Thursday is the unofficial start of the Major League Soccer season when the annual SuperDraft for college players takes place this Thursday, Jan. 15.
Inside the main ballroom at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 20 MLS clubs will have a chance to draft a college hopeful. As it stood at the time of this report, Philadelphia did not have a pick in the first round but has two in the second round, holding the 10th (31st overall) and 20th (41st overall) picks respectively. In next week's third and fourth rounds the Union have its natural ninth picks in each round.
On Monday, Union head coach Jim Curtin and technical director Chris Albright caught up with media to discuss the upcoming draft in addition to a wide array of offseason hot stove topics.
Curtin: The draft this year, there’s not as much on the high-end of things. There’s a clear top 30 players, but there’s not a lot of depth to it. Specifically at center back and left back, two positions of need for us at the moment. As we continue to shape our roster, we put an emphasis on building up the spine so to give you guys a clear direction in which the club is moving. You guys know me well by now, you know I’m a defense-first coach who emphasizes being strong on the counter attack. We laid a good foundation of that at the end of the year and we came up a little bit short.
On what they learned from last year’s draft as assistants at the table
Curtin: It’s a lot different this year. Obviously we have more responsibility, but not as high of a draft pick. So there’s a little bit of a give-take there. Last year, we sat as assistants and didn’t have the final say. This time around we’ll have the final say. We traded out of the first round to get a guy like C.J. [Sapong]. We’re still happy with that. It kind of concluded our thought being down here that there’s no player down here that represents his quality. Having said that, there are still opportunities for us to trade back into the first round. We have a couple of picks in the second that we could package to get back into the first round if we do see a player that we like.
With this being the first full year for both, does that change draft approach
Curtin: I trust my staff, first and foremost. I have a good team around me, B.J. Callaghan, Mike Sorber and Chris Albright. So again, I don’t make any one decision solely on my own, but the weight of it does come down Chris and I with the final say on the selections. You take all the information you’re given, you trust your staff. B.J. has been our main guy on the college scouting and he’s done a great job organizing that and making it easier. He’s had a lot of eyes on games this year and talked to a lot of college coaches. Obviously Chris and I have a strong network throughout college and MLS. But sometimes you get busy on other things like international signings. B.J. has been great taking the lead on the college thing, but we take all of the information we get and make a decision that’s best for the Philadelphia Union to get back into the playoffs.
How the draft has changed and become less impactful
Curtin: I would first like to stress the importance of role players in our league. The guys like that 34 games, where maybe they only make $100,000, but they give you 34 games are so valuable in this league and you don’t have to worry about them. A lot of them have gone four years in college and they come through and go on to have good careers. They make coaches sleep easier at night. That’s kind of the guys you look for at this stage in the draft.
Are there less of them coming out? You can probably look at the data and it says yes. But are they still important to this whole thing? I would have to say yes, as well. It’s still an important mechanism for players, but the hope is – and the way the league is moving – is more toward individual academies and developing players that way whether they’re role players or the next Landon Donovan. That is kind of the direction that it is moving. But again I don’t want to downplay the importance of the draft. That’s where you find the guys that can play a consistent 34 games for you.
On staying even-keeled when trying to get the draft hopefuls you want
Curtin: It’s a whirlwind, it happens quickly. I’d also add in our league we have to bring players. There are all these different parts moving. With the college draft specifically, there’s two ways to approach it: you can go for specific need by position or go after the best available player. We decided as a staff to go after the best player available because the fact we pick 31 and there’s 30 variables ahead of you to take your guy. Our clear idea is to take the best available position. Obviously if one of the key positions falls to us and a guy we’re shocked falls to us at the left back spot, we’re going to do it.
You still weight the risk-reward of moving up and packaging something together to move up and get into the first round. We’re still going through the interview process with a lot of these kids and we’ve taken it upon ourselves to interview a majority of them and to be a little more thorough than we have been in the past.
On what’s going to drive the desire to move up in the draft
Curtin: I’d stress that the past is the past. I didn’t have the final say on those selections on certain guys. Again, Chris and I are trying to put our stamp on this group. I’ll be blunt, we have two guys we are debating on moving up in this draft and at positions we need. If the price is too high, we won’t do it. It might be packaging a player and allocation money. Or a few draft picks. It’s a thing we’re looking at and there are a lot of variables that go into it. But it will be down to the wire to make the decision.
