MLS draft diluted with clubs developing homegrown players

Dayonn-Harris-MLS-SuperDraft

Canadian forward Dayonn Harris (right), from UConn, is shown in a handout photo. He is one of three Canadians expected to figure in Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft. (Stephen Slade/CP/HO-University of Connecticut)

Talent is available Thursday but the MLS SuperDraft does not pack the punch it once did, with clubs focusing on developing their own talent via homegrown players.

Still, Canadians Ryan Raposo (Syracuse), Alistair Johnston (Wake Forrest) and Dayonn Harris (UConn) hope to be front and centre when 26 MLS teams, including expansion Inter Miami and Nashville, make their picks.

“I think the draft has substantially changed over the years, because teams have invested so much in their own player development systems — in terms of their academy and their reserve teams,” said Toronto FC GM Ali Curtis, who went second overall to Tampa Bay in the 2001 draft.

“If you looked at the crop of young players that are becoming pros, a lot of those young homegrown players would otherwise be top draft picks,” he added. “In that sense, the draft is somewhat diluted.”

Curtis expects to sign two to three homegrown players in the next week or two.

“In that respect, our approach to the draft in 2020 is a lot different than a club’s approach to the draft 10 years ago,” he said.

Vassili Cremanzidis, head of analysis and assistant director of player personnel for the Montreal Impact, agrees.

“Some of the players that go to university are part of the academies already so it kind of dilutes the pool as well,” he said. “Because the players already belong to a team, even if they’re not signed.”

Vancouver Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos says there are always players in the draft that surprise or can become important parts of the roster, especially among the top 10 picks. He points to Atlanta midfielder Julian Gressel (taken eighth overall in 2017) and Minnesota forward Mason Toye (seventh, 2018).

“So I’m excited about the quality you can get. But at the same time I’m realistic with the fact that these are players that don’t know yet the professional environment. It takes a big jump,” he said. “The stories of Gressel and Toye … it doesn’t mean they happen every year.”

With international roster spots at a premium, teams are also reluctant to use one on an import player in the draft. That’s especially true for Canadian teams because the process for naturalizing a foreigner here takes longer than it does south of the border.

“In general for us, it becomes difficult to take an international player,” Cremanzidis said.

The draft can be a crapshoot.

The Philadelphia Union turned heads last year by trading all five of their picks to FC Cincinnati ahead of the draft for US$150,000 of general allocation money, with the promise of extra $50,000 depending on performance.

According to MLS.com, 28 of the 76 players selected in last year’s draft made an MLS roster. That number now stands at 24.

While 22 made one or more MLS appearances, only three appeared in 20 or more games.

Four Canadians were taken in the first 27 picks last year with three in the top nine: defender Callum Montgomery fourth (FC Dallas), goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair seventh (Minnesota) and midfielder Tajon Buchanan ninth (New England). Defender Kamal Miller went 27th (Orlando).

Miller saw the most action with 16 regular-season appearances (including 14 starts). Buchanan played in 10 games (four starts) while Montgomery and St. Clair did not see first-team action.

The first two rounds of the draft, to be shown digitally via an ESPN-produced show, go Thursday. Rounds 3 and 4 will be held by conference call Monday.

Inter Miami CF holds the first and third overall picks with fellow expansion side Nashville SC picking second. The Vancouver Whitecaps select fourth.

Dos Santos says while he is excited about who he might get at No. 4, he is leaving all doors open.

“We have to be smart because we always have to look at the full picture … What do we need as a club,” he said. “So we’re looking at everything. We’re looking at the possibility of trading. We’re looking at the options of guys we want to pick.”

Montreal goes ninth.

“There’s a lot of different things we can do with the ninth pick,” said Cremanzidis. “Based on the research and the scouting and everything we’ve done, hopefully we can get it right.”

MLS runner-up Toronto has two first-round picks: 19th (via a trade with the Los Angeles Galaxy involving allocation order) and 25th.

Montreal has four picks in all with three third-round sections (56th, 60th and 61st). The Whitecaps have a pick in each round (fourth, 32nd, 55th and 82nd).

Toronto has six picks including three in the first 33 (19th, 25th, 33rd, 61st, 77th and 103rd).

The league offers some what of a road map to the draft via the players it signs in advance.

Raposo joins defenders Henry Kessler (Virginia) and Jack Maher (Indiana) and forwards Robbie Robinson (Clemson) and Daryl Dike (Virginia) in signing Generation Adidas contracts.

The GA program is a pipeline for talented underclassmen. GA players are especially welcome because their initial contract does not count against the salary cap and as such usually go high in the draft.

Senior defenders Dylan Nealis (Georgetown) and Tanner Beason (Stanford) also signed contracts with the league ahead of the draft but are not part of the GA class.

Even GA players require patience.

Montreal took teenage midfielder Shamit Shome, a GA player, in the second round (41st overall) in 2017. The Edmonton native saw just eight minutes of MLS play in his first year and 249 minutes (five appearances, two starts) in 2018.

In 2019, he appeared in 27 games (18 starts) and played 1,627 minutes. The 22-year-old is currently in camp with the Canadian national team.

The 2020 crop of Canadian talent is impressive.

Raposo, released as a youngster by the TFC academy, is a driven 20-year-old from Hamilton who can play wing or No. 10. Johnston is a mature 21-year-old from Aurora, Ont., who turned heads in converting to right back from central midfield at Wake Forrest. Harris is a pacey 22-year-old forward from Milton, Ont.

All three played together at Vaughan SC and Vaughan Azzurri.

Curtis sees this year’s draft similar to previous editions.

“There’s a few players, I’m sure, that can help every team,” said Curtis. “Usually the top two or three selections are fairly quality players that can help a team within those first two to three years and then can go on and have good careers.

“Then there’s a few other players maybe throughout the draft that might be able to help a team and might be able to have good and long careers provided they’re in the right team, that has the right roster, that has the right style of player and is a good fit.”

The right player can also turn into a healthy profit.

Canadian forward Cyle Larin, who went first overall to expansion Orlando in 2015, went on to become rookie of the year before being eventually sold to Turkey’s Besiktas. Larin was subsequently loaned to Zulte Waregem with the Belgian side holding an options to make the move permanent.

New York City FC sold midfielder Jack Harrison, the first overall pick in 2016, to Manchester City in January 2018. Harrison was subsequently loaned to Middlesbrough and Leeds United.

“Maybe there is a player like this year. We’ll have to wait and see,” said Cremanzidis.

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