The real hot stove: Why MLS' SuperDraft is about much more than just picks

It was a day of two stories: The players being chosen, and the drama as teams jockeyed for position.

LOS ANGELES – The offers had come in a flurry the night before the draft.

In all, more than a dozen teams reached out to Minnesota United about the No. 1 pick. The last significant trade query was made about 10 minutes before the draft kicked off. But United had settled on Abu Danladi as the choice earlier in the week, and no offers had come in to sway it any other way.

“We turned down good money for him,” Minnesota coach Adrian Heath said. “We turned down money and a player. But if this kid fulfills his potential, we’ll have the best player in MLS … It would have taken something exceptional, really, because that’s what we thought of him.”

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The trade talk swirling around the No. 1 pick was just an indicator of the type of action going on around the top of the draft. Atlanta fielded plenty of offers for the No. 2 pick before settling on Syracuse defender Miles Robinson the night before the draft. And after a three-hour meeting on Thursday night, NYCFC executives sat nervously in their chairs Friday morning as they waited to see if they could trade for Chicago’s No. 3 pick.

With Chicago on the clock, NYCFC’s Claudio Reyna wasn’t convinced it was going to happen. New York heard about another offer on the table for the Fire and thought it was a better deal. Team leadership huddled and decided to up the offer. The consensus: an unheard-of $250,000 in allocation money.

Without a full academy or a dedicated USL team, though, Reyna said the team had to be bold to get top young prospects in the draft. Last year, it landed Jack Harrison, but only after Brandon Vincent fell to the No. 4 pick. Reyna said Patrick Vieira and assistant Christian Lattanzio “love the energy” and the aggressive approach New York has taken.

“We kept saying at the table, let’s stay positive,” Reyna said. “David Lee, our director of scouting and recruitment, was the one moving around the tables and I saw him from a distance and he turned around and shook his head and we all went, ‘It’s happening.’ And the adrenaline is going, it’s exciting, and then you look around at the teams you know want him, too, and they have slight disappointment. It’s a good buzz to be a part of it.”

NYCFC opened eyes with the high price it paid for Lewis. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

NYCFC opened eyes with the high price it paid for Lewis. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

It was the type of buzz that circulated around the Combine all week. There was no consensus for the top pick, but there was some certainty around which players would be the top four picks. Nearly every team had Danladi, Robinson, Akron’s Jonathan Lewis and Duke’s Jeremy Ebobisse as the top four picks, in some order.

Portland coach Caleb Porter knew his team had to move up to find a player they felt good about. They spoke with all three teams in the top three before trading up with Houston at No. 4 and selecting Ebobisse, who some teams had as the top player in the draft.

“We spent hours and hours breaking down the players, more than ever,” Porter said. “We’ve grown in our scouting, our infrastructure. We’ve never had more eyes on players than this draft and never spent more time.

“The reality is because we’ve had now four years to build and get experience, for me it was the time to start to move some young players in. We have enough experience now. So, it was a decision, myself, (Portland general manager) Gavin (Wilkinson) and (team owner) Merritt (Paulson), to make that youth movement. We felt we couldn’t lose getting any of the players in the top four, so that’s why we wanted to get into the top four. And we did, and we thought we got pretty good value.”

Columbus Crew coach and technical director Gregg Berhalter could only sit and wait.

Berhalter’s team had the No. 5 pick, and while he felt he knew which four players would be selected in front of him, Berhalter could only watch before going on the clock. His team selected Dayton’s Lalas Abubakar with the fifth pick, then selected New Mexico’s Niko Hansen at No. 9.

Berhalter said there were three trades he thought were done before ultimately using both picks.

“You have four minutes once you get on the clock, but the issue is you’re waiting to see what’s going to happen before your picks, so you are reacting off the last pick,” Berhalter said. “So it feels like you’re under the gun. Fortunately for us, the first pick was pretty clear. We projected those four to go first four, so we had a very good sense for the first one. As the next one came it became pretty unclear because we had a lot of people calling to ask us about trades and about money. Sometimes it feels like it’s going so fast that you can lose clarity.”

The action continued later in the draft, with D.C. United ultimately turning down a deal at No. 12 before selecting Maryland right back Chris Odoi-Atsem. United general manager Dave Kasper said one team pulled a trade offer after Hofstra’s Joseph Holland was selected at No. 10. The Red Bulls also wanted the Terps defender. Those were two of 20 trade conversations United had in the 24 hours leading up to the draft, Kasper said.

“It was right there, the clock was ticking down, we knew we had one timeout and there was a potential deal on the table,” Kasper said. “The Red Bulls came in last minute. We threw some numbers around, but we couldn’t reach an agreement and we decided to take the player … We were very comfortable with the pick.”

The constant trade talk during the draft has become the hot stove of MLS, even more so than the winter and summer transfer windows. Put every coach, scout and general manager in the same city for a week and those conversations are bound to happen.

And while the draft is over, more deals that started in the hotel lobby in Manhattan Beach are bound to get done in the next few weeks.

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