PHILADELPHIA — As first round picks at the MLS SuperDraft stretched into the double digits, Cristian Roldan sat stoically to the side of the stage alongside a handful of fellow yet-to-be-drafted prospects. Despite being widely tabbed as the No. 2 prospect in the draft, Roldan slipped past NYCFC at No. 2 when the expansion franchise took Oregon State’s Khiry Shelton.
“I was nervous throughout the whole draft,” Roldan said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
How about staying in Seattle?
As the picks rolled off the board, Roldan didn’t budge until a sudden flutter of activity erupted around the Seattle Sounders’ table at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Real Salt Lake held the 16th overall pick, but former RSL and current Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey had worn thin paths to other teams’ tables all afternoon. Naturally, his former home was among them.
And so when RSL’s pick came up, the Sounders pounced. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid had the benefit of at-home scouting when Roldan starred for Washington over the past two seasons, which was enough to sway him that Roldan was their No. 2 overall prospect in the draft.
The only problem? The Sounders didn’t have a first-round pick. Until Lagerwey swung into action and poached Roldan as arguably the steal of the draft, anyway.
“We were a little bit surprised (Roldan was available), certainly,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said.
So why did Roldan drop? Multiple sources told TopDrawerSoccer.com that a handful of coaches were scared off by what many viewed as a down performance at the MLS combine. Roldan said he thought he played fine, but Schmid acknowledged that it probably played a factor in teams’ thinking.
Perhaps the most common sight on the draft floor was Lagerwey scampering from table to table in an effort to find an avenue to trade into the first round. The Sounders’ war room wanted Roldan, but it couldn’t find an entry point into the round. Finally, RSL bit, and the Sounders got the cornerstone of their draft. Roldan could play a variety of roles in the Sounders’ setup, from a pinching-in wide man to a holding midfielder to move of a box-runner.
And whether Roldan spends time seasoning at USL PRO side S2 or manages to break into the first team in 2015, the Sounders got their man.
“Credit to the Sounders, who moved mountains to get me,” Roldan said. “I think that’s definitely a confidence booster, knowing they moved a lot of things to get me. I can’t thank them enough.”
Larin goes first, NYCFC takes Oregon State’s Shelton
The day before the draft, Orlando City traded Jairo Arrieta, which it acquired in the Expansion Draft, to D.C. for an international roster spot. That sucked most of the drama from OC’s first overall pick. As a Canadian, Connecticut forward Cyle Larin was all but packaged to Orlando already. So when the Florida club look Larin first overall (Larin accepted from Jamaica, where he’s playing with Canada’s U20s), there perhaps wasn’t so much buzz.
What NYCFC did with the second pick, though, was considerably more intriguing. In lieu of taking Roldan, NYCFC opted for Khiry Shelton, who had a phenomenal year for Oregon State as a senior. Despite a raft of injuries in his past, Shelton stayed healthy for all of 2014 and led the NCAA in assists for much of the year.
“My emotions are everywhere,” Shelton said. “Just thankful for the opportunity, and humbled as well.”
Shelton is 6-foot-3 and mobile. He fits in more as a wide player pinching in or a second striker, which could cast him as an understudy for David Villa. NYCFC, which has Frank Lampard on retainer in England and just signed Mix Diskerud from Norway, clearly valued its depth at midfield too much to take a midfielder at No. 2 overall.
For Shelton, who had no idea NYCFC was interested at that pick, Thursday was quite the day.
“I was super happy (New York drafted me),” Shelton said. “Anywhere, really, but New York especially because I’ve not been there. I’ve heard of the great group of staff they have, so it’s going to be great.”
Thin forward class gives way to defender-centric draft
The forward pool in this draft wasn’t particularly robust for teams looking for quick fixes. Larin at No. 1 was a no-brainer, but when Shelton came off the board at No. 2, there was a pronounced gap. Of the next 13 picks, seven were defenders. In fact, nearly half - 46 percent - of the first 30 picks were defenders, which echoed a signal truth of this particular pool: lots of quality at the back.
The shocker was that the first defender off the board was Matt Polster from SIUE. Polster benefitted from a quality combine, where he played in the midfield and impressed with his quick feet and distribution ability. Polster shot up draft boards late in the college season, but he was still considered an outside shot to even be drafted, let alone go in the first 10 picks.
The surprises kept rolling in the first round. With the ninth pick, TFC took massively unheralded NC State defender Clement Simonin, who wasn’t even listed in the draft’s media guide. Teammate Conor Donovan, who was away on U20 duty in Jamaica, wasn’t taken until the first pick in the second round despite signing a Generation adidas contract.
The first round also featured legitimate fullback quality on both wings. FC Dallas shrewdly poached UC Riverside left back Otis Earle at 15, the best left back in the draft and TopDrawerSoccer.com’s top overall defensive draft prospect. Meanwhile, Akron right back Saad Abdul-Salaam went at 12 to Sporting KC. Abdul-Salaam projects as a DeAndre Yedlin type with less pass and more technical ability in the attacking third.
As far as center backs, Toronto aggressively attacked its lack of depth at the back with both Simonin and Skylar Thomas, a highly rated Syracuse center back who went off the board two picks later. Colorado went after two in 6-foot-7 Swede Axel Sjoberg and 6-foot-6 Joseph Greenspan. The issue with the latter? Greenspan has mandatory Naval duties that could force him to miss the next several seasons.