PHILADELPHIA – On a day when trades ruled the floor at the MLS SuperDraft, no team made a bigger splash on a wide-open market Thursday than the Philadelphia Union.
Armed with the second overall pick in the draft until the waning moments before the draft was set to begin, the Union pulled a surprise deal with rival D.C. United to land the top pick and swoop in for Connecticut standout goalkeeper Andre Blake.
The trade – which eventually led to D.C. United’s selection of promising California defender Steve Birnbaum with the second pick – was one of six deals in the first round on Thursday, a stark contrast to a relatively stagnant day with few moves in 2013.
The Union also gave up allocation money in the deal to land Blake, who made league history when he strode onto the stage at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A Jamaican international who impressed scouts during the MLS Player Combine last week in Florida, Blake is the first goalkeeper taken with the top pick in league history, and the highest pick for a goalkeeper since Chivas USA selected current US national team regular Brad Guzan with the second pick in 2005.
“There's a little bit of pressure,” Blake said. “But I'm a goalkeeper and I've been under pressure all the years of all my life. I'm going to be out there, work hard on the pitch and show them it was good choice."
Birnbaum and his California teammate Christian Dean also made their own mark on the draft with their selections among the top three picks in the draft. When the towering center back Dean was taken third overall by the Vancouver Whitecaps, the duo became the third pairing from the same school to be taken inside the top three in draft history, joining UCLA’s Chance Myers and Tony Beltran in 2008 and Akron’s Darlington Nagbe and Perry Kitchen in 2011.
Dean and Blake are both members of this year’s Generation adidas class, and will not count against their respective team’s salary caps this season. Birnbaum – who has drawn comparisons to US national team regular Geoff Cameron for his playing style out of the back and his ability in the air – was one of six players taken inside the top 10 who were not Generation adidas players, a rarity in draft history.
The New England Revolution also made some of the biggest waves of the day by taking arguably the best two offensive players in the draft. After selecting Georgetown standout Steve Neumann with the fourth overall pick the club traded with the Colorado Rapids to grab the 11th pick and land Maryland’s Patrick Mullins, the two-time reigning Hermann Trophy winner for the top player in college soccer.
Neumann and Mullins join a young Revs core that lost striker Juan Agudelo to Stoke City during the offseason but still retain midfielders Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez, and 2013 top pick Andrew Farrell, all under the age of 23.
"I think we rated both players very highly," Revs head coach Jay Hepas said. "I think you have to be aggressive I think we showed that today that we’re aggressive. It’s not always laid out there in front for you so sometimes you have to be aggressive.
Other first-round trades included the Montreal Impact swapping with FC Dallas to land Creighton defender Eric Miller at No. 5, and FCD then landing Colorado School of Mines forward Tesho Akindele at No. 6 after a deal with the Union.
Akindele – who impressed during the Combine last week – joins Dallas as arguably the surprise pick of the entire draft after a career with the NCAA Division II school in Golden, Colo. He is the first small school player taken among the top 10 picks since Chivas USA selected John Cunliffe of Fort Lewis (Colo.) in 2007.
“It’s all surreal," Akindele told fcdallas.com. "Right before the Combine nobody was talking about me getting picked, definitely not in the first round and possibly not even until the fourth round. Nobody was talking about me. It just shows you how important every game is."
The Whitecaps followed at No. 7 with Jamaican international Andre Lewis, while Seattle selected Hartford defender Damion Lowe at No, 8. San Jose opted for Stanford midfielder J.J. Koval at No. 9, and Toronto FC rounded out the top 10 by taking Xavier defender Nick Hagglund a trade with - who else - the Union.