As the Vancouver Whitecaps approach Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft, coach Carl Robinson has his eyes on selecting players he feels can potentially add something to his attacking group.
This after a season in which the Whitecaps qualified for the playoffs based on a stingy defensive record (just 36 goals conceded), rather than its modest offensive output (45 goals scored).
“If you look at the last two years, we’ve been pretty solid defensively, we’ve been pretty sound that way,” Robinson told Sportsnet when asked during a recent conference call about his priorities going into the draft.
“I want players that are good players, first of all, that are good characters, like we got in Timmy last year. It was a great draft for us last year being able to get Tim Parker at 13. I’ll be looking at the front end of the pitch to start with.”
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Ask any MLS coach how he evaluates the draft and its importance, and the answer will almost inevitably be diplomatic.
For Robinson, he can see both sides of the discussion but insists when a team approaches it correctly, the draft can be a good way to bolster a squad.
“Each year, you tend to hear the same things,” Robinson said. “You tend to hear, ‘the draft isn’t as strong as it was last year, it isn’t this and it isn’t that.’ It’s a very good mechanism for building your squad…you’ve got to use it how you want to use it.”
But what is true is that the draft doesn’t carry the same level of relative importance as the equivalent event in other pro sports leagues.
While the draft is the primary path for new players to enter the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, in MLS it is but one path. Many players enter MLS from professional leagues in other countries at advanced stages in their career, or even from other professional leagues in North America, having never been drafted by an MLS team.
Increasingly, an additional stream has also been added to the mix, as clubs develop their own players through academies, or in Vancouver’s case, a residency program.
In the ideal scenario for the club, Vancouver finds a promising teenager within western Canada, recruits that player and trains them within their residency structure. This allows total control over the player’s development and should hypothetically lead to better results than picking a player in his early 20s who has often been left to the American college system, which critics suggest is not the ideal environment for developing elite professional players.
“We spend a lot of money on our [residency] program, and we want to develop our own players,” said Robinson. “We’ve got some exciting 16, 17 year old kids, and there’s also the possibility of one of our USL players stepping up. They’re going to be given a chance in pre-season as well. There’s three or four that I quite fancy in that team as well that will be given a chance.
“It’s down to them to stake their claim to get into the [MLS] squad. The draft is a very important component, but it is not the only component, which I think is important to say.”
Like many MLS teams, the Whitecaps’ experience at the SuperDraft has been mixed.
Omar Salgado, drafted first overall in 2011 while only 17 years old, is largely viewed as a bust from a Vancouver standpoint. He scored just one goal and was largely a peripheral player over an injury riddled four seasons with the club.
Drafted at the No. 2 slot the following year, Darren Mattocks is more complicated case. He burst onto the scene by scoring six goals in his first nine MLS appearances, before falling into the role as more of a squad player. Interestingly he has enjoyed recent success at international level and may have some transfer or trade value as a result. With more than 100 matches played in various competitions for the club since being drafted, it’s difficult to call the player a complete bust.
More recently, Kekuta Manneh (2013, fourth overall) and Tim Parker (2015, 13th overall) became starters by the time last season's playoffs rolled around, and both are likely to feature for the U.S. national team in the coming years.
This time around, barring a trade, the Whitecaps will be picking at No. 16, which is the club’s lowest ever first pick in a draft since entering the league.
That’s been prompting speculation Robinson is considering making a deal to pick higher up.
“There is a possibility,” Robinson answered when asked about whether he’s considering a trade. “Obviously you can move up or you can move down. With that, you’ve got to give up something if you’re low, and if you’re high, you’re going to end up getting something.
“We’ll just assess the situation when we’re down there…because of where we are in the draft, it’s going to be taken out of our hands at the start of it slightly, but if we feel it’s right to move up, we will without a doubt.”
Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer. Follow him on Twitter