(Published on the Philly Soccer Page on Jan. 15, 2010.)
Philadelphia Union’s expectations just got a whole lot higher.
The Union stole the show at Thursday’s Major League Soccer amateur draft in Philadelphia, wheeling and dealing to acquire two extra first round picks to load up on youth before grabbing a couple of potential later round steals.
That wide haul of players prompted Goal.com’s Kyle McCarthy to call it “one of the most comprehensive draft classes in recent memory”, and ESPN’s Ives Galarcep wrote that “this year’s Union draft could wind up being the best in league history.”
Let’s not go overboard though. (This is Philly, where we do that every year, only to get punched in the gut.) Major League Soccer’s college draft is often notoriously thin, and many MLS draft picks never see the field for their teams. This draft could end up being no different.
What stands out is how the Union used the draft, parlaying an expansion team’s advantage in allocation position into high draft picks. Even if you’ve never seen any of these guys play, you at least have to like the deftness with which the Union played the draft game.
Every Union fan should thank U.S. international goalkeeper Troy Perkins for deciding to return home from Norway, because D.C. United’s demand for him set the ball rolling on the Union’s draft pick stockpile.
The Union went young early for high-potential teenagers who, aside from top pick and projected starting forward Danny Mwanga, may not be expected to contribute right away. First round picks UCLA midfielder Amobi Okubo and U-17 international forward Jack McInerney are 18 and 17 respectfully, with one college season between them. McInerney is so young that Union fans should realistically hope the 5-8 teenager keeps growing because he might need a few inches. By most accounts, McInerney isn’t ready, but he’s shown tremendous potential as a youth international. Okubo may see the field more quickly, but there’s probably not much pressure to do that because of the presence of defensive midfielder Andrew Jacobson on the roster, as well as the Union’s second round pick, defensive midfielder Toni Stahl.
Stahl could see the field pretty quickly, possibly as an opening day starter. Known for his toughness, the native of Finland is 24 years old and was expected to be a top 10 pick. Instead, he slipped to 17, where the Union took him as the best player available, despite both he and Okugo projecting as defensive midfielders. (If the Union play a 3-5-2 formation, as Manager Peter Nowak has in the past, that could mean two holding midfielders.) Okugo may have the greater potential in some eyes, but at the 17th pick, Stahl was a great value grab.
Goalkeeper Brian Perk projects as a third-string goalkeeper and was the first backstop off the board, despite going in the fourth round at pick No. 49. His 0.87 goals against average led the Pac-10 last year, and he started for the U.S. in last year’s U-20 World Cup. Questions about his size – he’s just 5-11, which is a little short for a goalkeeper – dog Perk, but he was a nice value pick and should fill out the roster.
Midfielder Kyle Nakazawa, who the Union grabbed in the third round, could prove an interesting pick. Our own Adam Cann wondered last month whether the Union were watching Nakazawa, and apparently, they were. Nakazawa had 12 goals and 7 assists last season to lead the Pac-10 in total points. Equally as notable may be that, as Adam pointed out, 50 percent of his shots were on goal. Some think Nakazawa may be too slow for the big leagues, and a subpar showing at the MLS combine hurt his stock. But for a team with plenty of open roster spots at the moment, the Nakazawa pick looks good, and if he doesn’t pan out, it’s just a third round pick lost.
Last but not least, you can’t forget the acquisition of Brazilian midfielder Fred to the roster. He brings a high salary cap figure, but with Mwanga, Okugo and McInerney all Generation Adidas players who won’t count against the salary cap their first year, the Union should be able to handle it. He also brings some experience to the midfield and a potential attacking threat. Fred joined D.C. United in 2007, a few months after Nowak ended his coaching stint there, so the two never overlapped.
In some ways, it looks like the Union basically traded nothing – since they didn’t have Perkins and didn’t need another goalkeeper – to get McInerney, Fred and the cash that was then traded for the Okugo pick. But that’s not necessarily the case. What the Union gave away was first crack at returning U.S. international players, which is what the allocation order is. So maybe they pass on Perkins, but let’s say someone like U.S. international midfielder Benny Feilhaber decided to move to MLS. Well, the Union don’t get him.
Of course, that’s not likely to happen. Right now, the trade looks like a steal. Plus, any time my local team picks up a guy (Fred) who used to play for the obscure, lower division team in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, that I root for, I have to give the benefit of the doubt.
So how do we grade this draft?
Give it an A.