There is no great Pythagorean Theorem to drafting well. There is game tape, there are statistical measurables, and there are gut feelings. That’s more or less the holy trinity of draft prep, and it’s hardly a sure thing. You can hit on all three and miss badly, or connect on none and find a future starter.
To boot, each draft is its own breathing organism, wholly set apart from the one before it. Some years the pool is stocked to the gills with goalkeepers requiring hefty sifting. At others, scouting departments are forced to shift to deep wells of forwards, or wide midfielders. In many ways it’s a reactive game of meeting the frayed ends of need and availability.
And so we are met with the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, now just days away on Jan. 13 in Los Angeles. And without a consensus No. 1 (at least in my mind), this one should be of particular interest.
For teams looking to pair up need with draft strength, I’ve compiled my top five players at each position as the draft lumbers into view. Keep in mind I’m also doing a hefty bit of projection, so I’m attempting to match what I’ve seen from each player with how I expect them to grow in the coming years. That said, it’s as inexact as science gets. One of the true beauties of soccer is its willful defiance of our advancing statistical knowledge.
And yet the show must go on.
1. Alec Ferrell, Wake Forest: Hands down the most consistent keeper in college soccer in 2016, Ferrell has all the tools for a lengthy MLS career. If he can stay healthy, he’s an immediate backup option in an otherwise weak keeper draft.
2. Eric Klenofsky, Monmouth: Mid-major Monmouth had one of the better defenses in the nation in 2016, and Klenofsy’s routine acrobatics were at its molten core. Nobody here has his flair for the dramatic reaction save.
3. Robert Moewes, Duke (above): If teams are chasing a sturdy stand-up keeper, Moewes is the play. Not the most mobile but great against the run of play and one-on-ones. Could use more polish on aerials.
4. Jake McGuire, Tulsa: Has a prototypical 'keeper’s build at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds with a frame to pack on more muscle. Can get down and dig out balls well and moves surprisingly well for his size.
5. Stefan Cleveland, Louisville: Don’t doubt Louisville coach Ken Lolla’s bona fides in building up pros. Cleveland was outstanding for the Cardinals in 2016 and is maybe the best distribution 'keeper in the field.
1. Matej Dekovic, Charlotte (above): This isn’t a strong left back field (what’s new), but Dekovic is about as good as it gets here. Left-footed with lethal set piece delivery, the former 49er is no stranger to the overlap.
2. Suliman Dainkeh, Maryland: The talented Maryland defender might’ve started as a center back, but his shift to the left showed major promise. Fleet of foot enough to cause problems at the next level.
3. Iman Mafi, Clemson: A true sleeper. Mafi’s minutes were limited his senior year, but he’s a tornado on the sideline and is faster than anyone here. Questions about his passing persist, but he's good for a late-round flier.
4. Kwame Awuah, Connecticut: The book on Awuah is central defensive mid, but a shift to left back remains intriguing. He has the build and athleticism to put down a marker out wide.
5.Billy McConnell, Indiana: McConnell might’ve spend the majority of his time at Indiana at right back, but his versatility is a major plus. Can play on both ends, and even moonlight in the middle if needed.
1. Reagan Dunk, Denver (above): Anyone who watched Dunk break out in the 2016 College Cup knew then he’d be in the MLS SuperDraft discussion inside the top 10 or 15. The best pound-for-pound fullback in the draft and an all-around talent.
2. Chris Odoi-Atsem, Maryland: Another converted center back, Odoi-Atsem actually did play a fair bit of right back at Maryland. He’s set up to succeed there from the jump with his savvy soccer smarts and athleticism.
3. Aaron Jones, Clemson: Clemson likes to run its fullbacks high, and Jones was the beneficiary of that pro-level tactical nous. He’s also steady on ball and was one of the ACC’s most strident defenders in 2016.
4. Colton Storm, North Carolina: Storm is a highly rated prospect, but he played center back in college. His size (5-foot-10, 166 pounds) almost certainly necessitates a move outside. And he has the speed and agility to cope.
5. Michael DeGraffenriedt, Louisville: With the plethora of center back prospects, it would behoove DeGraffenriedt to bump outside. He has the passing ability and speed (and lack of size) to make it work.
