The Sporting Kansas City technical staff visited Orlando for five days last week, watching the top college soccer prospects compete in the MLS combine in preparation for the draft.
And then on Friday, they went off script.
Sporting KC picked Florida Gulf Coast defender Kamar Marriott with the 21st overall pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.
It added to its draft class with Pacific defensive midfielder Camden Riley in the second round.
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Marriott, 22, was not invited to the MLS combine. Rather, he was identified by Sporting KC goalkeeper coach Alec Dufty beforehand as a potential fit. Sporting KC was impressed by Marriott’s ability to play with the ball along the back line and in the defensive midfield, a top priority for a club that ranks among the league’s elite possession teams.
“I wanted a guy that had the ability and the confidence to play with the ball at his feet,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said in a teleconference call after the selection in Chicago. “For us, it was an important aspect that we can develop into that role. He’s also got very, very strong athletic qualities.”
And size. Marriott, whose hometown is Tampa, is listed at 6-foot-4, 185 pounds. He scored three goals and assisted six others in 64 appearances at Florida Gulf Coast. He missed the 2017 season because of an injury, but Vermes said he has completely recovered. Marriott is formerly a member of the FC Dallas academy.
Riley, 22, recorded 19 goals and 10 assists in 66 games with Pacific. He was a second team All-American and the West Coast Conference player of the year in his senior season.
He visited Sporting KC on a four-day trial last summer, along with other college players.
“I’ve seen them play on multiple occasions, and I absolutely fell in love with their style of play,” Riley said. “I see myself as a holding midfielder or a No. 6 that can help distribute the ball or move the team forward.”
In the immediate term, both selections figure to factor more into the franchise’s USL team, the Swope Park Rangers, than the senior team.
“He won’t get stymied by being on the first team and not getting a chance to play,” Vermes said after the first-round selection, a reflection that applies to Riley, as well. “We do have the Swope Park Rangers. That’s a big part of the development with players. The structure we have in place lends itself to really good opportunities for players to continue to develop and grow.”
With the growth of MLS youth academies scooping up homegrown players, the talent pool in the draft has steadily declined. It’s become an antiquated way to build a roster in the league, and the impact of Sporting Kansas City’s recent classes display that. In the past three years, Sporting KC has drafted eight players, including three first-round picks. Only one player has appeared in an MLS match. Graham Smith, selected in 2018, played two games.