The last couple weeks have been somewhat melancholy for me. Each day I read stories out of Florida, then Philadelphia about the MLS combine and MLS and WPS drafts. It is the most important and most fun time of the year for MLS player personnel people. The week starts with the MLS combine and concludes with the MLS Super Draft, WPS Draft and NSCAA Convention.
The MLS combine is equal parts scouting, reunion, winter vacation and Liar’s Club convention. That’s followed by a few days back home when teams download all the information they’ve gathered from a myriad of sources and create a game plan for draft day.
Then it’s off to the NSCAA Convention, which is the networking event of the year for the U.S. soccer community. It brings together all of the sport’s stakeholders from every level of the sport. At the NSCAA Convention, the draft’s game plan is massaged, adjusted and played out by coaches and GMs in mock drafts before the big day. You’re always trying to move up in the draft, find out what players other teams are interested in and positioning to get an edge in the season by acquiring a player, pick or allocation money for less than you give up.
The draft itself can get hectic when you have multiple picks in the same round and trade offers are coming and going. Here are a few draft day anecdotes:
In a column last month, I related a particularly hectic draft episode at the 2003 MLS SuperDraft in Kansas City that, despite two time outs (which are ALWAYS well received by the live audience), some serious hand wringing and pleading, still failed to produce a deal. During the draft Fire Head Coach Dave Sarachan and I completed a conditional trade of Kelly Gray to Columbus, but the condition was that we include a particular 2004 SuperDraft pick to the Crew that potentially could be owed to Kansas City as well if Josh Wolff reinjured his knee during the 2003 season.
Due to the potential double jeopardy, we needed Kansas City to approve our deal. I offered Wizards GM Curt Johnson a FREE 3rd round draft pick to approve the trade and a poison pill 1st round draft pick for each of the next three seasons IF Chicago didn’t deliver a pick as good or better than required if Wolff reinjured his knee (I knew we could find a qualifying pick if needed, so the three 1st round picks would never have to be delivered). Johnson inexplicably turned the offer down and during the two timeouts allotted Chicago and Columbus, I very publicly and impetuously implored Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis to intercede and find a way to approve the trade. My emotional rant went for naught, but was captured on film and used on the cover of Andy Mead’s Emerald City Gazette’s March, 2003 issue.
Chris Rolfe was a relatively unknown senior forward from the University of Dayton in 2005. Chicago Fire Premier Head Coach Mike Matkovich brought Chris in to the PDL club in 2004 where he came onto the Fire’s radar.
He received an invitation to the MLS combine where I happened to overhear San Jose Earthquakes General Manager Alexi Lalas talking to Quakes coach Dominic Kinnear about wanting to draft Chris.
The Fire had the #35 and 36 picks overall in the third round. San Jose had picks 30, 31 and 32. Our staff was hoping Chris would drop to the end of that third round, but I was certain San Jose was going to take him with one of their three picks. Dallas had picks 27, 28 and 29 as well as an interest in Fire goalkeeper Henry Ring, who we had decided was going to move on. With little time to spare, we snapped up the #29 pick just ahead of the Quakes by giving Dallas our 2006 2nd r0und pick and Ring.
On the surface it didn’t make sense to trade a better pick AND a player for a 3rd round selection. The deal was justified though as soon as Ivan Gazidis announced “Chicago Fire trades for Dallas’ #29 pick and selects Chris Rolfe from University of Dayton”, which was followed immediately by Alexi ringing my war room phone and yelling “You $%&!@ #%$&@#! How did you know we were gonna pick him?!?”
Oh, and by the way….with the Fire’s #35 pick we took Gonzalo Segares.
My team also used a dreaded timeout during the first WPS international draft in the fall of 2008. The Chicago Red Stars selected fifth and were planning on picking Canadian striker Christine Sinclair when the first four teams passed on Brazilian star Cristiane. GM Marcia McDermott, Head Coach Emma Hayes, Assistant Coach Denise Reddy and I condensed a day long debate into the allotted five minutes prior to our pick. Each of the four opined on the pertinent questions: “Can we afford her? Will she leave Europe? Will she fit with Lindsay Tarpley and Carli Lloyd? Can she adjust culturally to Chicago?” The five minutes expired quickly and we called the timeout. Five more minutes of debate and we still had no clear answer to the basic question: Do we take the safe way with Christine or the gamble with Cristiane. In the end, there was no dissension in the room and Emma made the official decision to go with the Brazilian just seconds before the timeout expired.
After the draft, virtually every team feels they did very well – mainly because at the time they make the picks, they of course think the players will help them out.
While the real draft grades aren’t handed out until the end of the season, the combine and draft week is the time of the year I miss most about not being in MLS or WPS. Instead, I was in Milwaukee preparing for the Milwaukee Wave’s home and home series against Rockford (we lost both). To quote WC Fields, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”