Analysis / Union

John Hackworth steals the show at SuperDraft

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Year
Player
Pick
Career notes
2000Adin Brown4Journeyman starter in MLS/Norway. plagued by injuries. Out of soccer, 2012.
2004Steve Cronin10Played 32 MLS games, out of soccer, 2012.
2005Brad Guzan2Starter for EPL's Aston Villa. Backup, U.S. national team.
2007Chris Seitz4Backup, FC Dallas. 43 MLS appearances.
2008Josh Lambo8Never played an MLS game. Now a college football placekicker for Texas A&M.
2008Dominic Cervi12Rejected MLS contract, signed with Celtic in Scotland. Now a free agent.
2011Zac MacMath5Current Philadelphia starter.
2014Andre Blake1Presumptive 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.

51 Comments

  1. I don’t think it’s a matter of giving up on MacMath. It’s more a matter of having the most highly rated GK since Guzan, a player described as the LeBron Jams of GKers, fall into your lap.

    And I’m glad Hackworth had the will to take that opportunity when it presented itself. The more I read about Blake, the more excited I get about watching him play.

  2. I just want to say that it’s awesome the way you used proved and proven in the same paragraph. Well done!

  3. I have made my thoughts on the Blake pick known… Bah Humbug.

  4. Just get us Matias Laba

  5. No matter who the Union have and will sign…I’m really looking foward to seeing the starting line up.

  6. Dominic Cervi? Haven’t heard that name in a while. That guy should be doing everything that he can in order to get back into MLS’s good graces.

  7. Phil Naegely says:

    Dan- Again another great in-depth analysis piece from you. Even though you are sitting in a hospital room on very little sleep, you somehow are able to write sound, cohesive pieces.

  8. If Blake is really as good as advertised, the Union are only going to have him for 2-3 years before Europe comes calling with a seven-figure transfer fee. Then what?

    • Then we have that seven-figure transfer fee to use on other players. Obviously you want to hold onto good players, but developing guys like Blake into assets with real value which can be turned around and reinvested in the team is also important, and desirable in MLS.
      .
      I think it’d be a pretty decent outcome for the Union if they get 2-3 years of quality play from Blake (provided the team is successful), and then recoup a large transfer fee for him. Maybe I’m wrong, but for me that’s worth a top pick in this league.

    • John O'Donnell says:

      Make it eight and keep investing in the club. We still need a training center and an investing in the academy.

    • Zac Steffan

  9. To be fair to Hack, MacMath was the only GK on our roster. It’s not like we don’t need a backup. With that pick we acquired what was widely considered to the best player in the draft, filled a positional need, and as a bonus Blake is GA, which means we don’t have to pay for him. Win, win, win.

    • Another good point that’s highly missed. He fills positional need, can push MacMath, could probably start Day 1, and costs nothing.

    • That’s true. I skimmed over that a bit too quickly, didn’t I? I think there’s a legitimate chance both are on the roster come opening day and that you do in fact see them competing for time during the season. That said, I obviously don’t think it bodes well for MacMath in terms of his Union career. He makes upwards of $100,000, and the Union will not likely keep a backup at his salary for very long.

      • Absolutely not. Aside from VW FC, what other teams would consider trading making a bid for MacMath? What would player swaps would be considered? My assumption is that a trade would be for Allocation most likely, but here are my thoughts [hopes]…
        .
        VW FC for Jordan Harvey
        Montreal Impact, San Jose, Seattle?

      • I agree with you that it doesn’t bode well for MacMath’s long term future, but I think that if he is sold, it will be the summer window at the earliest. Starting a goalie straight out of the draft is a risky proposition, and so I think MacMath will be able to hold down the starting spot this year, and one of three things will happen:

        1) He will play well enough to attract European interest. Union sell him for a good chunk of change.
        2) He will perform so poorly that we will be glad to have Blake as his replacement.
        3) He will do just okay, and we’ll be where we are right now, only with Blake chomping at the bit to get a shot at the #1 shirt.

