Wiebe: Five questions heading into the 2019 MLS SuperDraft

Welcome to 2019. Be good to yourself. Be good to others.

As for Major League Soccer, I expect that this will be the most compelling season in league history. Each year seems to top the last. If you hadn’t figured it out in seven years, I’m a dogged optimist, with an emergency reserve of cynicism, when it comes to this game on these shores. It’s not perfect, not by any means, but it’s our community and our culture. Let’s make it fun.

One of my many New Year’s Resolutions is to write more, largely because I enjoy it but also because Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw won’t shut up about how many more bylines they had than me last year. Every single week of 2019 – unless I’m on vacation or getting married or something else more important to be named later – I’ll sit down at the end of the work week and take stock of our little soccer bubble.

Doyle can have the 2,500 word tactical screeds, and all the soccer philosophizing belongs to Warshaw. I’ve got takes, but my job is pretty simple: I ask people who know more than I do about what I don’t know (plenty) or want to know more about (just about everything). This column is about questions. I’ll tackle five (and change) every week.

Your questions go in the comments section, or straight to me on Twitter, which I swear I’m not going to check as much in 2019.

How many trades and moves will come out of the MLS Combine?

A lot, if we’re lucky.

Each January, just as the international transfer window opens, the executives, coaching staffs and support staffs of every club gather in a warm-weather city to run the rule over a crop of college and sometimes international players scratching and clawing for the opportunity to compete for a place on an MLS roster.

The hotel lobby and bar is truly a special place, the Star Wars cantina of North American soccer. It’s basically a who’s who of the game on this continent: former international and MLS stars, the biggest names in American and Canadian coaching, general managers and sporting directors from MLS down to USL, a whole host of agents and journalists circling the hordes like news-gathering vultures.

Stories flow freely, there’s banter for days and trade talk starts over your drink of choice. For “capital N” MLS Nerds like myself, it’s a downright magical place. The rumbling has already started from Orlando, and our own Sam Stejskal, Bobby Warshaw and David Gass are in the mix from start to finish. All the games are streamed live on MLSsoccer.com, starting Saturday.

Bit of advice: follow Stejskal, Paul Tenorio, Jeff Carlisle and Ives Galarcep on Twitter right now. The news will come thick and fast from now through the SuperDraft, where the David Accam trade and Ezequiel Barco signing were announced last year.

Who will go No. 1 in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft?

Siad Haji (left) in action for VCU | Courtesy of VCU Athletics

It’s no secret that the Homegrown arms race and increased investment via TAM and the Designated Player rule have lessened the impact the SuperDraft has on MLS rosters. Still, well-run teams find a way to get value, and there will be at least a few players taken who break through in 2019.

Just don’t ask me who, not yet anyway. As Doyle says, predicting the SuperDraft is the “least exact science known to mankind.” To wit, here’s who a variety of mock drafts have going No. 1 as of Jan. 4, with one week left until the MLS world gathers in Chicago.

*NOTE: Gutman is eligible to sign a Homegrown deal with the Fire, but also reportedly has interest from Rangers in Scotland.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen. The picks could be traded. Players’ stock can change in a week. Follow along with the coverage from Orlando to stay abreast of the latest news. We’ll just have to wait and see whose name Commissioner Don Garber calls first next Friday.

In the meantime, you can read up on the SuperDraft’s top senior prospects as well as the top Homegrown targets.

What do I make of MLS’s recent coaching carousel?

Keeping it under 280 characters apiece for the sake of time.

Caleb Porter to Columbus: Remember those heady days at Akron? After a year to recharge, Porter is going back to Ohio. His Timbers teams were talented, but results yo-yoed. MLS Cup champs sandwiched between playoff DNQs. Following Gregg Berhalter won't be easy, but an exciting new era has begun in Columbus.

Veljko Paunovic re-signs with Chicago: It seemed inevitable, and it was. Pauno's back -- along w/ Basti -- and says he's as excited about the project as he was when he first took the job. That's good, because the Fire need positive vibes. Between injuries, poor results and conflict w/ supporters, 2018 doesn't hold fond memories.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto to LA Galaxy: I'm jacked. Guille is back in MLS, and he's coaching the Galaxy. My Landon Donovan shrine came through once again. How will he manage Zlatan? What will happen with the Dos Santi, primarily Gio? Can he fix the leaky defense? Are LA back after a couple down years? Storylines for days.

Why did Tim Bezbatchenko leave Toronto FC? And what’s going on in Columbus?

Toronto made Bezbatchenko’s departure official on Thursday, hiring former Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis to take his place as general manager (more on that in a bit). All of which you knew was coming a day early because you follow Sam Stejskal on Twitter.

