Not for a while will it be known whether the 2012 SuperDraft will be a case of less is more, or if it signifies a radical change in the persona of MLS.
Trimming it to two rounds from three is largely cosmetic, since a four-round Supplemental Draft will be conducted via conference call Tuesday. (Last year, each phase consisted of three rounds). As usual, there were sleepers and surprises, and a dearth of trades added another layer of intrigue to a three-hour session punctuated by roars and chants from boisterous Sporting Kansas City fans in attendance.
Yet whereas in past drafts a solid two-way player like former North Carolina captain Kirk Urso would have been snapped up, teams seemed more anxious this year to pick from a rather deep pool of attacking talent rather than risk letting those players get away. While defenders came into the mix starting with Portland’s selection of Andrew Jean-Baptiste at No. 8 and were well-represented from that point on, the early draft selections clearly indicated a willingness by the weaker MLS teams to rebuild from the front as well as the back, and to go for college products as well as myriad international options.
Of the first seven picks, only No. 1 selection and Hermann Trophy winner Andrew Wenger came into the draft with any pedigree as a defender -- and he scored 17 goals for Duke in 2011 after playing two seasons in the backline that included first-team All-American honors last year. He’s a rare, if not unique case, of ability as well as versatility, but is also representative of gifted athletes well-imbued with attacking attributes no matter where they play.
“He’s with the Olympic team right now and he’s playing centerback,” said Montreal head coach Jesse Marsch. “I watched him down there in Florida and he’s a very good centerback and has a great future at centerback if that’s what we think is the best fit. In all honesty, that one’s going to take a little bit of time to see how it all plays itself out. But I do think he has potential to be a great midfielder, a defender, and a great forward.”
Marsch said he made the decision two days before the draft after interviewing Wenger and Akron forward Darren Mattocks amid discussion and debate about which player would be taken first. Vancouver took the Jamaican Mattocks with the second pick and the emphasis on attack continued.
Attacking players and forwards dotted the top-tier of the first round during which teams kept their picks rather than trading them away. That aspect held through the entire draft, as none of the 38 selections were exchanged on Thursday. Portland traded Kenny Cooper to New York, receiving allocation money and a 2013 SuperDraft pick, but no 2012 selections changed hands.
Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, slotted 18th in both rounds due to Houston’s appearance in MLS Cup last November, said he tried to negotiate a higher pick and also acknowledged that the quality of players up for grabs certainly encouraged teams to keep what they had. He lost Brian Ching in the Expansion Draft and is exploring foreign options, yet still used his first-round pick on Louisville forward Colin Rolfe.
“We made a couple tries to move up in the order and were unsuccessful,” said Kinnear, “and you can’t blame the teams for picking who they picked. I think it was a pretty good draft. The talent at forward was probably deeper than we’ve seen in years past. It all shakes out about six months from now when we see how guys handle the day-to-day stuff.”
New Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie believes Mattocks can supplement the attacking elements already in place: rugged striker Eric Hassli, creative winger Davide Chiumiento and crafty playmaker Camilo.
“We did a little poll around the table before the first pick and everybody said Maddocks would go first, but I said Wenger would go first,” said Rennie, hired by last year from his work with the NASL Carolina Railhawks. “So I’m not surprised. He brings something that our team needs and that is the ability to stretch teams and get in behind people, and he’s a goal threat, a guy who can finish and potentially a top-star player. I think any time you get a goalscorer you’re always happy.”
Said team president Bob Lenarduzzi, a member of the management team that selected Rennie to replace predecessor Teitur Thordarson, “Martin in his previous coaching stints, he’s always been someone who’s very disciplined in terms of how he wants to defend but he likes to attack, so that’s a lot of attacking options to pick from.”
It will take much more than a few college kids to transform a league’s style, and coaches and GMs emphasized that the stiff physical demands of the pro game and MLS in particular are still essential. But when Colorado replaces an Englishman, Gary Smith, who preached a rugged style, with Colombian Oscar Pareja, a skilled midfielder as a player, those influences are reflected in the players they seek. The Rapids took UConn’s Tony Cascio, one of eight forwards selected in the first round, even though there are questions about his suitability to the pro level.
RSL manager Garth Lagerwey believes more organizations realize the value, on and off the field, of creativity and skill.
“I think you’re seeing a trend toward more skilled players in the league,” says Lagerwey, “but you’re also seeing a choice, not just on the part of coaches, but on the part of organizations from ownership on town, the idea that if we can entertain our fans, there’s value there. We can sell more tickets, we can sell more sponsorships, and so that attractive, attacking style of soccer is starting to carry the day. It comes from the top and coaches are encouraged to seek out players like that. Hopefully, it does incorporate a style of play conducive to keeping the ball on the ground.”