Why defenders remain the most sensible picks in the MLS SuperDraft

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Any team looking to find a world-beater in the MLS SuperDraft is doing it wrong, but there is value to be found in the back thanks to the physicality of the college game.

CARSON, Calif. -- Clubs looking to snag players in this week's MLS SuperDraft who can make immediate impacts would be wise to take a long gander at defenders, especially center backs.

It's hardly an exact science, and there are exceptions of all sort all over the place, but we've seen more defenders than any other position who have been able to make rapid transitions from college to Major League Soccer in the league's first 21 seasons.

There are a lot of reasons for it, but as MLS has advanced with the arrival of so much top international talent in the last decade -- and especially the last few years -- the role of rookie defenders has become more pronounced. Yes, the the last three MLS rookies of the year have been forwards -- FC Dallas' Tesho Akindele, Orlando City SC's Cyle Larin and the Seattle Sounders' Jordan Morris -- but the league's backlines are stocked with young players.

“The center back position in our league is critical. t's hard to find; it's hard to get right. You see all over the world right now, I'd say it's a down position."

- Jim Curtin

Does college soccer do a better job of preparing defensive players than it does in developing attackers? Maybe; maybe not, but there exist opportunities for young defenders that young attackers can only dream about.

“The reason is it's just easier to make the transition into an MLS club as a defender,” Sigi Schmid, who coached the LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders, told FourFourTwo this week. “It's just easier. Most MLS teams, where they're going to use their [Designated Player] and their TAM money, they're going to use it on their attackers, on their attacking midfielders, on the wide guys, and not as much on defenders.

“It's not necessarily that college soccer is producing more defenders than it is attackers; it's more a situation that the pathway for playing time is easier as a defender and the pathway as an attacker is far more difficult because of all the foreign players in our league.”

That has helped at least a dozen defenders in the last five years to immediately step into starting roles as rookies, among them Dallas' Matt Hedges, New England's Andrew Farrell, D.C. United's Steve Birnbaum and Philadelphia's Keegan Rosenberry. And before them, there was Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Tim Ream. Go back further, there's Drew Moor, Michael Parkhurst, Chad Marshall and Carlos Bocanegra. And, of course, Eddie Pope. The list goes on.

“The center back position in our league is critical,” said Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin, a former MLS center back. “It's hard to find; it's hard to get right. You see all over the world right now, I'd say it's a down position. If you can get a Birnbaum or a guy to build around in that center back spot, it makes coaches sleep easier at night. Those type of guys are so valuable to teams.”

THE TREND CONTINUES IN 2017

There appear to be a few such candidates in this year's SuperDraft, which will be held Friday afternoon at the Los Angeles Convention Center. There's a lot of buzz surrounding U.S. U-20 center back Miles Robinson, a Generation Adidas signing from Syracuse University. Notre Dame's Brandon Aubrey, Dayton's Lalas Abubakar, Washington's Justin Schmidt and St. Francis (Pa.)'s Francis de Vries could also pay quick dividends. There's also very good depth among right backs, with Maryland's Chris Odoi-Atsem, Connecticut's Jakob Nerwinski, North Carolina's Colton Storm, and Denver's Reagan Dunk.

How they fare also will depend on where they end up.

“For me, the center-back position is a craft, and you have to really learn it,” said Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney, who played at left back and in central defense during his playing career. “It's how you see the game and read the game and the decisions that you make that I think are a real process, so it's hard to be at the highest level when you are young. But we're seeing some young center backs that are probably ahead of their time, in terms of years of experience, and those guys have a really bright future.”

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Lalas Abubakar (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

The college experience does help. There are elements of the NCAA game that align better with MLS than does academy play, just because the players are older and more physically mature.

“A lot of times, young center backs find it difficult to get on the field [in the pro game],” said Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter, a center back in Europe and MLS after playing at the University of North Carolina. “So in college, they're able to get those games and get those minutes. And then the particular thing about college soccer is it's still a very physical game. So now those center backs, they're having to adapt to the physicality, a different level of physicality than they've been used to before.

“I think that prepares them for the next level, both the game time and the physical nature of the college game.”

Defending is simpler proposition than is attacking, so it's more easily mastered -- at least its surface elements.

“There's no question it's an easier job. Believe me, I'm a really good example of that,” said Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel, an MLS defender for more than a decade. “It's easier to destroy than create -- I'm not the creator of that adage, it goes way back, and it is [true].”

Outside backs also benefit from the college game, growing through exposure to the physical qualities and the greater emphasis on getting up and down the flanks. Goalkeepers gain from the time on the field and some of the scenarios, often chaotic, that they face. It's less so for attackers and midfielders, who have far more time on the ball in the college game than they'll find as they advance.

POTENTIAL DANGERS OF LEANING ON THE COLLEGE GAME

There are drawbacks, too. The college game boasts limited attacking -- defenders aren't facing a Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa nor Bradley Wright-Phillips, and they're not being picked apart by the likes of a Sacha Kljestan, Mauro Diaz or Andrea Pirlo.

“The concern always is on good college teams, the defenders don't have to make a lot of plays,” Curtin said.

“It's a big step up from what they're used to covering, but the starting point of athleticism is one thing the college game does have and it maybe makes the transition easier for a defender than for a striker in our league.”

Expansion means there are more jobs, too. MLS is up to 22 teams with the additions this season of Atlanta United and Minnesota United, Los Angeles FC joins next year, and more will follow.

“When you add more teams, other things become more valuable,” said Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes, MLS' Defender of the Year in 2000. “When you look around the league and a lot of teams are going out and getting foreign central defenders, that also means then maybe that's an area that's depleted. And depleted doesn't mean that there's not enough good ones; sometimes it just means that there's so many teams, they're just spread out.”

The rise of MLS academies in the past decade have altered the role of college soccer in developing players, but it remains a vital path for a lot of players.

“I'm a fan of college. I think every player can benefit from at least one year of college,” said Schmid, who won three NCAA titles at UCLA before moving to MLS in 1999. “Just the maturation of a player is something that gets helped by going to college. You're going to have to be on your own, you've got to do your own laundry, you're not living at home -- all those things. ...

“I think the numbers of players that go straight from an academy into an MLS team is still few and far between. Most of the academy kids who have come into MLS and have had some success have generally done a little bit of college. There's exceptions, like Kellyn Acosta or someone like that, but if you look at the other guys -- a Rosenberry or a [DeAndre] Yedlin or a Morris or [Josh] Yaro -- they've all done a little bit of college.”

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