A Loons SuperDraft Strategy? Hope For Defense.

by on 18 January 2018

The 2018 MLS SuperDraft will kick off Friday starting at 10 A.M. CT, with the first two rounds coming from the floor of the Philadelphia Convention Center. It will be a big occasion for the (up to) 92 players who will be selected. Many picks will not ultimately sign with the clubs that pick them, and very few will end up having long and fruitful careers in MLS. But for the moment, at least, it’s an exciting opportunity to dream.

For the teams and their fans, it’s an opportunity to dream as well. Every year there’s a debate that occurs about whether the SuperDraft is necessary anymore, with increasing numbers of players coming through the international transfer market, or through homegrown academies. But every year, the SuperDraft seems to re-assert its relevance. Good players come through the college system, and good players are available for the taking. For all the talk about big signings in MLS, some of the biggest moves have been intra-league swaps of recently drafted players, like Darlington Nagbe and Walker Zimmerman.

This year’s class seems to be impressively deep. The past week’s MLS combine has featured a high quality of play, and going into the event, there was a surprising lack of consensus among mock drafts as to who might be the top selection (as journalists have been able to speak with MLS front office staff this week, the buzz has begun to center around the Akron defender Joao Moutinho).

That’s good news for Minnesota United FC, who hold the fifth, twenty-eighth, and forty-first picks. There will be sharp looking players available at those spots. Last year was a good year to hold the first pick, when there were just a couple of elite attacking prospects to choose from. In a year with less of a clear top tier, but talent deep into the draft, the Loons are again well positioned.

Last year’s approach

Minnesota’s one-year SuperDraft history is mixed. With four selections in the 2017 edition, the Loons had two clear misses. Their selection of goalkeeper Alec Ferrell twenty-third overall made sense on paper, but in practice, it turned out that his lingering knee injury was far worse than was known. In fact, Ferrell, who now works as a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch in Denver, recently had yet another surgery to correct the issue, and may never play professional soccer. The Loons also whiffed on their fourth round selection of Tanner Thompson. The brother of San Jose Earthquakes homegrown Tommy Thompson, Tanner didn’t make the Loons team and went on to have a reasonably productive year with Indy Eleven. But in hindsight, the right choice was defender Jack Elliott, who the Philadelphia Union grabbed ten picks later, and who finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.

These mistakes aside, Minnesota’s 2017 draft must be viewed as a success one year later, because they aced the top pick of Abu Danladi. After a clear adjustment period, the young Ghanaian became a key contributor to the club’s attack, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting after a season with eight goals and three assists. The Loons’ also picked well in selecting Thomas de Villardi, a French midfielder from the University of Delaware. He impressed in camp and signed with the team, only to have his year derailed by a ruptured Achilles, and ultimately not re-signed. But that doesn’t negate a good choice. If you can get a player good enough to be signed in the forty-second pick, you’ve done well. Just ten players of the thirty-nine players selected after de Villardi actually signed with their clubs.

This year’s needs

One year into this MLS life, the Loons come into the SuperDraft in a different position, and with far different needs. Picking fifth, the team is no longer the center of intrigue on draft day. Thanks partly to the success of Danladi, the forward position is well spoken for. Instead, after a season where they conceded a record number of goals, the biggest needs for Minnesota are all defensive. The SuperDraft is a good place to address that area of the field. In the modern MLS landscape, where teams spend lavishly on exquisitely cultured foreign talent to headline their attack, the defensive work is often left to corn-fed workaday domestic players. There’s a typecasting at work there, and the SuperDraft is often full of that latter type.

Before delving into the details of individual players available in this draft, Minnesota have four clear positional needs. The first is at the central attacking midfield spot, which is completely vacant on the current Loons roster. The second is in central defensive midfield position, where the team has no natural backup for Sam Cronin. The third is at center back, where the team had a depth crisis last season. With Francisco Calvo near certain to go to the World Cup with Costa Rica (and possibly impress enough to earn a transfer to Europe), the Loons need depth in that spot once again. The last need is at full back, where Minnesota currently employ three players with a combined age of 97.

With their three picks, if the Loons could draft players worthy of signing in three of these positions, they will have done very well for themselves.

Filling in the puzzle pieces

CENTRAL ATTACKING MIDFIELD: The No. 10 position is one of the most scrutinized in the game, and MLS teams have increasingly looked abroad for a player with the technique and vision to play this role. The two-time MLS Cup contenders Seattle and Toronto both looked to highly paid international players to fuel their attack. Only two of the 2017 playoff teams, New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City, relied on an American playmaker. Only one of those men, Sacha Kljestan, came through the draft.

This is a long preamble to say, basically, that Minnesota United are unlikely to look to the draft to fill the role of the team’s primary attacker. But should they do so, or should they look to find a backup in that position, there are two apparent options available to them at the fifth pick.

Jon Bakero, of Wake Forest, is the first. He won the Hermann Trophy as the top player in college soccer in 2017, and is the son of José Mari Bakero, who played with Barcelona, Real Sociedad, and the Spanish national team. Bakero is perhaps the most skillful player on the ball available in the draft. The criticism of him is that he slows the game down, and earlier in the week there was some question about his ability to be a key playmaker in MLS. But after a strong combine and a lot of hype from coaches, it seems his stock is rising again.

