You don’t build through the MLS SuperDraft — at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Given the league’s history of featuring older designated players signed from Europe and the growing trends of bringing in young pros from South America and teams signing young players to homegrown deals out of their academies, it’s certainly unlikely for the draft to tectonically shift the balance of power in the league the way it can in the NBA. For every Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore who was drafted, there’s a Tim Howard or Jordan Morris or Kellyn Acosta who came into the league through another route.
The flipside of this conventional wisdom, though, is that for a club looking to build a genuine foundation for years to come, the SuperDraft can provide opportunities to add to an increasingly clear but still flexible core at a good value. MNUFC did just that this year, coming into the day with the fifth pick of the first round and the fifth and 18th picks of the second round but leaving with three first rounders, a second rounder and veteran help at goalkeeper in Matt Lampson.
Prior to the draft last year, the path to success at the draft was much clearer, given that the club could have its choice with the first overall pick. Minnesota United selected Abu Danladi and he went on to impress in his rookie year, notching eight goals (four match-winners) and coming on particularly strong in the second half of the year.
“This year, it was a little bit more complex,” said Sporting Director Manny Lagos. “We thought that there were five to seven players that really made an impression in the Combine, that we think were worthy. We really wanted to try to assess the value of the fifth pick, and try to get the most out of it. Whether that was taking a player with the fifth, or if that was what we ended up doing, which was essentially taking the fifth for the value, and trading it, and grabbing the player we still wanted.”
Knowing who their targets were was a major key to the club’s success as they moved around the draft board. In the days leading up to the draft, all of the players they ended up selecting — Mason Toye with the fifth pick, Wyatt Omsberg with the 15th and Carter Manley with the 23rd — had been marked as players they were specifically going after.
“We came out of the draft really happy,” said Assistant Coach Mark Watson, “because we basically presented a perfect scenario if everything goes well, and we make some deals, and we would get those guys. And we did. We went in hoping to get both those players, and we didn’t think it was possible.”
Omsberg was widely viewed as the second best centerback in the draft behind Tomas Hilliard-Arce — a view Head Coach Adrian Heath is willing to challenge — and Toye is not only an athletic striker brimming with potential but a domestic Generation adidas player, meaning his salary doesn’t count against the cap and he doesn’t take up an international slot on the roster. For a team like Minnesota that spent its inaugural season identifying and refining a core, adding a combination of depth and potential was the ideal outcome from the draft.
Heath is a big believer in earning your spot, in players forcing the coach’s hand through hard work and professionalism in practice. It will be no different for these rookies.
“They’re going to need a little bit of luck,” he said. “And they will have a dip at some stage during this season because they’re used to playing three-month seasons. When they get into six months of this season, with the intensity we train, that we’re expecting of them every single day, we know there will be a dip at some stage. What we have to make sure is that they understand that, that it doesn’t affect their confidence, and then they keep going.
“The important thing is, for our supporters, is we haven’t drafted these for next week,” added Heath. “We haven’t drafted them for six months’ time. We think these guys are going to develop into MLS footballers over the next five, ten years.”
Minnesota United didn’t head into the SuperDraft looking for a star to change the franchise overnight. The club has laid a foundation and they have a vision of what they’re building on top of that. Training camp so far has been far different from last season when 20-plus players were thrown together in a matter of weeks. This year, returning players are embracing each other and cracking jokes, displaying a level of cohesion that simply wasn’t possible last year. MNUFC got what they wanted out of the SuperDraft. Now it’s up to the rookies to make themselves indispensable parts of what is now unmistakably a team.