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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Friday, August 1, 2014

Drafting the past: The Union's SuperDraft miscalculations

The Union’s big midseason move has been sprung, with Rais M’Bolhi joining arguably the only unit on the team that didn’t require reinforcement. In any event, the Union are getting a clear upgrade at the moment over Zac MacMath, and possibly a shot-stopper who has already surpassed anything MacMath will become, though I’d deem the jury still out on that assertion.
Algeria's Rais M’Bolhi, making a save against Russia's Alexander Samedov
during the World Cup, became the Union's latest goalkeeper of the future
with his signing Wednesday. (AP)

It’ll be a couple of weeks before the MLS Players Association releases its summer salary numbers. We know that the Union regard him as one of the top goalkeepers in MLS, and we’ll have to wait to verify if he’s compensated that way. The Union have already expressed a willingness to buck conventional wisdom to splurge for Carlos Valdes, so you’d expect the same for M’Bolhi.

In my column Thursday, I opined on the conundrum at the heart of this move: That the Union upgraded a position that needed no upgrading, leaving them to find a way to get value out of their goalkeeping glut.

There’s two key parts to that valuation: What the Union are shelling out to M’Bolhi (which we don't know for a while), and what they’ve already used on MacMath and Andre Blake. I’ll ponder the second half of that question first.

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: The Union haven’t the slightest clue how to judge goalkeeping value in the SuperDraft. In the time the Union have been in MLS, they’ve been the only club to draft a goalkeeper in the first round. They’ve done so twice. They have no intention of playing either beyond this weekend.

The argument that in 2014 Blake was far and away the best player on the board carries some weight. But for all the value he adds, let’s not forget that the Union paid to move up to No. 1 to get him and, as of yet, not play him in MLS. I wouldn’t underestimate the grandstanding value of the Union moving up to No. 1 in front of home fans. Conversely, in retrospect, drafting Blake instead of shopping the pick to draft for need indicated that ownership didn’t buy into the “one player away” notion for them to be contenders this year.

Moving on from Blake, though, there’s no doubt that MacMath’s pick now looks like a short-sighted investment. Surely the club didn’t draft him No. 5 overall in 2011 to jettison him to the bench by his 23rd birthday. (Again, some judgment must be reserved until MacMath, the asset is cashed in.) There’s a mistake in there somewhere, whether it’s in the club's evaluation of his ceiling or the patience with him, and it could be compounded if they don’t extract value via a trade.

Maybe the mistake is this: The Union are the only club using the draft to get goalies. Here’s the list of goalies taken in the first round of the draft since its inception in 2000 (pick in parenthesis):
Chris Seitz, making a save against Dallas in 2010, hasn't lived up
to the promise foretold by status as a his first-round pick. (AP

2000: Adin Brown, Colorado (3) 
2004: Steve Cronin, San Jose (10)
2005: Brad Guzan, Chivas (2)
2007: Chris Seitz, Real Salt Lake (4)
2008: Josh Lambo, Dallas (8)
2008: Dominic Cervi, Chicago (12)
2009: Stefan Frei, Toronto (13)
2011: Zac MacMath, UNION (5)
2014: Andre Blake, UNION (1)

It’s not just the first round either. In 2010, no goalies were taken in the first three rounds. Since 2008, a span of seven drafts, the most goalies selected in the first three rounds of any draft is four. (In 2012 and 2013, the third round was part of the Supplemental Draft.)

No one in this group has made 100 league appearances for his drafting club; MacMath, who could hit 96 in Kansas City Friday, is the leader in the clubhouse.

Let’s detail the accomplishments of this illustrious group. Brown, plagued by injuries, made 85 MLS appearances (22 with the Rapids) around a decent stopover in Norway for five seasons. None of Cronin’s 32 league appearances were with San Jose. Both are out of the game. So is Lambo, a kicking coach for Texas A&M, and Cervi, neither of whom made an MLS appearance.

Seitz has 55 games (seven for RSL) under his belt in eight seasons; his nearest shot at a starting job came in 2010 for the Union, before they brought in Faryd Mondragon.

That leaves Guzan, who parlayed 79 appearances with Chivas and an MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award into a blossoming career in England and the title of heir apparent to Tim Howard, and Frei, who after 81 appearances in three seasons with TFC was injured and eventually lost the starting job. He’s at least landed on his feet as Seattle’s No. 1 this year.

To be fair, the 2011 draft class wasn’t exactly a banner year. The most appearances of the first-rounders is Darlington Nagbe with 116. A start Friday will tie MacMath for sixth in that class with New England’s A.J. Soares, trailing Nagbe, Perry Kitchen (113), Jalil Anibaba (106), Will Bruin (106) and C.J. Sapong (100). And after that, the talent drops off sharply. In that regard, MacMath has pretty much earned his keep.

That said, it’s clear that the Union are the only club using the draft to acquire goalies, yet their goalie of the foreseeable future came by a different mechanism. Whatever value they can return for MacMath and/or Blake would cushion the blow, but there's a logical disconnect that has yet to be reconciled.

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