Perception and relevancy are two key talking points when it comes to Major League Soccer. Entering its 21st season, the league continues to fight an uphill battle for a voice in the major American sports scene. One product from this struggle is the MLS SuperDraft, which has taken a formal and traditional approach à la the NFL and NBA drafts.
The only problem is MLS is rarely comparable to its NFL, NBA counterparts, and you don’t have to look much further than the draft itself to see why. Unlike football and basketball, the majority of soccer talent isn’t being developed at the collegiate level. Rather, rapid development has come at the youth level with teams investing heavily in their academies. The result has been a significant rise in homegrown talent being signed before the players even leave for college.
This excellent column on Yahoo Sports delves deeper into the discussion, and argues the league should abolish the draft altogether. I’m not entirely sold on that notion; the draft has produced stars like Cyle Larin, who made an instant impact for Orlando City SC last season, and Dom Dwyer, who needed a little lift at the USL level to jumpstart his MLS career. This year’s draft features less talent, sure, but with players like former Stanford defender Brandon Vincent spearheading the class, there remains a need for this avenue into the league.
So maybe the issue comes down to the pageantry MLS tries to display with the draft rather than the focus on talent that comes out of it. Either way, it’s a topic worth reexamining as the league and American soccer player pool continues to grow down the road.
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For now, here’s more from the draft as it relates to the league and Sporting Kansas City:
Wheeling and dealing from the onset
The No. 1 overall pick of this year’s MLS SuperDraft, Jack Harrison, was pursued by New York City FC before the draft, but was selected by the Chicago Fire. Minutes after the pick was announced, MLS Commissioner Don Garber confirmed that the Fire were trading a “player to be named later” to NYCFC for the No. 4 selection (Vincent). That player ended up being Harrison, who provided the draft’s best quote:
In the end, New York got the man it wanted and Chicago received the most ready player of the draft in Vincent as well as allocation money. That’s good business for a Fire team that entered the day with only 14 players on its roster.
Sporting KC gives up a little to net a lot
Those new to MLS fandom – conditioned by the NFL and NBA to believe that first-round picks are critical for a club’s future success – can get a little frustrated when their team doesn’t select a player in the first round of the draft. So when Sporting KC gave up its No. 11 pick to D.C. United for Targeted Allocation Money (The Star’s Sporting KC beat writer Sam McDowell explains what TAM is here), some fans took to social media to ask, “What gives?”
First off, Sporting KC has 29 players on its roster. That number will need to be cut down to 28 by March 1. While there are certainly loopholes with the number of spots available thanks to the club’s partnership with USL and Swope Park Rangers, there’s no reason to select a player simply for the sake of doing so and needing to later make a move to get to 28.
Instead, Sporting KC opted out of a weak draft class (especially weak after picks 1-4) and earned valuable Targeted Allocation Money in the process. That’s good business, particularly when players like Benny Feilhaber and Krisztian Nemeth are due new contracts soon. Both players are likely to earn more than the MLS maximum salary budget, which means having TAM is critical to retaining their talents.
“There were a couple players we were interested in, but they went early,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “Once they did, we got a pretty darn good offer for our pick. It made sense to go the direction we did.”
Goalkeeping comments spur Sporting KC discussion
San Jose made a surprise selection with the No. 8 overall pick in former Clemson goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell. The most interesting tidbit from the pick was Sporting KC’s apparent interest in Tarbell.
Heineman’s comments are interesting considering Sporting KC has a promising young goalkeeper in Jon Kempin, who long has been labeled the club’s keeper of the future and has signed a new contract.
Vermes did not address the club’s interest in Tarbell, noting that such comments can be viewed as tampering by the league.
While I seriously doubt these comments were made carelessly, it sheds light on an intriguing goalkeeping situation. Tim Melia is 29 years old and is coming off a superb season. Kempin is 22 and looks increasingly ready to be a starting goalkeeper in MLS. Both will challenge for the starting job this preseason. If Sporting KC had drafted Tarbell, the “10-year keeper” plan doesn’t line up with Kempin’s future. It’s something on which to keep an eye in the next year or two as Kempin steps into a bigger role.
