Clemson midfielder Philip Mayaka was supposed to be the consensus No. 1 selection at the 2021 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas. It wasn't even supposed to be much of a discussion.
All the mock drafts had him going with the top spot. All the analysis suggested there wasn't much of a discussion. Matt Doyle called Mayaka the "clearest No. 1 choice since Cyle Larin" in 2015. But it didn't turn out so straightforward. There would be a big surprise at the top of the draft.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Rapids had already traded up to acquire the No. 6 selection and were looking to move into the top three. They eventually landed on a trade to acquire the No. 3 overall selection from Houston Dynamo FC (in exchange for $200,000 General Allocation Money). Like the rest of us, they didn't expect Mayaka to be available. He was atop their draft board, but they viewed the player pool with a clear top three then a drop-off.
By the time Rapids were on the clock, Mayaka was still available for selection. It wasn't a hard choice.
He was projected as the top pick in just about every mock draft out there...— Colorado Rapids (@ColoradoRapids) January 22, 2021
We got him at 3 😉 pic.twitter.com/2myxFISKWU
"The way we looked at the draft this year, there were three outstanding candidates," Rapids EVP & GM Padraig Smith told MLSsoccer. "Three top players who separated themselves from the rest of the pack. When you look at the talent available at the top end of this draft, it was really important for us to get in there and acquire one of those players. To get Philip in the end is really fantastic.”
Mayaka, 21, was born in Kenya and came to the United States at the Montverde Academy in Florida, the same school Rapids forward and 2019 Rookie of the Year winner Andre Shinyashiki starred at. He is best as a defensive midfielder or in a box-to-box role, and the indefatigable yet technical midfielder has drawn comparisons to "Dax McCarty with speed" as well as Latif Blessing and Darlington Nagbe.
“He’s a really tenacious player," Smith said. He used the word tenacious more than a few times to describe Mayaka during the conversation. "Technically gifted, a good passer of the ball, with good awareness. Then you add that tenacity and desire, he’s a really well-rounded player. We feel with our commitment to bringing through young players, he has the ability to thrive through this league in the long-term.”
Watch: Philip Mayaka reacts to being drafted by the Colorado Rapids
Mayaka signed a Generation adidas contract, which comes with a number of roster-related benefits. He hits the roster as a supplemental player and his budget charge doesn't count against the salary cap. The GA contracts are typically longer than other rookie deals while his status as GA means he's exempt from expansion drafts, a bonus value with three new teams entering the league between 2022-23.
“The ability to lock down one of the top young talents in the country on a four-year deal where he can’t be selected in expansion drafts and doesn’t hit your cap is massive," Smith said.
Mayaka is proof positive to Smith that there's still plenty of value to be found in the SuperDraft, despite it's smaller impact as huge investments are made in burgeoning academies across the league, including in Colorado, who have produced players in the US national team like Cole Bassett and Sam Vines in recent years.
“Academies don’t cover every inch of the United States. Especially for some of these international kids taking advantage of the collegiate system in the US, and understanding it’s still a platform to develop as a pro," Smith said. "We still see the draft as a quality mechanism to add good talent. I’d love to have a team full of homegrowns, our academy guys are doing a fantastic job of providing a conveyer belt of talent, but it’s hard to produce a Cole Bassett or Sam Vines every single year.”