MLS Draft Throws Plenty of Curves But Leaves Unanswered Questions

The MLS is certainly unique among major U.S. sports – it is the only draft in which a team passes on a player because he needs to establish residency.  But such is the reason why MLS fans love the MLS – it is unique in both the world of soccer and the American sports world.  And the draft is another unique aspect; it is an event dedicated to the selection of what are essentially late blooming players who went to college, an oddity in Europe but an essential part of the American soccer landscape.

For those expecting a boring draft, they were shocked when Vancouver took Omar Salgado with the first pick.  Salgado is a great talent with huge potential, but it looks like he will not be able to contribute for a couple of years at least.  He won’t even get the chance to play for Vancouver for a few months until he turns 18, but Vancouver decided to roll the dice anyway.  This is a curious strategy for an expansion team, but it looks like Vancouver is looking more towards 2013 than 2011, not a terrible strategy.

After the Salgado shock, the draft began to shake out as many people expected.  Portland took Akron’s Darlington Nagbe number two, where he was expected to fall after he told Vancouver he wanted to play in the United States to establish residency.  D.C. United were the big beneficiaries of the Salgado pick as they nabbed Perry Kitchen, jolting forward their defensive rebuilding project by a year or two.  New Chivas coach Robin Fraser made his mark by grabbing defender Zerek Valentin and filling a need for the team.  By the time the first round was done, five Akron players went in the top eight picks, prompting some on Twitter to joke about Columbus relocating to Akron and not singing any players over 22.

The best part of any draft is the surprise picks, and the top ten had a few of them.  Philadelphia grabbed University of Maryland keeper Zac MacMath at #5; while no one can deny his talent fans wondered why they needed a keeper when the Union had just signed Columbian international Faryd Mondragon.  The Akron name seduced Vancouver into taking midfielder Michael Nanchoff with the eighth pick, even though more highly rated players like Will Bruin and Corey Hertzog were on the board.

You can see the entire draft here.

The big winners in this draft?  The Universities of Akron, California, and North Carolina who had seven, six, and four players selected respectively.  Another winner was the New York Red Bulls, who were able to nab John Rooney and instantly sell a bunch more shirts which will have the name “Rooney” on the back.  Finally, the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United supporter groups which made the trip to Baltimore and added some excitement to the draft.

The big loser in this draft?  Don Garber, who mistakenly Tweeted that Vancouver had selected Nagbe with the first pick, then spent the rest of the afternoon apologizing for his Twitter feed.  He did redeem himself in post-draft interviews however.

Who were the winners and losers in the draft, and how did your team do?  Sound off below.

26 Responses to MLS Draft Throws Plenty of Curves But Leaves Unanswered Questions

  1. Joe says:

    I’m skeptical of the Red Bulls signing of Rooney. I just hope they were able to do an honest talent evaluation of him without considering his name.

  2. Charles says:

    Big winner in the draft Red Bulls for signing Rooney ? IF he makes the team and plays, they might be in trouble.
    Pretty weak article, Robert Hay.

    My short recap. Kinnear needs be back with the Sounders. He is incredible. They crushed it…get the feeling rebuilding for Houston is part of a bad season.

    Vancouver, has an older defender and goes very young with first pick. Interesting to see how the works. There were a lot of players that will contribute right away.

    There were so many players that fell in this draft, you have the feeling some of are going to be great and teams are going to regret their decisions.

    • Dave C says:

      Big winner in the draft Red Bulls for signing Rooney ? IF he makes the team and plays, they might be in trouble.
      I agree it hardly makes them big winners in the draft. But at the same time, I don’t see how it would indicate they were in trouble if he made the team – unless you have some inside info that Rooney is actually a really lousy player?

      • Charles says:

        Well every team out there could have signed him before the draft…wasn’t like it was a secret he wanted to come here.

        Maybe I am making assumptions that he doens’t improve….he did look alright at the combine. Noone would expect him to be a starter at the end of the second round.,…maybe plays is a wrong word. There are a lot of opportunities to play.

  3. Charles says:

    Two words:

    Ok it is a one word title. It has been shown ( in baseball ) that college players that have proven they can play, in real games that they and fans care about, a lot, are a WAY better risk than evaluating talent in high school.
    You can agree or disagree with how that translates to soccer.
    BUT you cannot disagree with how successful MLS has been in using this strategy to figure out who is going to be good and getting them signed.

