By Trevor Bylund
The pure American experience of the player draft resumes at the NSCAA Convention in Baltimore with the MLS SuperDraft this coming Thursday.
Coverage of the first round will be shown on ESPN2 starting at noon ET. After which, the coverage will shift to MLSsoccer.com. MLS has trimmed the draft down to three rounds this year plus a supplemental draft that will be held via conference call on January 18th.
This year’s draft features two expansion teams who have the first two selections. The Vancouver Whitecaps hold the first overall pick in the draft. They also acquired the 8th pick in the draft from Toronto FC in exchange for defender Nathan Sturgis. The Portland Timbers will follow with the second pick.
DC United, the worst team in MLS last season, will get the third overall pick. Followed by Chivas USA and the Philadelphia Union. DC and Chivas are established clubs that had wretched campaigns last season. DC was bottom of the Eastern Conference and only managed 22 points. Chivas was bottom of the Western Conference with 28. The Union, an expansion team from last year, are still in the process of building their franchise. The draft slotting is based on overall points or when they were knocked out of the playoffs.
The drafted players are traditionally from NCAA soccer programs around the United States, but occasionally feature U.S. under-20 players and talent from abroad. The spotlight this year is focused on the University of Akron Zips team that won the NCAA division I championship. The team could produce three to six first round draft picks. Three of the picks are considered to be the best at their positions. Highly rated freshman midfielder Perry Kitchen is one of the hottest young prospects. The six foot midfielder was a lynchpin of the Zips defense. In 25 games this year he managed six goals and one assist. His influence was more than the stats would reflect however and he was the team’s physical leader and the best tackler on the pitch, which may seem him move to the center back position in MLS.
The Zips attack was led by a lethal partnership between junior midfielder Michael Nanchoff and junior forward/midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Nanchoff was the creative genius in the center of the park this season. He had his best statistical season with 10 goals, three of which were game winning strikes, and nine assists in 25 games. His ability to spot a pass and make runs into dangerous areas combined with his cool finishing made him hard to cope with for opposing teams. Darlington’s speed and control kept defenses on their heels all season. In 25 games this season he managed seven goals and 13 assists. Nagbe was also voted the MAC conference player of the year. The anchor of the Zips defense was sophomore defender Zarek Valentin. In 25 games this season he helped Akron keep a clean sheet in 14 of them, including a gutty shutout performance against Louisville in the title game. At 5‘11, he is a bit short, but he makes up with it with a great leap. He’s a very combative player that sees the field well and helps organize a defense, a combination of skills that is in demand at the MLS level.
There are other interesting players that are worthy of first round selection from areas outside of Akron. North Carolina midfielder Michael Farfan is a player that many teams will be considering. In 56 college games he managed 13 goals and 11 assists. He is a silky playmaker whose tricks and flicks could really ignite an MLS franchise. His production will have to increase at the next level. Highlights on Farfan are here.
Under-20 prodigy Omar Salgado will be an interesting proposition for many clubs as well. He was originally a Mexican U-17 and U-20 player who left the Mexican club C.D. Guadalajara to join up with the U.S. Men’s National team. He is currently signed with MLS, the organization not a club, and is eligible for the draft. He has trained with the Timbers and Whitecaps of MLS and Everton F.C. of the Barclays Premier League. here are a few goals from his Chivas days.
Justin Meram is a rather interesting prospect from the University of Michigan. The 6’1 striker has an impressive goal scoring record. He spent his first two years at Yavapai junior college where he scored 51 goals and had 31 assists. He transferred to Michigan and kept up his impressive form. In 40 games at the NCAA level he scored 24 goals and had 14 assists. He is a powerful player that has a good touch, is not afraid to use his head and has a lethal shot from distance. He is the type of player that can instantly make an impact in MLS. Highlight of his skills.
Finally, I wanted to give a look to UW-Green Bay midfielder JC Banks. He is rumored to be coveted in Sweden and a few other lower European leagues, so it will be interesting to see if a team spends a pick on him. His father played professionally in the U.S. and also was a member of the national team. In his final year at UWGB he had 12 goals and 5 assists. His ability to pick a pass is extraordinary. He has good speed and ball control. The problem was that he was way too good for the league. You can check him out here.
No matter who goes where this Thursday night, it appears that the younger players in the United States are starting to raise their game. The exposure to top European competitions on television here in the States has opened up the eyes of many young athletes. With all the great athletes this country has, it was inevitable that they would start to find their way into football. They may not be ready for the top tier of European football (YET), but in the near future I think that MLS and the United States will become a hotbed for footballing talent.
You can follow Trevor on Twitter @Jaxbeach20