Andre Blake becomes first goalkeeper to be top choice at MLS draft
Goalkeeper Andre Blake, of the University of Connecticut, was drafted number one overall in the MLS SuperDraft, by the Philadelphia Union. In a move received happily by their raucous contingent of hometown fans in the Pennsylvania Convention Center ballroom, the Union had traded with DC United for the number one spot at the last minute and used it on the best goalkeeper in the pool — the first keeper to ever be the top draft pick.
Blake had arrived at the draft expected to go high, but had not been expected to go number one until Philadelphia made their late move, which given their existing squad, was an intriguing one. The incumbent number one keeper at Philadelphia, Zac MacMath, has been steadily improving after looking shaky early in his Philadelphia career, but the move puts the pressure back on him, even if Blake still lacks experience.
The Philadelphia move meant that DC United now picked second, where they moved for the MVP at the Combine, defender Steve Birnbaum of the University of California. Birnbaum may be asked to contribute straight away as DC have been busy in the off-season, retooling after a disastrous 2013 campaign.
Vancouver Whitecaps, who like Philadelphia started the day with two picks in the top ten, took the athletic, left-footed central defender Christian Dean, as their first pick at number three, while New England, who'd made their own splashy trade for last year's number one spot (where they took eventual regular starter Andrew Farrell), used their fourth pick to take the first attacking player of the day, Georgetown forward Steve Neumann. The Revs find themselves short of forwards come into the season, and with Jay Heaps building a youth-centered side in New England, Neumann, who led the Big East in scoring last year, may find he gets an opportunity early.
The last of the top five picks was originally scheduled for FC Dallas, where new coach Oscar Pareja seemed untroubled by any possible tension with his former Colorado bosses as he lined up for the traditional head coaches "family photo" before the draft. Dallas though, opted to take a timeout before trading with Montreal Impact at number 10, who used their higher pick to take up the option on yet another defender, Creighton University's Eric Miller. Dallas immediately traded back with Philadelphia Union to land forward Tesho Akindele with the next pick, as they begin their reshaping after the Schellas Hyndman era.
The SuperDraft as a phenomenon may be gradually slipping in terms of recruitment importance — the rise of the homegrown players means that in the last year alone the likes of Gyassi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin bypassed the draft in signing, then impressing, for the Galaxy and the Sounders respectively. But as a league-wide event bringing all the coaching staff together on the back of the NCSAA conference, it still represents a chance to do business for the teams, and on the evidence of the Combine there was still serviceable talent to be had for sides trying to fill out their rosters.
Nonetheless, with expansion and the academies diluting the available talent, the likelihood of a repeat of the draft ten years ago, where Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Brad Guzan were introduced to their professional careers, seems unlikely. At his introductory press conference last week, NYCFC head coach Jason Kreis called the domestic depth of talent a "serious concern" and indicated that he felt he and the City scouting team had "a responsibility" to look for talent further afield, particularly in South America, where Manchester City have 14 scouts.
Back in Philadelphia, of the players anticipated to go high in the mock drafts, Hermann Trophy winner Patrick Mullins dropped to number 11, where New England took the chance to pick up another young forward, trading up one place with Colorado when Mullins was surprisingly still on the board. Meanwhile, Jamaican youth international Andre Lewis, whose stock had risen dramatically at the Combine, went to Vancouver Whitecaps at number seven.
There were other subplots to the day. Toronto FC had started the week with the move that landed Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, prompting muttered complaints around the hall by other team reps that they had inflated the market in doing so. Yet squads that rely heavily on designated players as they do, have to structure the rest of the squad carefully, given the tight MLS salary cap. Toronto traded back into the top ten to pick up Xavier University defender Nick Hagglund, as they try to solve that particular luxury problem.
The draft went to two rounds in the hall, with the likes of LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Sporting KC not picking until later rounds. It will be followed by a further two rounds to take place by teleconference.
Compete first round selections:
1. Philadelphia Union: Andre Blake, GK (Univ. Connecticut)
2. DC United: Steven Birnbaum, D (Univ. California)
3. Vancouver Whitecaps: Christian Dean, D (Univ. California)
4. New England Revolution: Steve Neumann, F (Georgetown University)
5. Montreal Impact: Eric Miller, D (Creighton University)
6. FC Dallas: Tesho Akindele, F (Colorado School of Mines)
7. Vancouver Whitecaps: Andre Lewis, M (Portmore United)
8. Seattle Sounders: Damion Lowe, D (Univ. Hartford)
9. San Jose Earthquakes: J.J. Koval, M (Stanford Univ.)
10. Toronto FC: Nick Hagglund, D (Xavier)
11. New England Revolution: Patricks Mullins, F (Univ. Maryland)
12. Colorado Rapids: Marlon Hairston, M (Univ. Louisville)
13. Chicago Fire: Marco Franco, D (UC Irvine)
14. Columbus Crew: Ben Sweat, D (South Florida)
15. Philadelphia Union: Pedro Ribeiro, M (Coastal Carolina)
16. Houston Dynamo: AJ Cochran, D (Univ. Wisconsin)
17. Portland Timbers: Schillo Tshuma, F (Univ. Maryland)
18. Real Salt Lake: Ryan Neil, D (Univ. California)
19. Colorado Rapids: Grant van de Casteele, D (Notre Dame)