    Signing these college players into MLS has been better for the talent of the league than all the talked about DP signings combined by a factor of infinity.

    My fear is that Europe with its money is going to catch on someday.

    • bradjmoore48 says:

      The term “moneyball” has been thrown around a lot lately, but I think people have forgotten the context. The subtitle of the book is “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” Moneyball is a system of maximizing ability, potential and wins given limited resources. In baseball, since there isn’t a salary cap, teams with small payrolls have to try to get the best out of what little money they have, while teams with large payrolls can “buy” championships. What Billy Beane did was go against many of the norms of what defined a “solid” ballplayer, and found value in areas others didn’t see because of entrenched biases. The A’s, a team with the 2nd lowest payroll in baseball, were a playoff contender in the late 90s/early 2000s year in and year out. The Boston Red Sox were also a “moneyball” team, but given that they had the 2nd highest payroll in baseball, they could pay for talent but used the system to make sure they didn’t overpay players, and knew when players were past their expiration date.

      As it applies to MLS, because of the salary cap structure of the league, every MLS team is a “moneyball team.” Given the small allocation of resources, what team can you create with a $2.5M salary cap? Every team follows the same cap, there are drafts to disperse good college players to expansion and the worst teams from the year before, there are exemptions for academy/youth players that don’t count against the cap. The difference is in DPs and what ownership groups can afford to spend $5-6M on a single player, but as stated above, paying that money for a player hasn’t lead to a title. So, MLS is not an “unfair system.” All teams have to maximize value with limited resources to win.

      “Moneyball” also doesn’t mean that, 100% of the time, college players are better than HS players. In Moneyball, the issue was that MLB scouts were always looking at potential in HS players rather than actual stats of college players, and Billy Beane saw a market inefficiency and corrected it for his teams financial survival. There are some good players in the college game, as I’m sure this season will show with some of the players drafted, but it is still a risk, not unlike taking a shot on a 17-year-old from your academy and making him a Pro, and he ends up winning MLS Rookie of the Year. The key is options: if a 17-year-old looks good enough to play pro ball, he should play pro ball; if the player is still pretty raw, he may be better served going to a good college program and may look pro material at 21 or 22. It’s all about what is best for an individual player, and each player is not molded the same way, but if there are options, fewer players will get overlooked.

      • Charles says:

        I think you are missing what I am saying and how it relates to soccer in the US. Dave C’s comment below too.

        Sure MLS is not unfair, they built it the way I like it. Compare the MLS teams resources versus the competition in Europe however, quite a bit different story. Soccer worldwide redefines an unfair game. Big teams have virtually ALL the money, and they win all the time.

        MLS is Billy Beane. They looked at what they had to spend…close to zero, figured out where the better risk was for their lack of money, getting college players, and went for it. GenAd has been a HUGE success.

        That doesn’t mean a guy that doesn’t go the college route can’t make it, or college is the only way. It is always better to have more options, more coaches, etc.

        But MLS has pulled the Billy Beane perfectly. In a sport that was begging for it. MLS is getting more bang for their non-buck by relying on the college system heavily.

        You have to agree with me on that don’t you ?

        • bradjmoore48 says:

          I agree that MLS in its earliest stages has benefitted from having a low salary cap and forced teams to examine individual player values as it pertains to cost. It was for financial survival. It has worked for the league. It doesn’t mean that its the system that should be used for all times. To me, the broader concept of Moneyball is “always be adaptable.” Don’t become complacent, always be questioning why you do what you do, and if there is something that can change to improve a product/team, change it.

          Lately, I’ve heard the moneyball concept talked about by people who don’t understand the concept, i.e. the UK media in response to John Henry buying Liverpool FC. You grasp the concept, I just wanted to make sure 🙂

          Ultimately the issue is that the EPL and La Liga mainly don’t know when to stop spending. It’s a vicious cycle: fans and owners demand excellence, which requires excellence in players, which requires $$. The EPL and La Liga have done little to combat excessive debt and spending, or they selectively choose to (I can’t imagine a situation where Barca or Real Madrid dissolves due to debt, but another club in Spain in debt, they would fold). It’s a BS system. But then you look at the Bundesliga and you see great attendances, reasonable parity, and their teams are financially stable due to strict criteria, and they don’t have a salary cap. So it’s not so clear as “Europe = bad, America = good” in soccer terms. MLS certainly has its shortcomings.