You ought to know Bezbatchenko’s name well by now, even if you can’t spell it. When the former MLS executive arrived in Toronto in September 2013, the club was still the butt of jokes. Zero playoff appearances in their history. One season with double-digit wins. Executives, head coaches and players cycling through with little rhyme or reason. 

Bezbatchenko changed the identity of the club. Think back to the “Bloody Big Deal,” Greg Vanney’s appointment, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and a patient, comprehensive approach to roster and culture building that resulted back-to-back MLS Cup appearances, a treble, a claim to the title of best team in MLS history and a historic run to the Concacaf Champions League final. He did good work, even if 2018 didn’t quite go as planned.

So why would Bezbatchenko swap the Reds for the Crew, per Stejskal’s reporting? Don’t overthink it. 

It wouldn’t have been a no-brainer six months ago, but it is now, given everything that’s transpired. There’s no doubt the Crew and Columbus have been reinvigorated by the #SaveTheCrew movement and the ownership change that’s come with plans for a new stadium, training complex and long-term future for one of MLS’s original clubs in a historic soccer city.

In that context, Bezbatchenko’s arrival to lead the charge and Caleb Porter’s appointment as head coach to build on what Gregg Berhalter built make all the sense in the world. Congrats, Crew supporters.

As for Toronto FC, they’re going to be just fine. 

Curtis was patient, justifiably so it turns out, and found the right fit. He and Toronto president Bill Manning go way back – as in, Manning drafted Curtis out of Duke during his days with the Mutiny (RIP) – and there’s time to get up to speed since the roster isn’t in need of rebuilding, though the job will demand some gargantuan decisions very soon as DP contracts come up.

I could go on and on here, but Paul Tenorio did it better at the Athletic. Here’s his report (paywall) following a visit to Curtis’ home in New Jersey earlier this year. 

What are the most intriguing offseason player moves so far?

Kei Kamara will be sporting Colorado's burgundy in 2019. | USA Today Images

I define intriguing as a combination of on-field impact and potential for future narratives and storylines. This isn’t comprehensive by any means and it’s not a ranking, just the order they popped into my head.

  • Kei Kamara/Diego Rubio to Colorado RapidsHey, they score goals! But do they fit together? Will they bring their baggage with them? Who will provide enough service to make it worth it? The Rapids' season likely hinges on those questions. 
  • Kelyn Rowe to Sporting KCRowe can play, there’s no doubt about that. Now, after a feeling that he was unnecessarily shackled in New England, will we see the best of him under Peter Vermes?
  • Laurent Ciman to Toronto FC: He’s back! That stint in France didn’t long, huh? And not only is the Belgian back, he joined his original MLS club’s biggest rival! Delicious.
  • Danny Acosta to Orlando City: Intra-league loan alert! Acosta and Mike Petke apparently didn’t mix. Kid has talent, and left backs are in demand from the club level all the way up to the USMNT. Will he show up in Orlando? 
  • Brek Shea to Atlanta United: **covers face with left hand** Bare minimum, this experiment will be a lot of fun. I’m rooting for 2011 MVP finalist Brek Shea to make a triumphant return just as we’d all written him off.
  • Sergio Santos to Philadelphia Union: The Union need goals and some attacking verve. Santos is sporting director Ernst Tanner’s first big signing and arrives via TAM. Will it work out? Union fans still have uh, the opposite of memories, from Jay Simpson and David Accam.
  • Cristian Espinoza to San Jose Earthquakes: Matias Almeyda figures to shift the Quakes' recruitment from Europe and Scandinavia to Central and South America. Espinoza fits the bill. He’s got a good pedigree (emerged with Huracan in Argentina before being sold to La Liga’s Villarreal) and arrives on loan via TAM after a spell at Boca Juniors.
  • Mohamed El-Munir to LAFC: High-profile errors and a dumpster fire of a season in Orlando meant a change of scenery was welcome. El-Munir is unquestionably talented, especially going forward. Bob Bradley encourages his fullbacks go forward. Seems like a good combination.
  • Jan Gregus to Minnesota United: DPs from Scandinavian leagues haven’t always **clears throat** worked out that well. MNUFC just bet the house (and a whole bunch of money they were previously hesitant to spend) that the Slovakian international and former FC Copenhagen man will fix their midfield. I hope it works out for them. It might not.

Best thing on MLS Twitter this week?

Shout out to Kayla Knapp, who does fine work of her own for the Timbers, for bumping this piece from the Earthquakes up my timeline.

Pick-up soccer. San Quentin. Take the six minutes.

See something cool? Send it my way. Have a great weekend everybody.

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