        If either of the first two things happen, the Union will be able to realize the value of Blake without losing value from MacMath. If the third happens, I see MacMath being traded a year from now for something like a second round pick.

      • Besides the budget considerations of GA status, previous expansion drafts gave those individual’s draft immunity. The U can protect both. If they deal one, they still need a backup. I’d look at it as they’re invested over 100k total for the position with both, which would be pretty cost effective. And weirdly shrewd.

  10. I’m going to question whether it would be wise for the Union to get rid of MacMath regardless of how Blake does, unless the get a really good deal. Let’s say Blake is the next coming of Brad Guzan. Doesn’t that mean he’ll likely be heading for greener pastures in a couple of years and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to bring MacMath back in at say 25 rather than starting over again?

    • Bill Pizzie says:

      Well, that sounds great in theory, but something tells me Zac isn’t going to be the good soldier and just sit on the bench cheering on his teammate(s) if he is the #2. From what’s been said, he was pissed yesterday….

      I’d say it’s a tenuous relationship at best that he has with the team right now. IF the team goes into the season with both of them…and that’s a big if….the moment he has a brain cramp and punches when he should be catching or does something stupid and let’s in a bad goal….the SOB will be calling for Blake. I’m not sure a “competition” will work for them. If the team brought in an older established vet looking to rekindle his career to push Zac, that might work…but drafting a hotshot guy first overall to push him…well….I’ve got a feeling that ain’t gonna work.

      Zac is now on borrowed time and he knows it. They’d be best to get what they can for him now…(heard the Caps offered their 5th overall pick from last year for him)…then sign a vet to hold down the fort til they’re ready to give Blake a shot. Cause I think Macmath’s value is only going to go down as time goes on.

    • Let’s start the MacMath for Harvey rumors now…

      • Bill Pizzie says:

        I actually heard Erik Hurtado – but that’s officially unofficial! LOL!

      • Bill Pizzie says:

        But they really only have one unimpressive GK on their roster…. sooooooo…

      • I would hope it’d be Hurtado and some Allocation or an international slot or a draft pick. Foward is not really a place lacking in depth. JMac, Casey, Le Toux, Hoppenot, Wheeler, Hernandez, and I feel like I heard/read somewhere that Ribeiro could play up top as well.
        .
        Hopefully they make a trade that brings in a defensive journeyman either at CB or LB. That would be ideal. But then again looking at VW FC’s roster -and assuming that they wouldn’t trade a DP or that the Union wouldn’t take an international player – Hurtado or Harvey are the only players available.

  11. WilkersonMcLaser says:

    Am I missing something? I seem to recall McMath doing quite well last year, especially after Oka Nikolov came in. After that, he started to lead the league on several stats (at least for awhile). Blake is a good pickup, sure, but I don’t see how we can call McMath’s season a bad one.

    If you want to follow me into conspiracy theory territory, I wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with his recent training field tweets …

    • The problem with MacMath is that he only shows up to play when he knows there’s someone behind him capable to start in his place. The first half of the season he took his spot for granted because Konopka really wasn’t going to push him for it.

    • Right, I didn’t even think of that. Interesting theory

    • james lockerbie says:

      Have you seen the highlights! Even my 10yr old son can see Blake’s natural abilities will crush McMath. He said awesome approximately 10 times even noticed Blake’s Ability to get the ball on crosses.

  12. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    While the intention all along was to hand the starting job to Rivers, don’t forget that Brees had a rather significant injury at the time of his free agency and the Saints were only 1 of 2 teams to even offer him a contract. Also, talking about quality drafts, San Diego drafted Tomlinson in round 1 and Brees in round 2 of the same draft.

    Your completely meaningless comment of the day is now complete!

    • All true! I always saw the Chargers as using that labrum injury as an excuse to explain them letting Brees go. I was a big Brees fan. ;)

      • Check out “A Football Life: Marty Shottenheimer.” He never wanted Rivers. The owner did…ultimately led to firing Shottenheimer.

