FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Scouts, pundits and coaches are all down on this year's crop of talent, save for one spot: central defender. Almost to a man, people in and around MLS have said that this is the year to patch up those holes in the middle of the backline.
It's not just the quality of center back available, but the variety. Big and left-footed? Check. Small and technical? Check. Converted central midfielder? Check.
The 2014 class has a little of something for everyone, with as many as seven future MLS starters available. Here's how we rank them:
1. Steve Birnbaum (California) – Birnbaum's big – 6-foot-2, 180 lbs. – but he plays even bigger attacking set pieces, and has a knack for getting his head to everything. Smooth disributing from the back as well, which is why he's the consensus No. 1 overall pick. (WATCH Birnbaum's senior season highlights) Range: Top 3
2. Christian Dean (California - Generation adidas) – Highest upside in the draft, Dean is a superior athlete with great size (6-3, 198) and a sweet left foot. He can play his way out of trouble more often than not, but questions remain about his toughness and long-term positional fit. (WATCH Dean talks about his journey to the verge of stardom) Range: Top 3
3. Kyle Venter (New Mexico) – Venter has looked like the most pro-ready field player in the entire Combine, dominating both in the air and on the ground, marshalling his backline and looking much healthier than last month at the College Cup when an ankle knock slowed him down badly. Range: Mid-first round
4. Grant Van de Casteele (Notre Dame) – Throws his body around with abandon but never seems out of control. Doesn't dominate guys the way Venter does, but he never puts a foot wrong and has better make-up speed than most realize. (WATCH Van de Casteele's senior season highlights here) Range: Mid-to-late first round
5. Nick Hagglund (Xavier) – Doesn't have as big a rep as the other guys on the list, but he's wiry strong and always active. Gets his head to everything in and around the 18-yard-box, and keeps it simple in his distribution. Range: Mid-to-late first round
Others to keep an eye on: Kevin Cope (Michigan State), A.J. Cochran (Wisconsin - Generation adidas), Damion Lowe (Hartford, Generation adidas), Patrick Slogic (Cornell), Ronny Santos (Manta FC/Ecuador), Joe Sofia (UCLA), Jimmy Ockford (Louisville)