Despite a complete absence of five-button suits and oversized entourages, the MLS SuperDraft is fast becoming as big-time as the drafts of the NFL and the NBA.
Historically, the event hasn’t been the main pipeline of talent for the league, but that is changing rapidly, as each of the past two draft classes (2009, 2010) have produced multiple players who stepped right into regular MLS playing time, and a few (Tim Ream, Teal Bunbury, Eric Alexander) who played their way to US national team call-ups.
The Postgame made the trip to Charm City (not an ironic nickname, by the way) to take in this year’s edition of the SuperDraft, which was every bit as stocked with talent as the previous two—perhaps even more so, given the handful of foreign invitees with professional experience who were added to the college talent available for selection.
Held at the cavernous, well-appointed Baltimore Convention Center, the event started with a surprise and ended with New England taking a flyer on a striker out of William & Mary, the alma mater of Daily Show host Jon Stewart (who played for the Tribe.)
In between, there were raucous displays by supporters groups, a record-setting number of first-round picks from one school, memorable player remarks and many, many auto-tune heavy Top 40 songs blaring over the convention center P.A.
Take a few minutes and travel with us back to Baltimore—or Bawlmer, as the locals pronounce it.
There’s an old saying about the conventional wisdom—that it’s frequently neither. The standard take on the eve of this year’s draft was that there was no doubt about which players would be selected with the top two picks.
You heard it all week, no matter who was talking: Akron’s Darlington Nagbe and Perry Kitchen were going 1-2, or 2-1. There was debate about which player would go first, but no one—and we mean no one—suggested any other player would crack the top two.
It qualified as a genuine surprise then, when MLS commissioner Don Garber stepped to the podium not long after noon on Thursday and announced that the Vancouver Whitecaps had selected, with the first pick of the 2011 SuperDraft, US Under-20, Generation adidas player … Omar Salgado.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t a failure of the conventional wisdom, after all. Maybe it was a classic misdirection play from those canny Canucks in Vancouver. Perhaps the Whitecaps were happily feeding the Nagbe–Kitchen rumor mill all week—the better to hide their real intentions of drafting Salgado.
Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi backed up this notion, telling MLSsoccer.com, “He was our first pick, quite frankly, way back. He’s got a great pedigree.”
That pedigree includes a stint in the Chivas de Guadalajara academy, which the US-born Salgado left in 2010 to try his luck back in his home country.
Akron Zips Up Record
After the Salgado Surprise sunk in, the story of the draft was the record number of players from MLS alum Caleb Porter’s program at the University of Akron that were selected in the first round.
Led by striker Nagbe, who went second to Portland, and midfielder/defender Kitchen (third, to DC), the Zips had five players picked in the first round, surpassing the previous record of four set by Wake Forest last year. What’s more, the Zips fab five went among the first eight picks.
The other first-round Zips selections were defender Zarek Valentin (fourth, to Chivas USA), defender Kofi Sarkodi (seventh, to Houston), and midfielder Michael Nanchoff (eighth, to Vancouver).
Clearly, there’s something in the water up in Akron.
If You Can’t Be an Athlete, Be an Athletic Supporter
East Coast supporters groups were well represented at the draft, with raucous contingencies from D.C. United, the Philadelphia Union and the New York Red Bulls filling the convention center to the rafters with songs, chants and cheers for their team’s picks.
There were also smatterings of Seattle fans and, at one point, we could’ve sworn we heard a Cosmos shout-out, though that might have been for the Chupacabra.
DC fans were in full voice when the Red and Black went on the clock with the third pick, and they got a “Per-ry Kit-Chen—clap clap, clap-clap-clap” chant going when their man stepped to the podium.
Philly fans appreciated Maryland ‘keeper Zac MacMath thanking “the Sons of Ben for making the trip down,” even if they may have been a little puzzled by his selection at No. 5. Recent reports suggested the Union were on the verge of signing veteran Colombian ‘keeper Faryd Mondragon, and they already have Brad Knighton, who shined in relief of Chris Seitz down the stretch last season.
Red Bulls and Union fans kept up a spirited debate all day, though the Sons of Ben were offside when they heckled New York coach Hans Backe during a live interview with MLSsoccer.com.
Princes of the Podium
Several players made memorable appearances at the podium following their selections, but our favorite was UNC midfielder Stephen McCarthy, who, after being picked by New England in Round 2, sidled up, looked over the assembled and said, “How’s it goin?” like he was Jeff Spiccoli awaiting an imminent pizza delivery.
McCarthy later thanked his aunt and uncle for the suit he was wearing, then cracked up at something Revs coach Steve Nicol said to him during the photo op. His bio says he’s from Dallas, but we’d have guessed McCarthy hailed from Southern California, with a side hobby in surfing.
Other memorable turns onstage came from Carolina midfielder Michael Farfan, who thanked his “Nana,” and multiple players who thanked their girlfriends, which never failed to draw giggles from the supporters groups, particularly when Corey Hertzog thanked his “girlfriend and all that” after going 13th overall to the Red Bulls.
Through it all, we got heavy doses of Katy Perry, Kanye, Bruno Mars, and even some Miley Cyrus over the convention center PA. We’re not sure who the DJ was, but we doubt it was Diplo.
Surprises, Sleepers, and (Famous) Siblings
Beyond the opening pick, the draft sprung plenty of other surprises.
Indiana striker Will Bruin, regarded by many as a potential top three pick, fell all the way to 11, where Houston snatched him up as a possible successor to Brian Ching. Bruin’s Hoosier teammate, defender Rich Balchan—a player essentially no one was talking about before the draft—went in the first round, right after Bruin, to Columbus.
Columbus executed one of the six draft-day trades, sending striker Steven Lenhart to San Jose in exchange for the Quakes’ first-round pick, which the Crew used to select Michigan striker Justin Meram.
The Red Bulls turned heads by taking the player with the most famous surname in the draft, midfielder John Rooney, with the seventh pick of the second round. The 20-year-old former Macclesfield Town product will now leap out of his famous brother’s shadow in the UK and into the media fishbowl that is New York.
Whatever happens next, it’s sure to be interesting—like the events that unfolded on this entertaining Thursday in Baltimore.