Draft News

Leaping a low bar: Will Philly draft for need this time?

Philadelphia Union have been here before. Multiple early draft picks and a lot of holes to fill. In 2010 they went young and raw. In 2014, they grabbed the biggest talent on the board. Now they have to go a third route: Fill the needs.

The value of the SuperDraft has been questioned in recent years as teams build academies and teams learn how to scout and recruit foreign players that fit the MLS game. But Jim Curtin was clear about why teams like the Union still need that most American of talent acquisition spectacles. “It’s a way to get inexpensive labor, to be honest,” Curtin told the media on Monday.

Looking for Cyle Larins in the SuperDraft is likely to be a fruitless endeavor. Since the Union entered MLS in 2010, only one player picked early in the first round has more than 40 goals, and only two have more than 30 (CJ Sapong is on the cusp at 29). Simply put, going for firepower means taking on a lot more risk than Philadelphia Union should be playing with right now.

And creativity is just as difficult to find. The assist leaders from 2015 are almost exclusively designated players and guys that took a long time to grow into the MLS game (though Ethan Finlay and Harry Shipp buck the trend). In short — and unsurprisingly — the league spends heavily on attacking roles, and clubs like the Union need to be able to find value in other positions in order to keep up.

The SuperDraft is a wonderful tool for finding such value, but only if a club is follows through on the commitments it makes. Draft a young player, give him time to develop. Draft a guy to fill an immediate need, give him a chance to make mistakes on the big stage.

The Union have never used high picks to fill immediate needs before. Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, and Jack McInerney were supposed to form the core of future squads. Zac MacMath was going to develop under Faryd Mondragon. Chandler Hoffman? Andre Blake? Pedro Ribeiro? Not one was expected to play a major role in the team during their first MLS season.

This year is different. The Union have 15 players on the roster right now (though Fabinho will almost certainly be added to that list soon). With their Brazilian fullback in the fold, Philly will have two fullbacks and two centerbacks (both lefties) on the roster. They will also have the positional enigma that is Maurice Edu.

They will have one striker.

Given this situation, how will the Union approach the 2016 SuperDraft?

The scenario

The Union have the third and sixth picks in the draft. Two of the consensus top three players available are considered MLS-ready defenders. The third is a young and intriguing attacking prospect without a clearly defined best position.

  • Josh Yaro – CB: Think a hybrid of the scouting reports on Steve Birnbaum and Christain Dean from the 2014 draft. The Cal central defenders were on opposite ends of the two major evaluative axes: Raw athleticism and MLS readiness. Yaro seems to be more MLS-ready than Dean but with a higher ceiling than Birnbaum. He’ll make mistakes and need a club that is patient enough to let him grow into his cornerstone potential.

Union outlook: If Chicago keeps the first pick, it will be Yaro. If they trade it to anybody except NYCFC, Yaro will still go first overall. NYCFC have not been shy about their interest in Wake Forest attacker Jack Harrison, so the only scenario in which Philly has a shot at Yaro involves Chicago dealing the first overall pick to NYCFC. It may seem unlikely, but with the Fire claiming they have at least one European central defender coming in soon and a standing offer for another, Yaro has a chance to slip.

  • Brandon Vincent – LB: Size, speed, passing skills. Vincent checks all the boxes for a modern fullback. Philly had a tendency to leave their fullbacks exposed in 2015, and that means bringing in players that can get beat, forget about it, and rebound is a necessity. Vincent seems to be just such a player, having moved from central defense to the edge over the course of his collegiate career while possessing the calmness to take Stanford’s penalties.

If Vincent is available, the Union simply cannot pass him up. He has all the tools to be a strong defender for years but lacks the explosive athleticism that doomed DeAndre Yedlin to a European contract before he was ready and, thus, a cold seat on the bench.

  • Jack Harrison – CM/winger: Harrison may turn out to be a dynamic, league-destroying force. But it is more likely he will turn into Kelyn Rowe. Rowe has 22 goals since he was drafted in 2012 (that’s more than Andrew Wenger (13) and Darren Mattocks (19), the two strikers picked ahead of him, and only one fewer than Darlington Nagbe (drafted 2011) and Ethan Finlay (2012)). Given the Union’s roster situation (they are currently deepest in midfield if Mo Edu moves forward again) and the high value other teams place on Harrison, it would be quite odd to see Philly spend the third pick on Harrison rather than trading down if Yaro and Vincent are off the board first. Remember: The Union need players who can come in and contribute immediately. On the flip side, Harrison has Generation Adidas status and none of the other top defensive prospects (outside of holding midfielder and passing wizard Julian Buescher) give the Union GA salary benefits.
The best of the rest

Outside of the top three, the waters are much murkier. North Carolina’s Jonathan Campbell is the best of the other three top central defenders behind Yaro, but how well he would work with the positionally inconsistent Ray Gaddis on his outside is a big question. Clemson’s Kyle Fisher should be available at the sixth pick and could be a day one starter for Philly. Tony Alfaro out of Cal State-Dominguez Hills is the other highly touted defender the Union could grab, but he may need a longer learning curve than Fisher or Campbell.