Chris Mueller, of Wisconsin, is the second option. Mueller led college soccer in assists last year, but the Badgers are not a top soccer program, and so there was a debate about whether Mueller could make a big jump from a smaller program to the pros. A strong combine might have quieted those doubts. Unlike Bakero, Mueller seems to speed up the game. That comes at a cost of a lot of turnovers, but also a lot of opportunities. More than any other attacker on display in Orlando, Mueller seemed willing to try stuff and take risks.

CENTRAL DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD: Minnesota’s midfield is a bit of a jumble right now, with an astonishing five players who are all best considered No. 8s, no No. 10s, and only one No. 6. That last guy would be Sam Cronin, himself a onetime SuperDraft second pick. In the Loons’ ideal scenario, Cronin plays the entire season in that spot. But now 31, and after a season marred by concussion, it’s important that the club have a backup plan that isn’t just putting one of their stable of box-to-box mids in a more defensive role and hoping that works out. They could find a good candidate to backup Cronin in this draft.

Chris Lema, of Georgetown, is the player who sticks out. Throughout the combine, he stood out for his left foot and simple, smart, and quick passing. Capable of passing through the lines, over the top, or just shuttling it from defense to midfield or left to right, the one constant was that Lema made good decisions with the ball quickly. His positioning and defending was occasionally suspect, but overall he made a strong impression.

CENTRAL DEFENSE: Minnesota’s starting center backs weren’t really the problem past the fourth week of the MLS season. Between Francisco Calvo, Brent Kallman, and Michael Boxall, the Loons have quality in the back. The issue last season was depth, and it ought to be an issue this coming year as well. Calvo will almost certainly spend the summer with the Costa Rican national team. He could well earn a transfer if he impresses in Russia. If either Kallman or Boxall take an injury, there’s nobody behind them to step up. Of all the Loons’ priorities in the draft, getting a center back who could get playing time over the summer might be the most pressing.

Tomas Hilliard-Arce was expected to be one of the top selections in the draft, if not the first pick. A senior who won three national championships with Stanford, Hillard-Arce is considered by many to be one of the most pro-ready players in the draft. He’s sturdy, he’s a vocal leader, he’s a proven winner from a top school with a good history of producing MLS players. Few analysts seem to expect him to become a tip-top player, but most seem to consider him the surest thing in the draft. Why would he fall to Minnesota at the fifth spot? His poor combine performance could do it. It’s not likely, but he really did struggle, and it’s certainly more likely than it was last week.

Wyatt Omsberg is more than a good enough back-up plan for the Loons if Hillard-Arce doesn’t fall into their lap. Omsberg stands out just from his background; he’s a native Mainer, and went to Dartmouth, not a traditional soccer power. But Omsberg has shown up in a big way to the combine. He finished in the top five in speed, agility, and power tests. He has some notable boosters, who think he has a high ceiling. In his three games, he hardly put a foot wrong. Early mock drafts had Omsberg as a late first round selection. Now he may go in the top ten, and while it might be a slight reach, the Loons might be smart to grab him while he’s available by the fifth pick, because the pickings will be slimmer with the twenty-eighth.

FULLBACK: After cutting Justin Davis, Kevin Venegas, and de Villardi (and Jermaine Taylor, uh, I guess), and signing Tyrone Mears, the Loons have just three fullbacks on the roster. All are older. Mears will be 35 (!!!) at the start of the season, Marc Burch is 33, and Jerome Thiesson is 30. Minnesota absolutely need multiple new options at these positions, and it would be a real surprise if they did not find at least one option in the draft. Given needs at other positions and the options available in the draft, however, I’d be a bit surprised if they used their fifth pick on a fullback. Instead, there will probably be pretty solid choices still unpicked by the second round.

Carter Manley wasn’t on my radar at all to start the combine, but he was hard to ignore the converted centerback in several stellar outings as a right-back. On the first combine matchday, he largely held Chris Mueller in check. On the second, he thwarted Ema Twumasi. That’s two of the combine’s brightest attackers who were non-factors because they were matched against Manley. Somehow, he still seems to have been mostly ignored, and most drafts have him going as a late first round or early second round pick. If he’s available to the Loons, they ought to swoop in and grab him.

Brandon Bye played as a forward in college for Western Michigan, but in the weird alchemy of MLS player evaluation, everyone seems to expect him to play as a fullback. He starred in the physical testing to start the combine, and on the field in his unfamiliar position. Minnesota’s front office may have a leg up on evaluating Bye, as he played last summer with Minneapolis City SC.

Minnesota-Only Somewhat Plausible Mock Draft

With all of that said, here’s my picks for the Loons. I like the high potential of Omsberg. If Lema is on the board at #28, he’s a good steal, otherwise, take Manley. If Bye remains at #41, he’s the guy to get.

#5. Wyatt Omsberg, CB, Dartmouth

#28. Chris Lema, CDM, Georgetown

#41. Brandon Bye, RB, Western Michigan

In reality, the only guarantee on draft day is that it won’t work out like you expect. But the depth of this year’s draft class and its symmetry with the Loons’ needs has me optimistic.



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