From College to the Pros - The US soccer ladder

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Better Late Than Never - Recapping The 2009 Draft

If the most exciting day of the MLS offseason is the day before the draft, when more people than usual are dreaming of 4-4-2's and discovery options and Kansas City Wizards depth charts, the most terrible day is the day after the draft. This is the day when anybody who felt like it was worth some of their time to think about the draft realizes that thinking about drafts may be fun, but leaves you with a terrible pit in your stomach afterwards. They're just not important enough to be worth the time in the end, and it looks like it will be ANOTHER season without any franchise asking you to be their scouting coordinator.

(Before I go farther, let me just give myself a pat on the back for correctly and completely nailing three picks in Thursday's draft. You might say "wow, three out of sixty, in a draft with hardly any trades, big whoop". But let's consider the degree of difficulty involved. I missed the first 10 picks, based on lacking things like a "strong and explicit understanding of team needs" and "inside information". But I got 11, 21, and 55. Try to find another draft watcher who got those three right, including nailing a non-combine pick late in the fourth-round. The Revs taking Tyrel Lacey may inspire me to do mock drafts for another five years, since the shine of nailing #70 pick Lars Lyssand to San Jose in 2002 was wearing off.)

The most obvious talking point after this year's draft was the apparent resurgence of the combine as a key measure of a player's draft value. There are a lot of intuitive reasons why this is a bad idea, and they all seem to be pretty much accurate. Throwing a bunch of players together for a couple of pick-up games and thinking you can find the best player seems awfully unlikely, which is probably not much consolation for players who were passed over after sterling college careers. So, clearly, it is not so easy to erase the image of a player wandering around a torn-up Florida pitch with a lost expression in his sad eyes, or stepping on a ball and falling down and splitting his shorts or whatever, because players seemed to clearly rise and fall based on the agglomerated general perspectives of the combine.

I suppose I could give MLS teams more credit, and say, they invited these particular kids because they had already been heavily scouting them. So, maybe, the Revs were already smitten with Ryan Maxwell and just needed to make sure he wasn't homicidal or wouldn't poop in Oscar Castillo's hamper over the weekend (the old Najeh Davenport trick). But I don't buy it. If they loved Maxwell, then why invite him to the combine at all, and just invite other teams' interest? Maybe a bunch of teams were on his trail, but it seems unlikely. Maxwell did not have an amazing college career (perfectly good, but not amazing), he's Jamaican, he's 26 this coming season, he hasn't been called up by The Boyz since he was a teenager. It just doesn't add up together. Nothing against Maxwell, who appears to be a fine student, good guy, and better player than I probably am even in my dreams, when I'm dribbling circles around Luther College. That said, there doesn't seem an argument for taking him at #15, unless you thought the combine proved something important. Sure, he was fast and he can maybe replace Khano Smith someday, but shouldn't the Revs aspire to do more than find a facsimile of the man who still holds the mark for the worst free kick in world soccer history? While the level of athleticism required to jump from college to MLS keeps getting more daunting, you still need soccer players most of all, and production still is the best way to evaluate skill. Maxwell may prove me wrong, but I just can't believe he wasn't a fourth-round pick or undrafted without the combine, and that's no way to do things.

I'm probably the only person in the world to, secretly and only half-jokingly, believe the NFL might be better off just randomly distributing the best 800 college players to teams and letting them bring them in for a few weeks and work them out. The NFL has the opposite problem of MLS, in that they seem to care far too much about their draft, and spend insane amounts of money and effort over a period of months trying to convince themselves that they can forecast success and overlook college production. And while every NFL player comes through the draft process, unlike MLS, it isn't all that clear that doing well or badly in drafting is the end-all, be-all, except for the odd franchise top pick quarterback who turns out. The NFL has ample opportunity in it's liberal free agency to build a team. Arizona may have highly drafted stars like Larry Fitzgerald, but they also blew a top pick on Matt Leinart and Pittsburgh hardly ever has a top pick.

For MLS, there seems to be a general agreement that the SuperDraft will never decide individual teams' league fortunes. There is a risk, however, that this process is continuing to overlook players who can improve the general state of play a little and maybe even be sold off at some point, simply because they don't show well in a chaotic few days of ragball or don't get invited to participate at all. MLS might just be better off just sending 150 top senior players from all college levels to random teams, and instructing those clubs to have an intensive week-long training stint where those players and other trialists can be seen in a more comprehensive and conducive setting. A player like Nelson Pizarro, for example, was a great player for Lincoln Memorial last year, but nobody paid any attention to him, until he won a place on KC's reserve roster after shining in one of those questionable open tryouts where half the players are freelance journalists. He had proof he could play already - it would have been nice if someone had given him the time of day (although I guess it's nice to make him pay for his spot, instead of being paid to try out). Sure, the random allocation idea is overall pretty silly and unfeasible, but it's smart to consider what's best for the league, and if the combine is assisting that goal. How does the league get the best talent they can afford, from the biggest star to the end of the bench? These questions probably matter more than which kid gets picked #52 by the FC Philadelphia SC.

On the other hand, 10 of the 15 teams get my approval, so perhaps my mild outrage is misplaced. Also, I don't know which players have told MLS they'll be following their dream to play in Finland's Second Division, so don't bother. So, any pick analysis is ultimately left wanting for more info.

