PHILADELPHIA – Some 200 Philadelphia Union supporters prepared for Thursday’s MLS draft at the Field House Sports & Beer Hall, a short walk from the city's mammoth convention center.
They were well lubricated and itching to make their voices heard as rumors circulated that the league was blocking their club’s effort to sign U.S. national team midfielder Maurice Edu. Commissioner Don Garber was booed as he welcomed the crowd. Brotherly love filled the room.
Then, the mood suddenly shifted as the Union pulled the trigger on a trade with D.C. United that offered the hometown crowd the unexpected chance to celebrate a No. 1 overall pick. Philly sent allocation money and the first round’s second selection (acquired earlier from Chivas USA) to its I-95 rival and then chose University of Connecticut goalkeeper Andre Blake. For a moment, the Edu controversy was forgotten. Union fans chanted “One of us! One of us!” as Blake took the stage, the first netminder ever chosen with the top pick.
“It’s a great feeling to make history,” Blake told SI.com a few minutes later. Acknowledging the renowned passion of the Philadelphia faithful, he said, “You need to go out there and show them that you’re not just there to make history, but to show them that what happened was for a reason. There’s pressure, but you want it because you’re more motivated to go in and show your appreciation, show that I want to give back for what you guys have done for me.”
Union coach John Hackworth called the Jamaican native and U-20 international “the best player in this draft” and a “guy who works extremely hard and is very humble, wants to learn.”
Blake, 23, was sought after by a number of clubs, Hackworth said, and United – which does not need a goalie – was in position to deal its pick to the highest bidder. D.C. received allocation money from the Union and then drafted University of California defender Steve Birnbaum with the second selection.
“It’s a win-win,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “Philly’s got one heck of a goalkeeper. I’ve seen him throughout his career and he’s a stud. And I think we got our man.”
For Hackworth, the win was welcome. The Union missed the 2013 MLS Cup playoffs by three points and have faced some frustration as it attempts to upgrade the roster.
“It’s not for a lack of effort,” Hackworth said.
The club tabled what the manager called a “really high offer” for incoming midfielder Michael Bradley that “turned out not to be even close” to what Toronto FC bid. Philadelphia then acquired United’s top spot in the allocation order in an effort to pave the way for Edu’s transfer from Stoke City, only to see MLS balk at the reported $1.2 million annual salary.
“It was a target all year long and in this offseason to [improve] our midfield and we think that Mo can do that box-to-box role. That would allow us to sit Brian [Carroll] in a little deeper behind him,” Hackworth told SI.com. “When you have the opportunity to bring a guy like Mo back, and I coached him with the U.S. national team and [Union assistant) Rob Vartughian coached him at Maryland, he’s a no-brainer for us.”
But Hackworth isn’t standing still while the Edu negotiations continue. On Wednesday, the Union finally announced a significant addition. Argentine attacking midfielder Cristian Maidana was signed from Argentinos Juniors and will be expected to add a bit of creativity and playmaking flair. Then on Thursday, Philadelphia added four draftees over the two rounds, including the coveted Blake. If Edu, the club and the league eventually reach an agreement, then Union fans will have even more to feel good about as a turning-point season approaches. “All three parties are working very hard right now,” Hackworth said. “I think we’re close. Obviously, it’s a delicate situation and we’re really hopeful this is going to happen for us.”