Armchair Analyst: Five late-round picks who could make a dent in MLS
The odds are stacked high against the 35 young men who heard their names called today in rounds three and four of the 2018 MLS SuperDraft. Hell, even second-round picks rarely break through these days as MLS teams have become more adept and aggressive at building from within via the Homegrown player mechanism, or scouting and signing players from overseas via GAM, TAM, DP slots et al.
There just isn’t as much of a need to fill roster gaps via the draft as there used to be.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no chance these guys break through. Jack Elliott, picked 77th overall (4th round) in 2017, proves as much. The Union center back played in 30 games as a rookie, starting in 29 of them and finishing third in Rookie of the Year balloting. At no point was he a “can’t miss” talent, but he certainly turned out to be a “didn’t miss” talent.
It’s unlikely anybody taken late in this draft turns into an instant contributor of Elliott’s stature. But here are five guys to keep an eye on in the coming years:
Of the 22 players selected in the first round of last year’s draft, only 16 are still active in the league. Of those, only six appeared in at least 13 games.
The numbers get even worse as you go through the rounds: Five of the 22 in the second round are active; Three of the 20 on the third round and three of the 17 in the fourth round are still active.
Just one player, Philadelphia’s Jack Elliott, selected in rounds 2-4 became a consistent starter.
“It’s fair to say that the draft isn’t like other sports in North America,” Atlanta United President Darren Eales said. “It’s tough to find impact players like Julian or Elliott in Philadelphia.”
Jack Elliott, 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year second runner-up and Philadelphia Union center-back, wrapped up a week-long training stint with Swansea City A.F.C. of the English Premier League (top-flight professional soccer league in England).
Elliott returned home to his native England following completion of his successful rookie campaign with the Philadelphia Union. Before travelling back to the U.S. for the start of pre-season training camp for the 2018 MLS season, Elliott was able to stay fit and have the unique experience of training in an English Premier League environment. Since being promoted to the Premier League ahead of the 2011-2012 season, the club based in Swansea, Wales has finished as high as eighth in the 2014-2015 campaign.
“It was a good experience for me to test myself against some top class opposition and see what other training environments are like, especially at the highest level,” said Elliott. “It was good preparation for preseason.”
“The English Premier League is widely considered to be the top professional soccer league in the world,” said IPZ Managing Director Jeff Curtin. “The quality of player, competition, and pressure within the league creates an environment that, I think, is great for young players to experience. Through Swansea City, we had the opportunity to give Jack this experience, which I think will only help him as he prepares for the 2018 season with the Philadelphia Union.”
No team gets very far without a solid, reliable set of centerbacks, and in many cases the abilities of the individuals are not as important as how well they work together.
An increased popularity of three-man back lines changes the responsibilities and roles of those in that last line of defense in front of the goalkeeper, yet the basic attributes are unchanged. Centerbacks must be reliable tacklers, solid markers, and tough in the air at both ends of the field. Positioning and anticipation can make up for a relative lack of pace on balls played over the top or into an open channel.
Some players will toggle between the central slots in a four-man back line, yet most prefer one side or the other. The players listed here are primarily right-sided and have been most successful on that side of the defense. If a player appeared mainly as the middle man of a three-defender system, he is listed here.
SA Top 10: Centerbacks (Right)
1. Ike Opara (Sporting KC)
2. Kendall Waston (Vancouver)
3. Drew Moor (Toronto FC)
4. Adolfo Machado (Houston)
5. Johan Kappelhof (Chicago)
6. Jack Elliott (Philadelphia)
7. Roman Torres (Seattle)
8. Victor Cabrera (Montreal)
9. Victor Bernardez (San Jose)
10. Michael Parkhurst (Atlanta United)
“I just assumed that they were finished picking … I shut my laptop and stopped watching and 5, 10 minutes later my dad texted me ‘I see you’re going to Philly.'” 29 starts and over 2,500 on-field minutes later, Jack Elliott finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. The 77th-overall pick was brought on as a halftime sub at D.C. United in the fourth match of the season and started all but one game after that.
Elliott’s 2,621 minutes played put him third on the team, behind veterans Haris Medunjanin and CJ Sapong. He ranked second among our defenders in tackles with 56 on the year and led the team in clearances with 150 (the next highest on the squad was 105).
After a match late in the season, Jim Curtin made his vote for Rookie of the Year clear. “He’s been one of our best players this year. He is, for me again, the Rookie of the Year. He’s been great … whether it’s been on the right side or the left side of center back. He’s been a real rock back there for us and has been a leader,” Curtin said.
Curtin wasn’t the only one to see this in Elliott. Away at New York Red Bulls in a nationally televised September match, Elliott made a strong play on NYRB’s Gonzalo Verón to preserve a clean sheet. Taylor Twellman praised Elliott’s poise on the play, calling it “textbook defending” by the rookie and adding that Elliott showed “real composure for a young player.”
For the second straight year, a Philadelphia Union player has been passed over for the Rookie of the Year award.
Jack Elliott finished third in voting behind Minnesota United striker Abu Danladi and Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel, who received an average of 53.86 percent of the votes from players, media and clubs. Elliott had an average of 7.86 percent of the vote, Danladi 16.22 percent.
Elliott proved to be the steal of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft this season, making 30 starts and finishing third on the team in minutes for a defender with 2,621 minutes after being drafted 77th overall in the fourth round out of West Virginia University.
The 22-year-old from London ranked first among all Union defenders in goals conceded per 90 minutes (1.24), clearances (150), blocks (23), clean sheets (8), and recoveries (127) and ranked second in interceptions (45) and duels won (103). His 150 clearances were seventh among all MLS defenders, and his 23 blocks were tied for eighth.
The 2017 MLS SuperDraft may have set the all-time bar for “Best Player Names: MLS Draft Edition.” Reagan Dunk and Colton Storm were both first rounders, while Brandt Bronico and Dakota “What in Tarnation?” Barnathan followed in rounds two and three. Peguy Ngatcha came soon thereafter, as did three instances where teams voluntarily skipped their chance to draft a player altogether, before the Union stepped up and selected Jack Elliott.
“Jack” was more highly ranked in NameBerry.com’s baby boy name rankings (No. 3) than he was on the Union depth chart when the seasons started (at least No. behind Josh Yaro, Richie Marquez, and Oguchi Onyewu).
By the end of 2017, not only had Elliott become the best former West Virginia Mountaineer on the roster (no small feat considering his able competition, Ray Gaddis), but he had also become among the top candidates for MLS Rookie of the Year. In 29 starts and 30 appearances after being forced into action April 1 because of an injury to Marquez, Elliott cemented his place in the Union defense and never looked back.
Though subsequent regression seems to be one of the hallmarks of Union draftees (see: Marquez, Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry), Elliott has the tools to be the exception to this rule.
View more online: http://www.phillysoccerpage.net/2017/10/31/the-pleasant-surprises/