      • Yeah, I remember that, re: Schottenheimer. The Chargers got what they deserved. So did the Saints. I’ll keep an eye out for that show. I haven’t seen it yet, but from what I’ve read, they have some good stories. Could never fathom how the Chargers could have been so foolish back then.

  13. The Chopper says:

    The Union has decided that long term Zak is not the guy. He made some strides last season, but his distribution remains spotty and he continues to have lapses in judgement (an area that improved a bit, but not dramatically as the season wore on).

    He is excellent at reaction saves (those plays where no thinking is required). His reflexes are top notch.

    But that deer in the headlights look he so frequently sports during critical moments in matches when his box is under siege does not inspire confidence from his back line which at time overcompensates too much to protect him (not holding a high enough line on entry over the top for example)

    Top keepers tend to have swagger, even when still learning. He stutters, not swaggers. There are a lot of old keepers walking around Chester, Sak, Pappas, Rigby (not so much last year), but I have heard all of them privately express doubts about MacMath.

    • Just curious, where and how did you hear these three former GKs express their doubts about MacMath?

      • The Chopper says:

        Being associated with a partner of the club, I attend many meetings and functions where those gentleman are present and have good relationships with them.

        I played a little keeper myself (and I do mean little at a small college level)
        I often find myself chatting about keepers with them socially. Obviously Zak comes up in the conversation.

    • I keep hearing that MacMath makes good reaction saves…I never once saw it.
      But, I think it’s more to do with MacMath cost $ and Blake does not. I also don’t see MacMath being a good soldier, so I don’t see this going well without a trade.
      —-
      I seriously have to agree with Dan about Vartughian. What’s more is that he’s the number 1 assistant, so there’s no experience on that staff. But I figure Rob is gone if Hack goes anyway, so they all have to know it’s boom or bust. (I do like the Jim Curtain, Chris Albright – CR Dynamo contingent).

      • MacMath is 22. I highly doubt his mental and emotional maturity. So when you’ve been told that you were the franchise ‘keeper and it’s your job to lose AND your club purposefully goes after a talented GK, there’s going to be some bad blood. I highly, highly doubt that MacMath will take it as a challenge to prove his worth to the team and league. More likely he treat is as a slap in the face and ask to be transferred out.

      • What basis would Macmath have in taking the Union at their word. If I were Zac I would be orchestrating my exit.

      • The Chopper says:

        Zak’s feelings may be hurt, but the Union have pretty much given him two straight seasons in goal to show himself.

        If the Union went out and took another keeper in the draft, that’s on Zak, not the club.

  14. james lockerbie says:

    Yeah they gave him more time then Seitz and Knighton

  15. To me this pick is Hackworth’s job. If Blake becomes the starter this season and the Union don’t make the Playoffs it is see you later to John.

  16. On The Right Track says:

    Did you see Hack’s giant toothy grins after the Draft? He was so giddy! He was over-the-moon ecstatic. Hey if you can draft (and not pay for) a can’t-miss stud keeper you do it. Zak is good and getting better. That said, his GA status is soon to expire. This is a no-brainer for us. Zak NO DOUBT pissed off the Union brass with his tweets. Anybody who doubts it is nuts. FO is out there trying to recruit and bring guys in and then have to deal with negative tweets from…their starting Goalie? Really? And then the tantrum?

  17. If the Union make the playoffs this upcoming season I’ll agree with on the right track. I do believe Zak is within his rights to make as much waves as possible to help with getting out of Philly and landing a starting position. Good luck Zak. GKs only get better with time.

  18. MacMath could be “loaned” to Vancouver, who is in desperate need of a keeper, which could bode well in the future. A risk on part of the Union. However, if Blake is as good as advertised, then a future transfer to the Europe could be a huge return on investment for the Union.

    Any word on Edu? If he was heading to LA or NY, this would have been a done deal already, feel like Philly is getting the shaft on this one for some reason. Any thoughts not he progress so far?

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