Sportsnet’s 2014 MLS mock draft

MLS commissioner Don Garber. (AP)

The fifteenth MLS SuperDraft will take place on Thursday in Philadelphia and most experts seem to disagree on how the chips will fall for some of the best NCAA players in the United States.

D.C. United has the first overall pick by virtue of a horrendous 2013 campaign, finishing dead-last with 16 points and a lowly three victories. Out of the three Canadian sides, the Vancouver Whitecaps are in the best position to address their needs, owning the third and seventh overall picks. The Montreal Impact select 10th, while Toronto FC have the No. 15 selection.

This year’s draft features seven Generation adidas players who won’t count against the salary cap: Christian Dean (defender), Andre Blake (goalkeeper), Shillo Tshuma (forward), AJ Cochran (defender), Eric Miller (defender), midfielder Marlon Hairston, and Damian Lowe (defender). The league initiative encourages development and provides financial incentive to the continent’s best young prodigies. Another 70-plus hopefuls were invited to the annual MLS Player Combine in Florida which gives scouts one last look at the talent available and the athletes a final chance at making a meaningful impression.

Canadian players who could hear their name called include forwards Mackenzie Pridham and Tomislav Zadro, and midfielder Tesho Akindele.

The first two rounds take place on Jan. 16, with the third and fourth rounds unfolding five days later. Here is an in-depth look at some of the players who will be hoping to be selected.

Steve Birnbaum – Defender – University of California

Comments: One of three team captains for the Golden Bears last year, with three years of experience at the collegiate level under his belt, Birnbaum could very well be the most complete player in this draft. Many pundits have him rated in the top five, but D.C. needs a player who can step in immediately without any growing pains given they were the worst team in the league in 2013. Big, strong, and with a decent amount of pace, Birnbaum is their guy.

#2: PHILADELPHIA UNION (via trade with Chivas USA)
Christian Dean – Defender – University of California (Generation adidas player)

Comments: The fourth-ranked Golden Bears were dumped out of the Division I championship last year in the quarter-finals, barely missing out on the program’s first national title. However, they boasted two defensive prospects that will be the first names called at this draft. At 20 years of age, Dean is still a little raw and needs more time to develop, but this kid has the potential to become a future MLS All-Star, given his size (6’3″) and skill-set (a natural lefty with great vision distributing the ball).

#3: VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (via trade with Toronto FC)
Andre Blake – Goalkeeper – University of Connecticut (Generation adidas player)

Comments: With only one goalkeeper on the books heading into training camp (David Ousted), the Whitecaps would be foolish not to select Blake with the first of their two first round picks. After three years at UCONN, the back-to-back Big East Goalkeeper of the Year recipient will make a strong case to win the starting shirt in Vancouver. Blake possesses the tools to quite possibly become one of the league’s best net-minders in the very near future. If he does get selected, it would be only the tenth time in MLS history that a club has picked a ‘keeper in the first round—the most noteworthy being Brad Guzan by Chivas USA in 2007.

#4: NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (via trade with Columbus Crew)
Marlon Hairston – Midfielder – University of Louisville (Generation adidas player)

Comments: Whatever he lacks in size, Hairston makes up for with pace, versatility and an innate ability to be in the right spot at the right time. The Cardinals midfielder might have a tough time adapting to the physical MLS brand of football, despite being a lot stronger than his rather boyish looking frame may perceive. A little maturity on the defensive side of the ball still needs to be grasped, though Hairston possess all the essentials to become a solid contributor.

Patrick Mullins – Forward – University of Maryland

Comments: Losing the Division I National Championship to Notre Dame in December was not the way Mullins expected to end his final year before going pro. However, the Terrapins striker led the tournament with five goals—including 19 more to go along with eight assist in the regular season—and was named collegiate player of the year. Mullins became only the seventh player to win the Hermann Trophy in consecutive years, and ended his NCAA career second on Maryland’s all-time scoring list (47) and points (119). No FC Dallas player hit double-digits in scoring last season (Blais Perez led the team with eight goals), so if Mullins is still on the board this would be a no-brainer.

Pedro Ribeiro – Midfielder – Coastal Carolina University

Comments: It’s always a tremendous bonus to have two picks in the top ten, but it usually means that the previous season wasn’t so spectacular. The only knock on Ribeiro is his Brazilian citizenship, which means he counts as a foreign player. Most teams will be leery about filling an international roster spot with a green and wet behind the ears rookie. On the up-side, he does possess the usual Brazilian touch, and would be best described as a deep-lying midfielder.

Eric Miller – Defender/Midfielder – Creighton University (Generation adidas player)

Comments: If the Whitecaps go with Brown at number three, Miller would be a solid choice if still available. He can play as a full-back—preferably on the right side—or in a more advanced role in the midfield. Versatility is key, especially after selecting a goalkeeper with their first selection. Ideally, Vancouver could opt to choose Brown in this position, should new manager and former assistant Carl Robinson decide an outfield player better suits his vision moving forward.

