Shortly after arriving in MLS last month, first-year Philadelphia Union sporting director Earnie Stewart began to hear the rumblings that the SuperDraft is no longer a reliable way to acquire talented players.
But now that he’s closely studied the best college prospects and has interviewed many of them at the MLS Player Combine, the former US international does not believe that to be the case.
“When I came to the Philadelphia Union, everyone was telling me pretty much that you’re going to go to this college draft and you’re not going to find many players and this or that,” Stewart said, in a Monday conference call with reporters. “But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at what I have seen … The potential in a lot of players that are there is good.”
Union head coach Jim Curtin added that he believes the talent pool in this year’s draft is “stronger than last year’s.” That comes as good news for the Union, who didn’t have a first-round pick in 2015 but head into Thursday’s draft with the No. 3 and No. 6 overall selections.
And with many open roster spots, the Union are hoping to find two regulars who will be play right away.
“I think it’s a deep class, which is good to have two picks in,” said Curtin, who’s entering his second draft as head coach. “There maybe isn’t the sexy striker that everybody looks for, the goal-scorer, but there is some real talent there.
“Earnie has already mentioned that he’s been impressed in what we’ve seen, so we are pretty confident that however this shakes out, we’re going to get two very strong players at three and six.”
The last time the Union had two of the top six picks, they ended up being very active in the trade market, moving up to snag goalkeeper Andre Blake with the top pick in the 2014 draft and moving down twice before taking midfielder Pedro Ribeiro at No. 15. That first-round haul was viewed positively at the time, but Blake didn’t play consistently until the end of his second season and Ribeiro was lost in the 2014 Expansion Draft.
Curtin admitted that the club is “always listening” to offers of draft-day trades, but made sure to stress that “having the third and sixth pick is a spot that we like.”
An assistant coach at the 2014 draft, Curtin noted the team has more “clarity” in their draft strategy with Stewart at the helm.
“This is a new year, it’s a new chapter,” Curtin said. “We have a lot more clarity in what we want in all things in the process with Earnie being on board. With the third and the sixth pick, there is a real opportunity for us to see players that will not only come in but come in and contribute."
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Of course, given what Curtin called the “cat-and-mouse” process, the Union brass did not go into many specifics about draft prospects. But Stewart did touch briefly on Generation adidas signing Brandon Vincent, the highly-touted Stanford defender who would fill a long-standing franchise need at left back.
That Vincent left the combine early to join the U.S. national team, though, has done little to change the club’s opinion of him – or their draft-day plans.
“No that is emotion, and we try to stay as far away as possible from that,” Stewart said. “That a player gets called up to the U.S. national team, that is great for the player himself but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we would have to move on that because we have our demands and what we need positionally and that won’t change for us.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.