With MLS putting more emphasis on youth academy investment and the homegrown player rule seeing young prospects breaking into the league at a much earlier age, plenty of people will try to tell you that the SuperDraft has become increasingly irrelevant over the past few years.
Granted, that time may well come eventually but, for now, it’s plainly apparent that the draft remains a valuable part of roster-building, with players from the 2013 class like first overall pick Andrew Farrell, Carlos Alvarez, Kekuta Manneh, Deshorn Brown and Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers proving there’s plenty of value still to be found by smart general managers and head coaches. With the league’s notorious levels of parity, it’s simply another way for a team to quickly change around its fortunes or find that crucial piece of the puzzle they’ve been searching for and that certainly shouldn’t be underestimated.
The draft can undoubtedly feel like somewhat of a crapshoot at times and picks do not carry as much value as was once the case but, for every bust, there’s always the opportunity to find the next Matt Belser or Graham Zusi.
This year’s class, though it may lack the star power, is clearly no different, with a horde of intriguing prospects to choose from, and the following being a list of the top players available when the teams get together in Philadelphia on January 16th, hoping to unearth the next MLS SuperDraft gem.
*GA = Generation Adidas contract (awarded to select underclassmen)
1. Christian Dean, California, Centre-back (GA)
It goes without saying that 6-4, left-footed centre-backs who possess the combination of size, speed, strength and technically ability are a real rarity. That’s what obviously makes the 20-year old Dean such a hugely intriguing prospect and, though he is still somewhat raw, his upside and GA contract make him one of the hottest properties in this year’s draft. Whether D.C. United will make him the number one overall pick though is far from guaranteed, especially after a fairly average performance at the combine and questions about is temperament and toughness intensifying. Still, think of him as a younger, more skilled version of Real Salt Lake’s Chris Schuler, also capable of filling in at left-back.
2. Andre Blake, UConn, Goalkeeper (GA)
Widely considered one of the top goalkeeping prospects to emerge from the college scene in years, Blake is everything a team could want in a young shot-stopper, possessing the size and athleticism to eventually excel in the pros. The 6-4 Jamaican has already been called up to the senior national team on several occasions this past year and gained favourable comparisons to fellow countryman Donovan Ricketts. After a confident display at the combine, he should be a prime option at third overall for the keeper-needy Vancouver Whitecaps.
3. Steve Birnbaum, California, Centre-back
Dean’s centre-back partner at Cal, Birnbaum is widely regarded as the most MLS-ready prospect in the draft and among the favourites to go number one overall. Having started out his career with the Bears in midfield, the 6-2 senior is the complete package as a defender and bounced back from an LCL injury suffered last year to establish himself as one of the best college players in the nation in 2013.
4. Patrick Mullins, Maryland, Forward
The reigning two-time Hermann Trophy winner, Mullins is the biggest name in this year’s draft, scoring three goals at College Cup in December to finish his senior year with 19. Projected to go first overall since early November, questions over where he best fits in the pros have caused his stock to drop somewhat but it would still be a surprise if he were to fall out of the top 5. Blessed with great finishing ability, intelligent movement and subtle technique, Mullins looks like a natural MLS goal-scorer and if the Maryland product isn’t taken with the first pick by nearby D.C. United – or another team trading up – then I wouldn’t expect him to fall much further.
5. Schillo Tshuma, Maryland, Forward/Winger (GA)
After a breakout freshman campaign, Tshuma had a down year in 2013 but still has all the tools and upside to entice MLS teams, reminding some of 2009 first overall pick Steve Zakuani. Capable of playing anywhere along the forward-line, the Zimbabwean-born prospect has the pace and trickery to cause defenders headaches and, though he acted as second fiddle to Mullins at Maryland, there are plenty of people who think he has a decent chance of enjoying a better pro career than his former college teammate.
6. Steve Neumann, Georgetown, Forward/Attacking Midfielder
After helping underdogs Georgetown to the College Cup semi-finals in 2012, Neumann was subsequently offered a GA contract by MLS, before opting to return for his senior year to finish his degree. He’s certainly done nothing to hurt his stock this season but MLS teams seemingly aren’t as enamoured with him as a prospect as his production would suggest they should be. That said, as a native of New Hope, PA, and having played under current Philadelphia Union assistant Brendan Burke at affiliate club Reading United, plenty of people have suggested that the City of Brotherly Love could be a likely destination – perhaps even as high as second overall. While those assertions may seem wildly optimistic at present, Neumann still stands out as a well-rounded player, with a tremendous work-rate, solid creativity and a nose for goal. If he doesn’t land in Philly, or even ends up falling out of the top 10 on draft day, then another team could be getting a real bargain.
7. Eric Miller, Creighton, Right-back (GA)
A versatile player with experience at full-back, centre-back and defensive midfield, Miller is a solid all-round prospect who looks ready to make the transition to the next level. A former U.S. Under-20 international who was part of last year’s World Cup squad, right-back is where most project him to play in the pros and he should get consideration from a number of teams picking towards the latter-half of the top 10.
8. Marlon Hairston, Louisville, Attacking Midfielder (GA)
Another player with U.S. Under-20 experience, Hairston is seen as a box-to-box midfielder with a good feel for the game and plenty of upside. He has great pace and stamina to compliment his obvious technical ability but still needs to mature somewhat physically for the everyday demands of the pro level. Having played in a more attacking role this past year for the Cardinals, his production has not been eye-popping but the talent is clearly there to convince some team picking in the top 10 that he could be a worthwhile investment.
9. A.J. Cochran, Wisconsin, Centre-back (GA)
A steady and intelligent centre-back, Cochran looks like an MLS-ready prospect, with the size, strength and toughness to handle the pros. Arguably the most dominant player in the air from this class, the St. Louis-native could prove a real weapon on attacking set pieces and, though there have been plenty of people questioning his speed, he’s certainly in the conversation to land in the top 10.
10. Pedro Ribeiro, Costal Carolina, Central Midfielder
A tall and rangy central midfielder, Ribeiro’s style resembles more of a deep-lying playmaker than the physical brute his size would suggest. Blessed with impressive vision, technique and passing, his international status (Brazilian) may hurt him on draft day but he still has a very good chance of going top 10.
*In addition, with rumours of MLS making a late bid to sign UConn’s freshman forward Cyle Larin to GA deal, the Canadian would likely challenge to be the top pick were he to enter Thursday’s draft.
Best of the rest:
11. Kyle Venter, New Mexico, Centre-back
12. Jared Watts, Wake Forest, Defensive Midfielder
13. Kevin Cope, Michigan State, Centre-back
14. J.J. Koval, Stanford, Central Midfielder
15. Ben Sweat, South Florida, Left-back
16. Mamadou Diouf, UConn, Forward/Attacking Midfielder
17. Marco Franco, UC Irvine, Right-back/Centre-back
18. Grant Van De Casteele, Notre Dame, Centre-back
19. Joey Dillon, Georgetown, Defensive Midfielder
20. Damion Lowe, Hartford, Centre-back (GA)