Grant Van De Casteele – Defender – University of Notre Dame

Comments: A big and sturdy centre-back is always a useful asset in this league. At 6’2 and 165 pounds, his mobility could be a concern, although scouts maintain that Van De Casteele has a knack for occupying the ideal position and keeping his shape. Five seasons of collegiate football for the Irish has provided optimal experience to jump straight into the MLS pressure cooker.

Omar Holness – Midfielder – University of North Carolina

Comments: The Tar Heels freshman has showed some signs of being an impact player—if you haven’t seen his 50-yard solo run and strike against Maryland in September, it’s definitely worth having a look see. But the U-17 Jamaican team captain has also fallen down the pecking order with scouts. Holness could be a steal at number nine or an absolute bust. Its’ a toss-up given his current form.

Kyle Venter – Defender – University of New Mexico

Comments: Physically strong with leadership qualities, Venter does have his share of doubters. Opinion is split down the middle. Fundamentally, the Lobos’ record-holder in minutes played still has a lot to learn, which is why some even rate him as a late first round pick, if at all. However, the Impact could use this selection to acquire some toughness for their backline, especially in the aftermath of the retirement of Alessandro Nesta.

Player: Ben Sweat – Defender – University of South Florida

Comments: The Rapids could use another left-back to give some competition to Anthony Wallace. Scouts have labelled Sweat a true athlete, with a genuine sense to join the attack. Sweat led the backline at South Florida for all four seasons, ending with the AAC tournament title.

Player: Schillo Tshuma – Forward – University of Maryland (Generation adidas player)

Comments: The 21 year-old Zimbabwean sophomore has speed to burn, which was clearly evident during the MLS Player Combine—where he also scored a neat goal—as he attempts to overcome a difficult season individually. Tshuma scored six goals during Maryland’s journey to the College Cup final, seven less than his freshman year. However, the Revs could benefit from nurturing his undeniable raw potential and deploy him as a second forward or winger.

Jared Watts – Midfielder – Wake Forest University

Comments: The Deamon Deacons’ loss could very well become an eventual leader down the middle for the Sounders, who are in definite need of another deep-lying defensive specialist at the heart of midfield. Sharpie Joseph only played 10 games last year—his first in Seattle—and at best has one or two seasons left in his 35 year-old legs. Watts would help shore up a position of weakness and quickly become a mainstay in manager Sigi Schmid’s squad.

#14: COLUMBUS CREW (via trade with LA Galaxy)
Kevin Cope – Defender – Michigan State University

Comments: He might not look as polished and refined as some of his competitors at centre-back in this year’s draft, but what he has going for him is the natural ability to make his teammates better. Cope has developed into one of the Big Ten’s best defenders.

#15: TORONTO FC (via trade with New York Red Bulls)
AJ Cochran – Defender – University of Wisconsin (Generation adidas player)

Comments: TFC made headlines this week with two marquee and sexy signings (Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley), but next on the agenda is adding some much needed depth to their back-line, with Steven Caldwell leading a thin bunch. Cochran is a beast in the air—easily his best attribute—and could eventually strike up a decent partnership with TFC’s veteran captain. Coach Ryan Nelsen would make a decent mentor for the junior First Team All-American.

Mackenzie Pridham – Forward – California Polytechnic State University

Comments: One of three Canadians to be invited to the MLS Player Combine, Pridham has been labelled as a true goal-scorer by Ca Poly coach Paul Holocher. The Toronto native led his team with 14 goals last season—as well as being the school’s all-time leader with 27 strikes—and only needs minimal space to ripple the net. The Canadian also became the first player since Brad Evans to repeat as Big West Offensive Player of the Year. The Dynamo are absent of a dynamic front-man that can create his own chances.

AJ Corrado – Midfielder – University of Indiana

Comments: Corrado is technically astute with a high soccer IQ. The Timbers might have their fair share of talented midfielders, but it will be difficult to pass up on Corrado given his availability in the later portion of the first round. He definitely needs some added development—most notably his physical strength—which is why Portland could take their time and allow him to reach his maximum potential.

JJ Koval – Midfielder – Stanford University

Comments: A solid holding midfielder who doesn’t mind doing the intangibles that largely go unnoticed and without much fanfare. Team captain Kyle Beckerman would be the ideal person to take Koval under his wing and bestow his 14 years of MLS experience on the rookie.

#19: NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (via trade with Sporting Kansas City)
Joey Dillon – Midfielder – Georgetown University

Comments: Having gone with finesse and flair earlier in the draft (Shillo Tshuma), the Revs must address an obvious hole with their final pick of the first round and select a stay-at-home midfielder. Dillon would fit perfectly into coach Jay Heaps’ set-up, helping to link-play from back to front.

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