How to use the SuperDraft: Lessons from the Union’s brief history

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union traded their first round pick in the 2015 SuperDraft for a much-needed striker. And it was the right thing to do. In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Jim Curtin spoke energetically about the value of the role players that populate the SuperDraft these days. And though he meant to compliment the young guys who will go pro on Thursday, Curtin unintentionally highlighted why doing anything but trading away picks has become bad business in MLS.

It can’t be any other way, really. Look at the stars of the 2014 SuperDraft: Steve Birnbaum, Tesho Akindele… maybe Patrick Mullins? That’s 2.5 players out of 76 picked. Only 76 because Los Angeles Galaxy passed in the fourth round rather than feel the guilt of making and breaking some 20 year old’s dream in 60 days.

MLS clubs have academies now. They place Homegrown claims on young players and pull them out of the draft if they look anything like a finished product by the time they leave college (call it Pullin’ a Speas). The amount of time clubs spend with players that come through their academies simply dwarfs any amount of time they can spend watching college players. This is how Tesho Akindele can surprise everybody in just a few days at the 2014 MLS combine. Akindele came from Division II — despite being a physical specimen, a four-time All-American, and scoring with unnerving consistency, Akindele was an almost unknown quantity going into the combine.

The point, then, is that the Union were right to trade a first round pick just in case C.J. Sapong (0.18 goals/appearance in MLS) can do the same thing Danny Mwanga (0.20 goals/appearance in MLS) will be trying to do in Orlando. Namely, prove they can lead the line in a league that may be improving faster than they are.

Though it was the right move to trade their first round pick for C.J. Sapong, now the Union should make a trade to get back into the first round so they can have their choice of left backs.

Yesterday, I introduced the top two left backs available in tomorrow’s draft. Both players should be able to compete for minutes immediately, and both are actual left backs at this point in their careers (not recently converted wingers). The Union should target one of them and trade picks to get him.

Because the truth is, SuperDraft picks should have very little value to the Union at this point. Since the 2010 draft, when the Union had three top ten picks and has since mixed small doses of development in with larger portions of mismanagement, Philly has gotten real contributions from exactly three of fifteen picks: Zac MacMath, Michael Farfan, and Ray Gaddis. And a brief review of each player’s career highlights still further why the SuperDraft should be a tool the Union use in trades before they attempt to use it for roster development.

  • Zac MacMath – Drafted young. Given a year to develop behind Faryd Mondragon. Replaced by an older, more expensive model as a 23 year old.
  • Michael Farfan – Stolen in the second round after a poor combine. Rookie of the year candidate on the wing. Moved to the middle, into a role that, in all MLS, only New England has filled without bringing in an established player from outside the league (the Union eventually went this route by purchasing Cristian Maidana). Sent to Cruz Azul.
  • Raymon Gaddis – Another second rounder that slipped due to a nagging injury his senior year at West Virginia. Drafted as a right back, now playing left back. MLS quality player, not a MLS quality left foot.

And let’s not forget that the Union has already all but dismantled the 2014 draft class, with Andre Blake stuck behind Rais Mbolhi, Pedro Ribeiro deemed less valuable than Fabinho, and Richie Marquez and Robbie Derschang floating around in Harrisburg.

This is not meant to be critical of the Union; this is simply a recounting of the club’s SuperDraft history meant to point out how little value comes out of the draft. Also notable: How many other tools MLS teams have with which to build rosters. Homegrown signings, designated players, young designated players, and allocation drafts are all player acquisition strategies that can offer much more certainty in player acquisition compared to the SuperDraft.

The Union should use the SuperDraft to target specific players. And they should be willing to trade future picks, package late round picks, and otherwise get creative to acquire those players that they believe make an immediate difference at the MLS level. Because the club just has not shown enough patience to build through the draft to make picks valuable in and of themselves.

So if Philly really believes that Jordan Murrell can be a starting fullback in MLS (which is very plausible, as Sean Doyle noted in the comments section of my piece on left backs), they can wait on him to fall to the second round. But if they are considerably more certain that Otis Earle or Andy Thoma can come in and challenge for the left back spot from day one… there should be no thinking twice.

As a club that invests much more in their academy than in college scouting, the Union should see picks as resources with which to target specific players. If Jim Curtin and company simply want talent, they should look at history: The Union have done a better job of finding it outside of the SuperDraft.


  1. I’m a bit confused by this article. The premise seems to be that the Union should trade back into the first round to acquire one of the draft’s top 2 left-backs. However, in “support” of this strategy, we are told that (1) the draft usually offers little impact players – see 2014 draft class as a whole; and (2) the Union, in particular, have a poor history of drafting well – see the Union’s 2014 draft class. Further, MLS teams look to their academies more then the draft now and most of the good players are signed as home-growns before anyone has a chance to even draft them. So, why again should the Union trade up in this draft (and burn allocation money or an established player) in light of these facts? Wouldn’t it make more sense to instead trade those same assets for an established MLS left-back, who may be available (ala Corey Ashe)?

    • I think Adam’s main point was to use whatever other draft-related resources the Union have—so multiple picks this year or future picks or a combination—in order to get one valuable selection this year. I don’t believe he is advocating using non-draft-related resources in this way.

    • Good points. I could have been clearer.

      The overall aim of the article was to say that the SuperDraft is not valuable resource if you try to draft “best available.” Because the chances that “best available” will end up being something a) Valuable in any sense, and b) Valuable to your particular club seem much lower than the other routes you can take for roster building.

      This year’s draft is used to make the point that the main value of the SuperDraft should be to grab players that a) Fit a clear need, and b) Can do it immediately.

      MLS clubs in general, and the Union in particular, have not been patient developing SuperDraft picks. So they should stop pretending they will be and use those picks to trade for players/resources they can be more certain will turn out the way they want.

      This draft just happens to have two players that, from the Union’s perspective, both fit a need and seem MLS-ready. So they should not give weight to the value of future draft picks when considering dealing for something with more certainty.

    • kingkowboys says:

      I think the key point is to sacrifice quantity of picks for a single quality pick.
      Basically trade them all to take the left back of your choice.

      • Yeah, value them appropriately. They are only worthwhile insomuch as they net you a specific player that fits an immediate need. Because developing picks just isn’t something the Union do well.

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    In all honesty the draft should be done away with by 2020, when the league is at 24 teams. I know people will argue that more teams, must equal more players, but if we as a league are still relying on a draft to fill depth, then we will never be the kind of league we want to be.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I am , perhaps presumptuously, assuming I have understood your premise. You develop good recent evidence in its support. You do not address the question whether the “value” of the draft has been declining consistently over time, although you clearly imply it. 2.5 out of 76 in 2014 is a clear datum supporting your thesis. 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010? Is there a trend? Curtin implies it also, but he is primarily focused on the class of 2015, no matter how his focus is phrased. The extra analysis is worth the effort because you are advocating a fundamental shift in basic strategy of roster building. All kinds of qualitative evidence supports thinking such a shift is occurring. You do present quantitative evidence, however.

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