MLS expansion teams address their needs directly

By Ridge Mahoney

The first SuperDraft of the expansion teams United is in the books.

Minnesota went for a striker, Atlanta picked a centerback. In both cases the teams filled a need while also fulfilling the vision of the head coach. UCLA forward Abu Danladi and centerback Miles Robinson, respectively, will forever be known as the No. 1 pick of their teams’ inaugural seasons, even if a trade occurs down the line, which seemed more likely for Robinson than Danladi as the picks were made.

This is the way it’s supposed to work for expansion teams, which are allotted the top pick(s) automatically -- along with boatloads of general allocation money -- in their debut MLS season. Two years ago, both Orlando City and New York City FC chose wisely; Cyle Larin scored a record 17 goals for the Lions on his way to the Rookie of the Year Award, and Khiry Shelton did well enough in his two seasons to convince NYCFC it could afford to trade Patrick Mullins – a first-round choice by New England in 2014 -- to D.C. United.

The same head coach who groomed Larin into a pro-level striker and Canadian international also selected Danladi. Adrian Heath --  in his playing days a prolific scorer for several English clubs, particularly Everton -- readily talks up the Ghanaian whose back story is compelling stuff.

“The upside of this kid is huge, I think the potential he has is absolutely massive,” said Heath, who mentioned “we probably had calls from every club in MLS” regarding a trade of the top pick. Jeremy Ebobisse of Duke, projected No. 1 on many mock drafts, fell to fourth and was the third attacker taken. Jonathan Lewis went to NYCFC via a trade with Chicago, and Portland swung a deal with Houston to take Ebobisse three slots after Danladi.

“He’s got incredible pace, natural athleticism,” said Heath. “He wants to run in behind, which is a dying art. People want to come to the ball now. This kid wants to play off the back shoulder and go by defenders.”

This draft – like the majority of them held since MLS kicked off in 1996 – had been forecast as well-stocked with backliners, with Robinson generally regarded as the best of the bunch. Defenders were taken with picks five and seven; Columbus went local to take Lalas Abubakar out of Dayton, and the Whitecaps plucked Jacob Nerwinski from UConn. Brandon Aubrey of Notre Dame dropped all the way to No. 21 and was claimed by Toronto FC.

Robinson may yet be moved on but he fills the bill for Atlanta United, which turned to its defensive needs after landing quality attackers Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Romario Williams. Former Crew captain Michael Parkhurst, Tijuana and U.S. left back Greg Garza and presumably Robinson are three elements of a back line under construction by head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino and technical director Carlos Bocanegra, who played nearly 500 games combined for club and country mostly at left back and centerback prior to his retirement in 2014.

As was Bocanegra, Robinson is tough and rugged in the air, yet also has a knack for reading the game regarded as exceptional for a college player.

“A lot of people talk about his athleticism and that’s there for everyone to see,” said Bocanegra. “He has good anticipation. He anticipates when there’s going to be a long ball with his body shape and first step. He steps into midfield with the forwards and a lot of it is because of his athleticism. He trusts himself. But he can play tight on a forward, he can play a high line 40 yards behind him. He has a lot of different qualities and our coach wants to play a little more high-pressure and going one-on-one.”

Said Robinson of Martino, “You can see by the players he’s signed that he wants fast players and wants to play fast and that’s something I have to be ready for. It just amazing when you see a coach like that coming to MLS and I can’t wait to work with him and learn from him.”

Said technical director Darren Eales, “His pace is another big thing. For a center half, particularly in Tata’s style of play where he likes to play a high line and press against opposition you need to have pace to be able to do that.”

Bocanegra and Eales expect to finalize soon a few more signings stemming from the extensive scouting work last year during the Copa America Centenario and European Championship.

“We’re okay,” Bocanegra said of rounding out the roster. “We’ve got three or four things in the back line and we hope to make some announcements in the next few days. I’m pleased. Obviously, we’ve got a bit of work to do, we’re aware of that, but rather than just take players for the sake of the roster I want to make sure we get the right ones.”

Heath is convinced he took the right one in Danladi, cut from an utterly different mold than Larin, who is the first college pick to score more than 22 goals in his first two pro seasons since Damani Ralph (2003-04). He is 6-foot-2 and totes 190 pounds; Danladi weights about 170 and stands 5-foot-10.

“They have different attributes, but most importantly they both score goals,” said Heath. “And as said to Cyle and I will say to Abu, I work as hard as I can and stay out [on the field] as long as possible, but  they have to want it. If they want it badly enough, I think we can help them. Cyle came in and people didn’t know what he was going to do, and he was fantastic. Hopefully we can get the same out of Abu.”

Heath also spoke of prepping Danladi for a radically different environment he was about to encounter and he didn’t mean the drastic jump from college to the pros.

“We had a straight and very straight frank of views from my point of view,” said Heath. “I wanted to make him aware of where we are. He’s been at Santa Barbara and UCLA. It’s not quite the same as Minnesota. It’s a totally different environment he’s coming to. He was very clear to the fact he just wants to come and play and contribute and hopefully learn.”

Like the players they selected, the two head coaches -- though both foreign-born -- are polar opposites in starting a team from scratch. This is Heath’s fourth go-round after launching Austin (2008) and Orlando City (2011 USL, 2015 MLS). Martino has no experience whatsoever to draw from regarding expansion, per se, but his excellent work with the Paraguayan national team (2007-11) and Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys (2012-13) launched him to Barcelona and Argentina. No coach in league history can match that CV.

“He came in with an open mind and realized America is different from the rest of the world,” said Bocanegra of Martino, who during the SuperDraft sportingly managed to answer a few questions in English as Bocanegra assisted with the translations. “He did his homework. He’s got a little bit different mentality, a different cultural background. But he also realizes there’s an American cultural background and where we are here in the league. We’ve been trying blend that and trying to take the best of both worlds.”

As to the concept of a draft itself, Martino noted that it was “a show” -- which he seemed to grasp as a huge day for the players and their families -- as much as a filling of roster spots. And upon Heath being reminded of his vast backlog of experience with the expansion process that includes its own draft and several more, he joked, “I hope it’s the last one.”
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