If the Union elect to go an attacking route with the sixth pick, the options are, um, not great. Though that statement should be couched in the current discussion: They are not great for the Union’s needs. UNC’s Omar Holness, Creighton’s Fabian Herbers, and Akron’s Richie Laryea are all flitting around the top ten, but none can claim to be close to a complete package. Holness has the most upside, Herbers the best nose for goal, and Laryea the most potential as a creative spark. Yet all three appear to have the same positional ambiguity as Harrison without the potential to dominate a game. If the Union end up drafting one of these guys, you can bet it is because Earnie Stewart was mighty impressed by his interview at the combine.


If the Union trade down — or even if they don’t — the exciting “reach” pick will be Julian Buescher. The German-born midfielder has an offensive skillset that Philly’s counterattacking system should crave, but many reports note his lack of mobility as the Syracuse product’s limiting factor. Is range a big issue? Sure. But for the Union, passing out of the back was an enormous issue. A player who can sit deep and spray the ball out to the wings would take a ton of pressure off of Vincent Nogueira (and provide a solid backup option when the Frenchman inevitably misses games with injury).

Kevin Kinkead wrote that the Union can’t possibly mess the draft up. I disagree. Philly managed to turn a decade or more of Steve Birnbaum into a goalkeeping morass and a single season of Pedro Ribeiro. Problems arise when teams view the draft as something it is not: The draft is not a place to look for players who could turn into good trade value or transfer fees in a few years.

No, the draft is about finding consistency at an affordable price. And the Union have not done a good job of this in the past. With a draft class deep in positions the team needs to fill, they should look to bolster the defense and take offensive chances in later rounds.

Earnie Stewart has a low bar to leap on draft day. And if he does it, Philly’s defense could quickly turn into an area of strength in 2016.


  1. IMO there is no question about your thesis. Well said.
    It will be interesting to see over the next three – five years how the drop off in playing time continues for college drafted players.
    More and more it is looking like the NBA draft….

    • as the academies come on line the drop off should be expected. the Jordan Morrises of the nation will become ever fewer and far between. not sure about the NBA draft analogy as extremely talented players come out each year, and not just in the lottery section.

      • One thing about the NBA that has become increasingly more interesting to me is how mid-conference teams with the 4 seniors and 3 juniors now compete so well and deeply through the NCAA tournament… against teams filled with one or two and done 18 and 19 year olds. The paradigm has shifted…. ultimately though I think the college basketball model has degraded the quality of NBA play…. but that’s for a different blog page.
        For this page….I am thankful for the academy model and hope it continues to grow and develop… I have intrinsic concerns about it’s ceiling… but we will see.

      • compare it to the academies in Europe. They continue to produce loads of good players. Their playing pool is supplemented with the best players from everywhere else due to … money (soccernomics, follow the money). the biggest ceiling I see in the US is the single entity – inherent downward pressure on wages in the name of “sustainability” where growth of profits to owners is what is being sustained.

        as for the NBA, I don’t see a degradation, especially in the upper tier of teams. compare the mid/late 1970s Sixers to the Spurs or Warriors.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Except the MLS model has much greater responsibility for filling out the D-League roster than the NBA model seems to.
      Picks #3 & #6 are for the first team, more than likely. The rest are for Brendan Burke at Bethlehem Steel, remembering that Burke’s group will practice with Curtin’s group in an integrated fashion.
      Such integration will be a tremendous asset to BSFC, I think, because the daily competition of “younger brother” and “older brother” will make younger brother better faster.

  2. A draft can always be screwed up. There is always talent, and you need to pick up contributors, at the least. You may not find the Tchanis, Shipps, or Finalys, but you need to find guys that will play meaningful minutes for years.
    And hope that one of them becomes Ethan Finlay-like…

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    In re: NBA comparison, the size of team on the floor/pitch also skews the comparison away from congruency, witness LeBron James v Lionel Messi and their dependence on team mates.

    • it would be a happy problem if the MLS had access to a domestic talent pool the size of the NBA’s. also, the shorter draft, free agency for undrafted players, and the greater proportion of immediate impact players distinguishes the NBA.

  4. I keep hearing that this is a “defensive draft”, which is good because that is what he Union need most right now (a striker can come from overseas).
    This is one case were drafting “best-available” and “for need” are actually the same thing.

  5. fingers feet fingers feet fingers feet….tap tap tap tap.

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