Photo: Earl Gardner
Bet you didn’t see that coming.
Thursday was an absolutely wild day for Philadelphia Union. Union manager John Hackworth stole the show at the MLS SuperDraft in Philadelphia by trading up and down the first round pretty much all afternoon and coming away with the consensus top player in the draft. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind after the draft.
The wheeler dealer
John Hackworth sure likes to trade. Over the last 18 months, Hackworth has proved more active in the trade market than nearly every other MLS club, and he did it again Thursday by making three trades in the draft’s first round.
Forget for a moment your opinions of the players drafted. Just consider this sequence of events.
- Union traded allocation money to move up one spot to get the draft’s consensus best player, goalkeeper Andre Blake, trumping Vancouver’s own attempt to trade up for him.
- New England used the 4th pick on Steve Neumann, a former Reading United attacker from the Philadelphia area. The Union probably wanted Neumann, based on what happened next.
- Dallas pulled a fast one, trading their 5th pick to Montreal for the 10th pick, allocation money and an international player slot. Dallas then traded right back up to the 6th pick to draft Tesho Akindele.
- Hackworth gave Dallas the 6th pick in exchange for the 10th pick and allocation money. He apparently didn’t value the draft slot as much once former Reading United player Neumann went with the 4th pick. Hackworth’s new target was likely former Reading United center back Damion Lowe, based on he did next.
- Once Seattle picked Lowe with the 8th pick, Hackworth traded down again, sending the 10th pick to Toronto for the 15th pick and allocation money.
- Hackworth finally got a Reading guy, Pedro Ribeiro, with the 15th pick.
It was a fascinating sequence.
Hackworth showed he grasps the concept of draft value very well, even if every move didn’t work out perfectly, and was able to react quickly to contingencies. (Few foresaw Seattle reaching for Lowe, a guy on nobody’s mock drafts till he surprisingly signed a Generation adidas contract with MLS, likely at the Union’s request.) Hackworth moved up for a guy (Blake) he wanted, down for another (Lowe) he wanted, and when that second move didn’t pan out, he moved down one more time to get yet another guy (Ribeiro) the Union knew very well.
That kind of flexibility and vision made the Union winners on the day, as they walked off with a guy many viewed as the draft’s top player, a midfielder projected as a top 10 pick, and more allocation money than they started the day with.
Philadelphia gives up on Zac MacMath, age 22
MacMath’s days as the Union’s starting goalkeeper are just about over. There is no way Blake doesn’t crack the starting lineup by season’s end, unless MacMath becomes an all-star this year or Blake proves a headcase.
Even if MacMath opens the season as the starter and plays out of his mind, he still faces the Drew Brees scenario. Brees was a second round pick for the San Diego Chargers who played decently at quarterback before the Chargers prematurely gave up on him and acquired highly rated rookie quarterback Phillip Rivers in 2004. Brees blossomed that year and made the Pro Bowl, but even that wasn’t enough to keep Rivers at bay after the Chargers invested so much in him. The Chargers let Brees walk via free agency in 2006. Brees signed with New Orleans, won them a Super Bowl, and became one of the league’s best quarterbacks.
MacMath got enough starts, but was he given enough time? Did the Union give up on him too soon? He was the league’s youngest starting goalkeeper at age 20. Now he’s still just 22, younger than Blake, who is 23.
MacMath never should have started in MLS at so young an age, but after then-manager Peter Nowak prematurely jettisoned Faryd Mondragon, he was the only guy left. MacMath’s confidence got battered. His second half improvement last season clearly wasn’t enough.
As a side note, anyone who claims to have seen this coming is lying. After all, the Union just unexpectedly traded away starting center back Jeff Parke, were looking at a draft in which two of the top three rated players were center backs, and started the draft with the No. 2 pick. If the Union were going to replace MacMath as a starter, most would have thought they would have finally gone with a veteran, rather than going back to the well again.
I’m still debating whether the Blake pick is inspired or misguided. Time will tell.
But if the Union break a third first round goalkeeper, it might be time to give goalkeepers coach Rob Vartughian his walking papers as well. At the very least, people will ask why Philadelphia kept gambling on young goalkeepers when they could have found a proven veteran instead.
First round goalkeepers have a bad track record
Only eight goalkeepers have ever been selected in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft.
Three have been Union players. First there was Chris Seitz, a 2007 draft pick acquired via trade from Salt Lake and handed the Union’s starting job in 2010. Then came MacMath in 2011, and now Blake.
The track record for first round goalkeepers is very poor. Only Brad Guzan has been a clear success, now a top starter in the English Premier League and heir apparent as the national team’s No. 1. Here is the full rundown.
|2000||Adin Brown||4||Journeyman starter in MLS/Norway. plagued by injuries. Out of soccer, 2012.|
|2004||Steve Cronin||10||Played 32 MLS games, out of soccer, 2012.|
|2005||Brad Guzan||2||Starter for EPL's Aston Villa. Backup, U.S. national team.|
|2007||Chris Seitz||4||Backup, FC Dallas. 43 MLS appearances.|
|2008||Josh Lambo||8||Never played an MLS game. Now a college football placekicker for Texas A&M.|
|2008||Dominic Cervi||12||Rejected MLS contract, signed with Celtic in Scotland. Now a free agent.|
|2011||Zac MacMath||5||Current Philadelphia starter.|
|2014||Andre Blake||1||Presumptive Philadelphia starter.|
Goalkeepers often blossom late. Drafting them has proved difficult. Let’s see how Blake does. It is very telling that the only year the Union have made the playoffs was with a proven veteran, Mondragon, in goal.
Regardless of how he performs on the field, Blake will likely be the last goalkeeper Philadelphia drafts in the first round for a very long time. Either he’ll succeed well enough that the Union won’t need one, or he’ll be part of a cautionary tale.
Union pick up some defensive depth
In the second round, the Union picked up center back Kevin Cope and converted left back Robbie Derschang.
Cope adds some depth with newly acquired Ethan White in central defense, but the Union are still lacking a proven starter to replace the recently traded Jeff Parke, barring a surprise return by Carlos Valdes. If Valdes could return after the World Cup, the Union might be willing to start White or Cope till then.
Derschang will probably go on loan to Harrisburg if he makes it out of training camp, as Hackworth indicated in an interview that he did not expect Derschang to compete for the starting left back job against Ray Gaddis and Fabinho.
The Union have three third-round picks for the second half of the draft on Tuesday, along with a fourth round pick. Philadelphia has found contributors late in the past, picking up Antoine Hoppenot in the 5th round in 2012 and Leo Fernandes in the 6th round last year.