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Thursday 22 November 2012

2013 MLS Superdraft – On the Value of the First-Overall Pick & Defensive Depth at the Draft

    At the end of season TFC face the press sessions, Paul Mariner let slip that the club was not sure what it intended to do with the first-overall draft pick.

    Nobody wants to suffer the shame of finishing last – which Toronto did with aplomb, amassing a paltry twenty-three points, but in the microcosm of North American sports, that ignominious cloud comes with a silver-lining.

    The first-overall pick can be precious; it is a chance to add a player capable of an immediate impact at a good price – or perhaps for free if the Generation Adidas tag applies and the salary is not included under the salary cap.

    It is premature to assume that the pick is definitely being sold, Toronto’s scouting process is probably still under way; the end of the college season is still to come and surely there are morre than a few video tapes to go over at the front office.

    That statement from Mariner may well have been a ploy to lure potential deals out of interested parties; perking up the ears of any managers with an eye on a particular talent.

    The playoffs-or-bust attitude at the club will make the prospect of trading that pick for proven MLS-quality talent appealing, but that sort of short-termism could well prove to be another poor decision on the trail of mistakes that has led to this moment.

    After all, it is worth remembering that the pick awarded to the last-placed team this season will have more value than it has in the last five seasons.

    Since 2007, the first-overall selection was awarded to the expansion teams as the league grew over the six years - in reverse chronological order: Montreal, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Jose – though they traded theirs to Kansas City for Nick Garcia – and Toronto all enjoyed the vaunted number one pick.

    In fact, stretching a little deeper, Chivas in 2006 was the most recent last-placed team to have the first-overall pick, but they were only in their second year as a club – and eventually traded the pick to New York for Jason Hernandez – that pick would go on to become Marvell Wynne.

    The 2005 draft saw the league welcome Salt Lake and the aforementioned Chivas into the league, with Salt Lake selecting Nick Besagno with the first-overall pick – he currently plies his trade with the Washington Crossfire of the PDL.

    In a way 2003 was the last time the first-overall pick went to a seasoned last-placed team, DC United, who selected Alecko Eskandarian. United also acquired Freddy Adu first overall in 2004 after a league arranged trade to place the fourteen-year old with his hometown club saw allocation money head to Dallas.

    It was a good time to have a terrible season.

    If TFC doesn’t find a standout forward attacking talent that can make an immediate difference or that appeals to them, they could do worse than selecting the most league-ready centre-back.

    Looking back over the past few draft classes one finds a multitude of serviceable defenders taken in the first round and several from later in the draft that turned good over time.

    Last season’s draft saw talents such as Chicago’s Rookie of the Year, Austin Berry, Dallas’ Matt Hedges, LA’s Tommy Meyer, as well as longer term projects such as Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Aaron Maund, Warren Creavalle, and Raymond Gaddis – of Portland, Toronto, Houston, and Philadelphia, respectively.

    Berry, Hedges, and Meyer have all proved exceptional this season, despite being called into action earlier than expected with injuries to the more experienced defenders at their respective clubs.

    The 2011 draft class was not as strong, but still saw several contributing defenders emerge. Montreal’s Zarek Valentin – formerly of Chivas, New England’s AJ Soares, Houston’s recently come-good Kofi Sarkodie, Chicago’s Jalil Anibaba and Columbus’ Rich Balchan, who unfortunately missed much of this campaign with injury.

    The first-round of the 2010 draft saw only one proper defender taken in the first round -  Ike Opara header to San Jose, but still managed to produce Tim Ream for New York – who was sold on to Bolton, Salt Lake’s Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Chris Schuler, and San Jose’s Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour in the later rounds.

    As well, Philadelphia’s Amoebi Okugo, was drafted sixth overall as a midfielder, but served quite admirably alongside Carlos Valdes in the centre of the Union defense once positioned there following the trade of Danny Califf to Chivas.

    The 2009 edition saw standout defenders Omar Gonzalez of LA and Matt Besler of Kansas City - winners of the last two Defender of the Year awards - as well as New England’s Kevin Alston and Darrius Barnes, Dallas’ George John, and Gonzalez’s partner in the LA defense, AJ DeLaGarza selected.

    Portland’s Rodney Wallace and TFC’s own, Jeremy Hall were also drafted that season.

    The 2008 class was nowhere near as heralded, but still managed to graduate KC’s Chance Myers, Salt Lake’s Tony Beltran, LA’s Sean Franklin, Portland’s David Horst and Eric Brunner, not to mention later sleeper picks, Houston’s Geoff Cameron – now of Stoke City – forty-second overall, and Chivas’ Rauwshan McKenzie – fifty-third overall.

    Two defenders Toronto fans know well, Andy Iro and Julius James were relatively high picks that draft – both in the top ten – proving that no draft projections are ever entirely reliable.

    Toronto’s expansion-year draft in 2007 was a little light on defensive talent, as was the preceding draft, but combined they still managed to produce Philadelphia’s Bakary Soumare – formerly of Chicago, KC’s Michael Harrington, Houston’s Corey Ashe, current Chivas defender, Bobby Burling, Colorado and former Toronto speedster Marvell Wynne, role players Patrick Ianni and Marc Burch, now of Seattle, and Jonathan Bornstein, formerly of Chivas, currently plying his trade in Mexico; not to mention Andrew Boyens, Ty Harden, and Nathan Sturgis, but the less they are spoken of in TFC circles the better..

    The 2005 draft produced some impressive contributors, Dallas’ Ugo Ihemelu, Colorado’s Drew Moor and Hunter Freeman, who some Toronto folk may remember albeit briefly, Chicago’s Gonzalo Segares and American International Michael Parkhurst, once of New England and now of FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark.

    While 2004 brought forth perennial Columbus all-star Chad Marshall, another American International Clarence Goodson, once of Dallas, now of Brondby IF in Denmark, Salt Lake’s Chris Wingert, and a striking young man by the name of Adrian Cann.

    And finally, purely for the interest of Toronto fans, 2003 produced, LA’s classy Todd Dunivant, the serviceable and recently released from Montreal, Shavar Thomas, Marco Velez, yes that Velez, and the footballer-turned scout-turned international absence inspired stand-in Tim Regan.

    Of course, much of the success of a young defender coming into the league has depended upon having a solid, experienced unit alongside to ease the transition to the professional game.

    Berry had former German International Arne Friedrich organizing alongside him; Gonzalez had the sagacious Gregg Berhalter talking him through those early days.

    TFC has three of their back-four locked up with Darren O’Dea, Richard Eckersley, and Ashtone Morgan in situ; whether Doneil Henry is ready to take that remaining starting position is yet to be determined as his season was disrupted with injury.

    History has proven that the MLS Superdraft is capable of stocking a club with solid defenders. While the relevance of a college draft in the coming era of the club academies is a debate to be had, for now, and for at least a few more seasons, the talent available each January from the college ranks is nothing at which to scoff.

    For a club that has so regularly struggled to field a cohesive, reliable back-line, perhaps it would be wise to avoid the temptation of selecting whatever hotshot forward will be most highly touted come the draft, though it is often said that genuine attacking talent is more difficult to come by, and select the best defensive option instead.

    Toronto only has that one pick in this rendition of the draft and their first-round pick for next season was sent to Vancouver for Eric Hassli; it would serve them well to use it wisely.

There will be a follow up to this post, detailing the history of Paul Mariner-influenced picks during his time with New England, as well as looking at the history of that first overall selection.

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