Teams I thought would do well I think they did: Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Salt Lake, Toronto

It's hard to evaluate MLS trades, because you never really know how much money changes hands and what it's eventually used for. It seems like Chicago didn't get a whole lot for an above-average keeper. But, if he was never going to sign for them, at least they were able to get a local GenAd player with some potential in Husidic. And if the allocation money allows them to keep Bakary Soumare for an extra few years, it would be super worth it. The other picks seemed pretty solid, especially Jata, who is poised to become the Luke Wilson of MLS. I always like what Dallas does in the off-season, so it's a shame about their usual in-season. Marosevic is still only 19 after three improving seasons at Michigan. Shriver was a good choice who should have been at the combine. Los Angeles took highly productive players, which I appreciate. They gave up a bit for Delagarza, especially to a close rival, so it will be interesting to see if he's worth it. Boateng and Patterson were both great value for where they were picked. I bet one of them turns out well, either in MLS or abroad. New York made a smart play swapping picks with Dallas at 11 and 14. Seemed minor, but it gave them the choice of two slippers - Hall or Frei. Hall is a youth nat and first-team All-ACC player, so whether he works out or not, that's good value. I think Ogunbiyi has a shot, but I thought the other two picks were banal combine selections. Salt Lake is getting a lot of stick for Alexandre, and I'm qualifying this thumbs up. Think of it as a thumb sideways. Until Buzz Carrick informed me that Alexandre was going to be a d-mid, I didn't get the pick either. A one-year scoring wonder in D2 is not a first-round prospect. A physically gifted midfielder, with a longing to commit violence on the field, who can ALSO score 23 goals for a top D2 team. Maybe not first-round either, but interesting, and I give RSL credit for that. Bhembe is the best Swazi in MLS ever, but at 26, can he even be called a prospect? Toronto does a good job in drafting, now can they develop some on-field cohesion? White was risky at #4, but since they got Frei at #13, I see no reason to quibble. Wow, they took two Canadian residents. Whoever hit MoJo on the head with a chapati pan and explained why domestic players could be particularly useful should get a raise. I'm not sure where Cronin fits in given their roster, but collecting skilled players never hurts, and Grella was a shrewd pick where they got him.

Teams I thought would do well but now I think they didn't: Colorado, Columbus, Kansas City, New England, Seattle

Colorado is really not a good drafting team, so they shouldn't be in this category should they? I thought they did well because of the production of their recent lower-round picks, but I suspect that was just due to Clavijo's lazy-susan roster management style. Getting Pickens was probably a great move, but I can't give them a thumbs-up because their actual picks seemed lazy, with only the last two striking me as good value. For example, Adjeman-Pamboe had basically one good college season. Columbus seemed like they didn't care much, making three ho-hum combine picks. They didn't need much and had no high pick, but complacency kills. I do like Clements though - if they had taken him first, I'd be more generous. Kansas City's draft lived up to all the boring, boring Wiz jokes. A whole slew of older, hard-working players, and nothing to get the juices flowing. Besler had an excellent college career, but not so excellent that I can see taking him over some of the young stars available at that pick. Seemed like a reach based on need, although I approve of getting a hometown kid. I don't really have a problem with their picks, productive players all, but there seemed to be an opportunity to be more proactive and get better value at the top. New England - I've covered what I didn't like. I like the Alston pick, he can play left, Albright can play midfield - whatever, you just have to collect talent. I'm dinging them solely on the Maxwell pick, because it makes me mad. The rest of the picks seemed fine. I thought Seattle was going to be all hopped up to win right away, but the picks looked more like Sigi woke up from a nap and scribbled some names down. I'd be nervous about Zakuani, and heights, if I lived in the Space Needle, because the record of #1 forwards is terrible, and SteZak will be making a lot of money in two seasons. I thought the entire remainder of the picks were overdrafted. Can Karkas make two Azusa Pacific roster stickers in two seasons?

Teams I thought would not do well but now I think they did: Chivas, DC, Houston, San Jose

I like what Chivas did. People are cracking on them for passing Frei, but maybe they have another keeper in mind. For me, Lahoud is not a slam-dunk, but he should stick around just based on his versatility and athleticism. I liked the trade down to get two additional players for a team that can't keep a full lineup together, and the difference between 19 and 35 in an MLS draft is pretty small. And both later picks interested me - two non-combine players whose production deserved more attention. DC needed to do well, and I think they did. Wallace gives them speed and Pontius gives them heart, both of which are sorely needed on the Lovebugs. Kocic and Adams may never sign, but at least DC made sure to get two pre-signed players first this time, so they are talented and acceptable risks. Houston getting Danny Cruz was fortuitous for both parties. Cruz may have shed more tears at the draft than Rashard Lewis chopping onions, but I bet his being passed over by everyone ends up reflecting worse on them than him. Look, he's 19, did the business at UNLV, and has enough burn to play for the youth nats. History says these sliders usually pan out better than a combine crush. Meanwhile Cruz gets to be the top pick of a team with a good coach and not a lot of depth. The Tracy pick was wise too, because anyone else they wanted they could sign post-draft, while Tracy's rights had to be locked with a pick. San Jose redeemed last year's tomfoolery. I love both picks, and had both players in my first-round. If you squint, the thin and blonde Ring might get you imagining Dario Brose, and I wouldn't be surprised if Amarikwa, six-months in, is giving everything they would have gotten from Sealy, but at a much lower price.

Teams I thought would not do well and didn't disappoint me: Boo, none


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