On reports of Sacha Kljestan and Maurice Edu and any information on other additional players
Albright: In regards to Maurice, I know there were reports that surfaced last week. We’re aware of those. Mo is a player we think very highly of. He’s a player that gives us versatility and has played at the highest level. What I can say about that is that we’re close to being over the line and look forward to getting that behind us and having Mo be a big piece for us in the foreseeable future.
As far as players of Sacha’s caliber, we’re always going to be interested in players of that quality. I think we’re not going to get into speaking of specific players that we’re targeting. But obviously Sacha’s resume speaks for itself and I think he’ll be a great addition for MLS wherever he winds up.
As far as the overall transfer market, we’re still very active in looking for players. We’re in some conversation right now internationally and that will continue on.
On how much flexibility they foresee on adding player considering whatever the new CBA may be
Albright: I think everybody is operating under the same unknown territory. It’s our policy and league policy not to comment on CBA negotiations. There’s obviously a bit of an unknown for anybody trying to add players. That being said, Jim has said it before, we’d like our roster to be done on March 7. I know everybody is eager for announcements, but I guess our comment would be to remain patient. You can fully judge our roster on March 7 and whether or not we make the playoffs. We’re actively trying to improve the roster daily and hope to have some announcements over the next few weeks.
If they need to make subtractions from current roster to add some players
Albright: I would just say you can trust that we have a pretty good idea to handle the roster and you guys will have a better idea in a few weeks to see where it all falls out.
Where you’re trying to fit players in budget wise
Albright: I think it’s sort of relates itself to the draft. You’re always balancing position of need versus the quality of player. Those are conversations that when they come down to specify players, we know how to analyze that. The discussion changes given the specific qualities of the player and the position of need at the time.
If it’s a factor even if the position isn’t needed
Albright: Of course. It always is. But again, I think you weigh the quality of the player and the resume of the player and how he can impact your team. We have ways of analyzing of how we weigh those two variables.
On Edu being back and where he will play
Curtin: Until we finally have Mo as our player, I will refrain from the future. But from the past, you guys know what position I played him at. I had an end of the year meeting with him and we discussed where our team had success from where he played. So you can come to a conclusion from that if we have Mo back.
If teams with multiple picks make it more possible to move into those
Curtin: Sure I would say that is a possibility. There’s a lot of chatter down here of teams trading picks. That’s a unique one – Kansas City has three in the first round. There’s probably only so many picks you want in the first round, so yeah those teams we’re targeting for a change to get back in.
On University of Virginia forward and Union Academy alum Darius Madison
Curtin: Darius Madison will be a pro soccer player, no question about that. Darius didn’t have the best year, but he’s someone that I’m close with. The conversations with Darius are ongoing. Out of respect to his coach, I’d have to reach out to him to speak specifically about Darius’ situation. We’ll see what’s best for the University of Virginia, for Darius and for the Philadelphia Union. But he does have the tools to be a pro player. Those are discussions that we are having. It’s not a guy we forgot about or anything.
On adding additional homegrown options for this roster
Albright: As Jay [Sugarman] said, from the top-down, it’s something we’re committed to. We want to get them to be contributors to our first team. We have a couple of guys in Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin that will be back with us. It speaks to our commitment to developing young players. But we’re probably going to have some academy guys with us at preseason as well. We’re going to do a better job integrating the guys with our first team in order to be able to evaluate their readiness at the MLS level. We’re not going to specifically talk about signing any homegrown players, but it’s something we’re committed to as an organization.
Curtin: And I’ll add the importance of the homegrown player to Philadelphia. We’re not going to spend like the Galaxy or Seattle so our academy is going to produce the role players that I’ve been talking about. The guys that you can pencil in and not lose sleep over. Tommy Wilson’s done a great job of overseeing that quality and finding that type of player and to get him ready for the first team. And that’s the goal of our academy. If they produce the next Landon Donovan, that’s excellent. But I can’t stress enough the importance of role players and to be able to develop them in our academy.
Zach Pfeffer’s injury update
Curtin: I’ve been in touch with Zach. He’s kind of gutted that he missed the training camp leading up to it because of injury and he wasn’t selected obviously and I think the injury had a lot to do with it. If you look at how the group has done, Zach might be a guy they miss a little bit. He’s healing and my advice was to make sure he’s 100 percent before he gets back out there. He’s being smart and rehabbing. We expect to get him going for preseason. We’re hoping he’s a guy that comes in and makes an impact and makes it hard for us to leave him out of the lineup.
Transcription courtesy of Union communications department staffer Chris Winkler