          To me, it’s good MLS has a salary cap, and I hope it grows over time, but it doesn’t have to be the system forever.

          Oh, and you’re not going to get college kids from Europe into pro soccer. The NCAA system doesn’t exist in European schools, their schools are pretty much strictly academic. Plus its a class issue – European soccer players are mainly from working-class backgrounds, where college isn’t considered necessary if a kid can net millions of dollars from going pro. The soccer culture here is mostly kids from upper middle-class college educated professional backgrounds, who will pay money for kids to join a team to compete and get a college scholarship, and if he’s good enough to go pro afterwards, then so be it.

  4. Dave C says:

    It’s pretty much a non-sequitur to say that it’s easier to spot talent at the age of 21/22 (when it’s already been proven to some extent) than at 16 (when it is just potential, and all kinds of things can go wrong).

    My fear is that Europe with its money is going to catch on someday.

    You mean European teams will start poaching the best players from the American college system (already happening) or that Europe will start using college to develop players (never going to happen)?

    • Charles says:

      Exactly, and yet teams pay millions and millions for signing and developing 16-18 year olds. Why ?

      With MLB and big teams in soccer, the money is there and they can’t afford to miss players.
      With MLS and other teams, they would be crazy to do so, unless they can do so cheap.

      btw, Who was poached out of college system ? MLS grabbed most everyone they wanted, didn’t they ?

      • Dave C says:

        Who was poached out of college system ? MLS grabbed most everyone they wanted, didn’t they ?
        I wasn’t talking specifically about this year’s graduating class, and I admit that after checking some facts, the frequency of this happening is not as frequent as I had thought, but the following went direct from college to Europe:
        -Landon Donovan
        -Oguchi Onyewu
        -Charlie Davies
        -Brad Friedel

        So I think it’s fair to say Europe already snatches up a good portion of the very best US players direct from college.

        So anyway, is that what you meant when you said you fear that Europe will catch on? You meant you think European teams will start to realize that there are decent players in the US College system?

  5. moneyballer says:

    I’m happy with the Quakes acquisition of Steve Lenhart. He led Columbus in scoring in all competitions last season, is only 24 but already a proven scorer in MLS. He should complement Wondolowski very well up front for San Jose. Their biggest need SJ had in the off season was getting another forward to share the scoring burden with Wondo and they addressed it. The rest of the nucleus of the team from last season is still there.

  6. Gazza says:

    Check your facts again.

    Landon went from IMG Soccer Academy to Bayer Leverkusen. So that leaves 3 players in the last 15 years. I wouldn’t consider that a ‘good portion’.

    • Dave C says:

      Either way, the point is still the same – he still went from some development program (be that college or the IMG or whatever) to Europe, because European teams are poaching good players before the MLS gets hold of them. And since those 3 (or 4 if you include LD) are probably 3 of the best 5 US players of their generation, then yeah I’d say its a good portion of the best US players.

      • Gazza says:

        Really? Charlie Davies is one of the 5 best players of his generation? Has he even played in a world cup? There are 25 guys better than him. Also Gooch is not even in the top 5 defenders of his generation.

        As for Europe poaching US players before MLS gets them – how about you look at the last 2 USA World Cup rosters and show me all the guys that by-passed MLS.

        • Dave C says:

          It’s a bit disingenious to say “How many world cups has Charlie Davies played in?” when everyone knows he would have been a lock-in for the 2010 WC if he hadn’t been in that car crash. Heck even still, people were clinging on to hope that he could be rushed back to fitness – which wouldn’t be true if there were 25 better players.

          If Gooch is not in the top five defenders of his generation, then how come he (a) is nearly always a starter when fit (I think this logically must put him in the top four) and (b) how come he ended up at AC Milan?

          As for “show me how many players on the WC roster bypassed the MLS”, that’s what I did with my comment above – I pointed out that three of the best of them (plus Charlie Davies and Friedel, who weren’t at the WC) bypassed the MLS. Duh! Sorry but I’m not going to waste my time looking into the back ground of every single member of the squad to get a more detailed breakdown.

