

FC Barcelona wants to express its profound sorrow and utter disgust at the terrorist attack that has hit the heart of our city, la Rambla de Barcelona. The Club wishes to send our support and thoughts to the victims, their families and friends as well as the people of Barcelona and its visitors.

As a mark of respect, the flags will fly at half-mast at the Club’s facilities and the players from both teams will wear black armbands in all the Club’s matches this weekend.

On Sunday, before the 2017/18 La Liga opener against Betis, the Camp Nou will hold a minutes silence in recognition and memory of the victims.

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

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MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA