Editor's note: MLSsoccer.com contributor Sam Stejskal embedded with the Minnesota United technical staff during the recent SuperDraft and found the group balancing draft strategy and trade offers for the No. 1 pick ahead of the expansion team's first-ever MLS season in 2017.
LOS ANGELES – From the moment they walked out of a 45-minute meeting with Abu Danladi on Wednesday afternoon, Minnesota United FC knew they’d take the 21-year-old attacker with the first-overall selection in Friday’s 2017 MLS SuperDraft.
If they kept the pick, that is.
There was certainly plenty of interest. Minnesota had heard from eight or nine teams about the No. 1 and landed serious offers from three or four. MNUFC were willing to deal the pick for the right price – but that price had just become even steeper.
In Danladi, United felt they had a huge talent in their grasp, and they weren't willing to part with the top pick for anything less than a package of two established starters or one starter and a combination of allocation money and/or draft picks in return.
The most serious offer came in late on Thursday night when MNUFC were offered a pair of veteran players for the No. 1 spot, but the names – players with significant starting experience and at least five years MLS experience – weren’t enough to move on from Danladi. They held a meeting to discuss the trade, but Heath, sporting director Manny Lagos, director of player personnel Amos Magee and Heath’s assistants quickly formed a consensus: Pass.
Minnesota received another offer on Friday morning, but it was a non-starter. Well over an hour before the start of the draft, they knew Danladi was their man. This despite the fact that most mock drafts had the club taking fellow top forward prospect Jeremy Ebobisse, who had trained with Minnesota for a week in October and prompted Heath to jump on a flight to Costa Rica to watch the 19-year-old with the US Under-20 national team last month.
What the mocks hadn't known was that Minnesota felt Danladi's ceiling was higher than his counterpart from Duke. That wasn't a knock on Ebobisse. It was a credit to the UCLA product.
Heath, who helped develop Dom Dwyer and selected Cyle Larin first overall while he was with Orlando, thought Danladi could potentially turn into a “$5-10 million” player for the Loons. He was widely considered the most talented and MLS-ready player in the draft pool ahead of the Combine – quick, skilled and equally capable of scoring or assisting – but there were questions about his training habits and durability after injuries kept the young forward from fully blossoming in three years as a Bruin.
Through two days of games at the Combine, Danladi had played well but hadn't scored. On Wednesday, when Minnesota head coach Adrian Heath sat down with him face to face, the gregarious Englishman put the young striker on the spot: What was behind his start-stop college career? And did he want to be in Minnesota, a long way from sunny Southern California?
What Danladi, effusive as he was convincing, told Heath and the rest of the Minnesota staff assuaged any lingering doubts.
The injury issues, he said, were a symptom of the compressed college season, in which teams can play up to 30 games in as little as three months. With a full preseason and more recovery time in between matches in MLS, Danladi said he thought his health woes would become a thing of the past in the pros. UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo agreed with that assessment during a phone call with United.
As for his perceived poor training habits, Danladi admitted to perhaps not working as hard as he could have at UCLA, Heath said, but his desire to be great and the long, arduous journey he's taken to the pros – Danladi moved from Ghana to Southern California at age 16 and has been seriously working towards a pro contract since joining the Right to Dream Academy as a preteen – eased any of the club’s concerns.
With no offers approaching their asking price and unanimous agreement among the technical staff that Danladi was their guy, a loose and chipper Minnesota staff took their seats at the draft table bearing the club's crest and killed the last hour before Commissioner Don Garber put them on the clock.
About 30 minutes before things kicked off, Lagos – decked out in a navy tie decorated with light blue outlines of the state of Minnesota – was vibing to A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 classic “Can I Kick It?,” telling assistant coach Ian Fuller that the hip-hop group are “one of his top-five bands of all time.” A few minutes later, after I introduced myself to Magee, he pushed the draft card for the first pick over, telling me to fill it out because I needed “to do some work if I was gonna hang out” with Minnesota all day.
After the card making Danladi the No. 1 pick was signed and delivered at 12:15 pm PT, Lagos went around the table and asked his staff for predictions about Atlanta who would take with the No. 2 selection, a bottle of wine on the line for whoever came closest. As Danladi thanked Minnesota for selecting him during his speech at the podium, he mentioned how tough the decision must have been, a comment that caused Magee to turn to assistant Mark Watson: “It really wasn’t."
Minnesota got back to work shortly after Portland traded up to nab Ebobisse with the fourth-overall selection. The club’s initial plan was to draft a right back with their second pick at No. 23 to serve as depth behind Kevin Venegas, but they also liked Hofstra midfielder Joe Holland and sent feelers out to see what it might take to move up to take him. Houston drafted Holland with the 10th selection. No dice.
A three-pick run on right backs quickly followed. D.C. United selected Chris Odoi-Atsem at No. 12, making the Maryland man the second right back taken after Jakob Nerwinski, who went seventh to Vancouver. Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City followed D.C. by taking Reagan Dunk and Colton Storm with the 13th and 14th selections.
With their top right backs off the board, Minnesota turned their attention elsewhere at No. 23 and 25. They seriously considered nabbing Spanish forward Guillermo Delgado with the 23rd pick, but eventually moved on Wake Forest goalkeeper Alec Ferrell, who they considered the top goalkeeper in the draft despite an injury that will keep him out for the next couple of months.
Goalkeeper coach Marius Rovde, who didn’t have a ‘keeper to work with prior to the Ferrell pick, was especially pleased with the selection, pumping his fist in appreciation. “Thank you boys, thank you,” he said to the rest of the staff.
At the same time Minnesota were discussing who to take with the 23rd pick, they were testing the trade market for both of their second-round picks. At one point, Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia were simultaneously at the Loons’ draft table discussing deals for the selections.
The Union eventually won out. Philadelphia offered Minnesota $50,000 in targeted allocation money in 2018 and the 42nd pick for the 25th selection, but, after some confusion, it was determined future TAM could not be traded. Minnesota got $50,000 in general allocation money instead.
Things settled down after the trade with Philadelphia. Minnesota targeted and drafted Delaware midfielder Thomas de Villardi with the 42nd pick. Because de Villardi didn’t attend the Combine, United weren't worried other teams would pip them to the French-born midfielder, who Fuller said has American papers and won’t count as an international.
Afterwards, as the room split into small groups to chat and break down the day's work, Minnesota were clearly satisfied with their haul. They'd landed what they considered the best player in the draft in Danladi, the top goalkeeper in Ferrell and a solid potential backup midfielder in de Villardi. Heath, Lagos and the staff would depart Los Anglees pleased with the club's first-ever SuperDraft, ready to kick off their inaugural MLS preseason in Casa Grande, Ariz., in just 10 short days.
“I think we exceeded [our expectations],” Lagos, a Minnesota lifer, said. “I felt a kinship with Minnesota in that this is our first-ever MLS draft pick, an expansion team – it’s historic. And you combine that with the staff and the work we’ve put in over the last couple months to prepare for the day, to get a kid [in Danladi] that we know is going to embrace and believe in our project, in what we’re doing.
"I couldn’t be more happy.”