  7. Lars says:

    The big loser in this draft?

    Anyone who selected one of the five Akron players in the first 8 rounds of the draft. Really guys, they were good, but they weren’t that good. MLS will be lucky if 2 of the 5 Akron players turn out to be professionals. There was some serious overrating of Akron players based on their title.

  8. ExtraMedium says:

    “But MLS has pulled the Billy Beane perfectly. In a sport that was begging for it. MLS is getting more bang for their non-buck by relying on the college system heavily.”

    Hi my name is Charles and I’ve never looked at early morning EPL ratings in America vs. prime-time MLS ratings in America…American soccer fans what a much higher quality product.

    Why even have a cap? DPs may be signed for any amount of money. So an MLS team could spend $50/yr on players as long as they didn’t go over $2.55M last year for non-DPs.

    The salary-cap is being raised to $2.67M. There’s Generation Adidas money, and several teams are adding multiple DPs. So why not just raise the cap to $10M and leave the teams alone to sort out how they’ll spend it (LA Galaxy $2.67 + ~$2.2M Donovan + ~$5.5M for Becks + GA money = $10+M)? Then let unused money roll-over to the next season, and subsidize non-playoff teams. You don’t want to be like MLB/NFL/NBA/NFL where losers are paid to lose, so subsidize the non-playoff teams that finished within 10 points of the last playoff team.

    I’d run MLS better by accident.

    • Charles says:

      And it looks like we have another guy bitter that MLS is succeeding when they predicted it wouldn’t.

      Garber is doing an incredible job. I will be watching very good soccer, which is getting better by the minute, in 2 months, the league will be so competitive that noone will agree at the beginning of the season who is going to win…..and I couldn’t be happier.

      • bradjmoore48 says:

        I’m predicting a Real Salt Lake – NYRB final – count it! 🙂

        Extra- I was actually thinking about this the other day, and I have to agree with you on the idea of there being WAY too many exemptions to the salary cap. I think most teams pay more than $2.5M a year on payroll, but the exceptions keep them under. Maybe not institute $10M initially, but I would bet most teams would be fine with a $5-6M cap to start with no exceptions. This would have numerous benefits: 1) emphasis would still remain on youth and development, mainly since they are cheap commodities. Even GA players getting 100K would only count 1/50th against the cap. 2) You can keep the players in the middle, the guys who are great in the league and deserve a pay raise but won’t get it because of a low cap (read: Edson Buddle, among others), thus keeping players from going to lower level European leagues in order to get money 3) What washed up retiring European player is going to come to MLS if he could get maybe $2M a season at most? In fairness, if this was instituted now, you could grandfather in Beckham, Henry and Marquez, but once their contract is up or they leave the league, they would have to renegotiate for a much smaller contract. I’m not saying “NO FOREIGNERS” but again its about finding value in the market.

      • ExtraMedium says:

        My point is that teams are *already* spending $10+M on players, but the salary-cap creates two important problems. 1) $2.55M makes the league look like a Mickey Mouse operation, thereby reducing fan support from people who would rather not associate with a Mickey Mouse operation. 2) The exemptions to the cap means there isn’t really a cap because DPs may be paid any amount, and Generation Adidas guys get a major share of their salary exempt from the cap. But those exemptions don’t apply to everyone, just, what, 5 guys per team? So MLS teams can’t build depth…That’s not a problem if starters never get hurt, never play poorly, or never get called for international duty…

        Charles, will you at least agree that teams that go under the cap should be allowed to roll over money to the next season? It wouldn’t cost anything, and teams could build depth.

  9. Tom says:

    One positive to the college system is that we get more thoughtful players. The current England players are such jerks, and so many EPL players seem so.. uneducated. Though, maybe that is more of a class thing- many people would say a lot NFL players are brilliant either. I don’t know…

    I wonder if our college non-revenue sports system will last long, considering the rising tuition costs and the budget problems many states have.

    • Dave C says:

      I think it’s just a socal class thing, rather than an inherent result of sending kids through the college system. As you suggest, the NFL shows that when all other things are equal (social background, money, media-exposure), young super rich athletes are gonna do dumb stuff regardless of whether they’ve been to college or not.

  10. Tom says:

    Both Colorado players are foreign born- one from Ghana, one from Scotland. Interesting.

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