1. Miles Robinson, Syracuse (above): There are a ton of good center backs in this draft, so it should doubly impress that Robinson is the no-doubt No. 1. The Generation adidas prospect has every tool to become a contributor for years.
2. Brandon Aubrey, Notre Dame: If Robinson is the best overall center back, Aubrey is the best senior. He won’t win a ton of foot races, but he’s so smart with his positioning he almost never needs to, either.
3. Francis de Vries, Saint Francis: Don’t let the small school affiliation fool you. The New Zealander is a stridently mobile center back with one of the most lethal set piece deliveries in the entire draft pool. Pass at your own risk.
4. Walker Hume, North Carolina: To look at Hume’s lumbering 6-foot-5 frame, you’d expect him to be a Tree Ent. He isn’t. Hume moves surprisingly well for a big man, and he’s unmatched in this draft on aerial balls.
5. Austin Ledbetter, SIUE: Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the former home of Matt Polster and Justin Bilyeu could produce another pass-versed center back. And here Ledbetter is, quietly edging onto the scene in the same way.
1. Jackson Yueill, UCLA (above): Bar none the smoothest operator in the draft field, regardless of position. Yueill slithers through the lines like a boa constrictor, and his final ball is just as deadly. Need a creator? Yueill is your man.
2. Shamit Shome, FC Edmonton: If Shome was a sleeper before he signed his Canadian GA deal, he isn’t anymore. A possession-minded central midfielder, Shome is a perfect connector for a midfield looking for a conduit between lines.
3. Christian Thierjung, California: This might be the unsung midfielder of the draft. Cal was quiet nationally, which obscured another productive year for Thierjung, who can play as a box-to-box No. 8 or even flex out wide.
4. Julian Gressel, Providence: MLS front offices are often looking for versatility here, and Gressel provides it in spades. He filled in at forward this year, but he’s also a pass-first all-around mid with an eye for the build.
5. Tanner Thompson, Indiana: Steady, reliable, razor-sharp. Thompson doesn’t have the tricks his brother does (San Jose’s Tommy), but he’s better on possession, dogged in defense and projects as one of those typically reliable if unremarkable central mids.
1. Jacori Hayes, Wake Forest (above): There’s some conjecture about where Hayes fits best, and he actually played some defensive mid at this week’s combine. But it’d be wise to use the skittering 5-foot-7 technician as a collapsing wide player.
2. Zeiko Lewis, Boston College: As far as in-pinching wingers, they don’t come any better off the dribble here than Lewis. A dervish in space, Lewis is a nightmare to mark in open territory and has a keen eye for goal.
3. Chris Nanco, Syracuse: This is a surprisingly deep field in 2017, and Nanco embodies that best. Played mostly at forward in college, but projects well as a raiding winger in MLS. His speed and ability are unteachable assets.
4. Daniel Johnson, Louisville: Maybe not the flashiest option here, but Johnson showed well in college as an inverted winger on the left. For teams looking for IQ over flash and dazzle, this is a safe option later in the draft.
5. Napo Matsoso, Kentucky: Calling all souped-up speed attacks: Matsoso is your dude. At 5-foot-6 it’ll take some faith, but he finished with 20 assists in four years and probably projects as a bottle-rocket pinching midfielder for a team that plays at speed.
1. Abu Danladi, UCLA (above): No Ebobisse? Hear me out. I’ve beat the drum for Danladi’s higher upside for months, and while injury concerns persist, he’s still the most out-and-out talented forward on the board.
2. Jeremy Ebobisse, Duke: Athletic, surprisingly good in the air and comfortable with the ball at his feet. What’s not to like? There’s only one player I rate above Ebobisse in the entire draft pool, and he happens to share his position.
3. Brian Wright, Vermont: A galloping forward who manages to always find himself in the right place at the right time always has a crack at a pro career. Wright is a bull moose in the box and has the wheels to get into position.
4. David Goldsmith, Butler: Perhaps the biggest forward sleeper in the draft (at least before the Combine). Goldsmith isn’t the fastest player available, but he’s killer shadowing into the box on back shoulders.
5. Nick DePuy, UC Santa Barbara: If anyone has need of a stand-up No. 9 who’s comfortable bodying off defenders with his back to goal, DePuy should get some looks. Not always the cleanest with the ball at his feet, but he's lethal with good service.