Vermes comments on offseason addition thus far
It’s been a relatively quiet month and a half for Sporting KC compared to last offseason’s “Blue Wedding” – a week in December that saw the club waive/trade/release several notable players.
The news that has emerged has been big, though. Sporting KC announced the signings of Justin Mapp and Brad Davis. It also brought back midfielder Lawrence Olum, who was with the club from 2011-14, and re-signed Soni Mustivar and Paulo Nagamura.
While none of these moves are classified as big, blockbuster deals that will resonate around the league, they do point to the direction in which Sporting KC is aiming to go in 2016. That course, it seems, centers on maintaining the core of the team while adding pieces that are familiar with the league and Sporting KC’s up-tempo style.
“I think for all the teams in MLS, when you can acquire players who not only know the league but have had significant impact during their careers in the league, a lot of us would always go with that player first,” Vermes said. “Obviously they have to be good and have had to had a real impact, but you can say that about (Brad Davis, Justin Mapp and Lawrence Olum).
“It’s a big help; you’re not trying to indoctrinate them into the league. That’s the first part that’s difficult, with travel, climate change, different time zones, etc. These guys have dealt with that, and they know how to deal with it.”
With these moves, Sporting KC not only has added to its depth – something critical with a schedule that features midweek games, the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League – but also players who can play multiple positions. Justin Mapp is a traditional winger but has been all over the field in various formations. Brad Davis will likely be an option off the bench in the midfield, but can no doubt fill-in here and there for Krisztian Nemeth or Graham Zusi.
“There’s no doubt that you have to have depth,” Vermes said. “You also have to have quality players, and we have that. We have to be careful with injuries. We’re going to have a lot of games, so there’s probably going to be a lot of player rotation.”
One area I believed Sporting KC needed to address was its depth at striker, and in a roundabout way it has. When Dom Dwyer needs a break, Nemeth appears to be the backup option. Last season, this was an issue because there were no other wing options available. Now, Sporting KC has Davis, Mapp and a healthy Bernardo Anor from which to choose.
But keep this in mind: although preseason action begins shortly, don’t expect Sporting KC to remain silent on the transaction front.
“There will be a few more players coming down the pike,” Vermes confirmed. “I’m sure you’ll see a few more players added to the roster in the short term. I don’t want to talk about names or positions right now because we’re finalizing documentation and stuff like that, but there will be more moves coming.”
Which means current players could be headed out the door.
“There’s a good chance (of that happening),” Vermes added.
Daniel Salloi becomes Sporting KC’s fourth homegrown player
Homegrown players are often a work in progress. Such is the case for Daniel Salloi, who Wednesday became the club’s fourth homegrown player. However, I wanted to touch on the news a little bit, because I had the chance to sit down and talk to Salloi last summer as an intern for Sporting KC.
Salloi’s fascinating path to America started well before he was even born. Vermes played with his father and Sporting KC academy coach Istvan Urbanyi in Hungary. Their friendship quickly blossomed, lasted decades when the trio went different directions professionally, and inevitably paved the way for Urbanyi and Daniel to make their way to Kansas City.
Salloi, 19, helped Sporting KC’s U-18s to a 14-8-5 regular season mark and their first playoff appearance. He had 15 goals in the second half of the season and 21 overall in 28 appearances. He describes himself as a “skinny boy,” who is still learning how to use his body to fend of physical, American defenders. It will be a while before he sees the senior squad, but his story is worth checking out in the weeks leading up to the 2016 season.
Random tidbits from the draft and beyond
▪ It seems Timbers CEO Merritt Paulson isn’t a fan of U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann:
▪ From Swope Park Rangers GM Kurt Austin:
▪ Colorado made some noise during the draft, but not directly because of their selections:
▪ The Kansas City Chiefs have a big playoff game this weekend against New England in Foxborough, Mass. But that didn’t stop Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt from taking in Thursday’s SuperDraft:
▪ Speaking of Colorado, new Rapids’ midfielder Marco Pappa is apparently in the middle of a bizarre story involving Miss Washington USA:
▪ Dom Dwyer is no doubt a happy man this week. On Wednesday, FC Kansas City announced it traded for Dom’s wife, Sydney Leroux Dwyer.