After the impact that rookies such as Tim Ream (2010) and Kevin Alston (2009) had in their initial seasons in Major League Soccer, teams are taking a look at trying to find that next draft gem to add to their back lines to help cure any defensive woes.
Rookie goalkeepers tend not to have as big of an immediate impact as field players, but Sean Johnson, currently in camp with the United States men's national team along with Ream, was another first-year sensation in 2010. After winning the starting job for the Chicago Fire and turning in some highlight-reel saves in the process, Johnson is poised for success in his second year in goal.
The Class of 2011 is ripe with potential first-year starting defenders and contains the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. U-20 national team. (Generation adidas refers to players who have signed MLS contracts before the completion of their NCAA eligibility. Generation adidas players receive educational grants to further their college education and do not count against an MLS team's salary budget.)
Here are the top five players available at center back, fullback and goalkeeper in Thursday's MLS SuperDraft in Baltimore:
The U.S. U-20 player stepped into Caleb Porter's lineup as a freshman and became one of the premier college products in the country with his ability to defend from a myriad of positions while also contributing to the attack. His goal in the Zips' NCAA semifinal victory over Michigan was a true wonderstrike from 35 yards and showed off his fearlessness, instinctual thinking and offensive prowess. It remains to be seen which position he will grow into as a professional (at 6-foot he played defensive midfield at Akron, but plays center back for the U-20s), but his overall skill level cannot be overlooked.
Also a member of the U.S. U-20s, Valentin is perhaps the best pure defender, man-marker and ball-winner out of the Akron prospects, though it's debatable if he's best suited for central defense or at right back. Like Kitchen, missing the combine because of U-20 duty should hardly hurt his case ahead of the draft. His older brother, Julian, was a starting defender for Wake Forest's 2007 national championship team and a third-round pick in the 2008 draft.
The top pure center-back prospect available, Soares has the size, and distribution and ball-winning ability to be a starter in MLS immediately. After the impact Ream made with the New York Red Bulls in his first season, scouts and coaches are yearning to find the next center back who can do the same, and the growing sentiment is that Soares could be just that.
Height isn't his top attribute (he stands at 6-0), but he makes up for it by covering his ground, sticking to his marks and bringing a competitive attitude to each game. North Carolina coach Elmar Bolowich called him his most-consistent player, a team leader and said that "he brings all the qualities and attributes a coach would look for from that position." Anibaba is another candidate to start from the outset of the season for a central-defense-needy team.
Already a member of the New Zealand senior team player pool, Boxall is not short on experience, having previously played in the 2007 U-20 FIFA World Cup and 2008 Olympics. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Boxall is built for the physical nature of MLS but will have to learn to adjust to the speed of the game while playing to his strengths and throwing his weight around.
Others to keep an eye on: Rich Balchan, Sr., Indiana; Bobby Warshaw, Sr., Stanford; Tyler Lassiter, Sr., North Carolina State
Scouts and coaches are enamored with Sarkodie's ability to get forward, and while he'll have to do more defending at the professional level than he did in college -- Akron dominated possession against its opponents -- he's widely viewed as one of the can't-miss prospects of this draft class. With blazing speed, confidence on the ball and a solid passing touch, Sarkodie roamed the right better than any other collegiate fullback and will be a welcome addition wherever he lands.
A late addition to the Generation adidas class, Tetteh's speed makes him an intriguing option for teams that are in need of a boost at left back. His checkered injury past makes the native Ghanaian somewhat of a risky pick, but his upside might be too high for teams to overlook. Tetteh's skill-set lends him value at both left back and left midfield.
Another left back with solid attacking qualities, Murray showed well for Louisville, helping guide the Cardinals to the NCAA championship game. Like Sarkodie, questions arise about his ability to play a enough of a role as a man-marking defender, and he'll need to address those queries with a solid combine to protect his draft stock. Projection: Second round.
An Australia native and youth-system product, King is yet another left-footed left back with an attacking mindset. Connecticut coach Ray Reid said that King is a vocal and smart defender, wise enough to "keep himself out of problems" while able to tap into his offensive arsenal. The leader of Connecticut's defensive unit, King can provide decent cover for teams lacking fullback depth.
A versatile player, Ababio spent time at both fullback positions and forward while at North Carolina. A Ghana native, the 5-11 Ababio is a solid decision maker who is comfortable with the ball at his feet. Whichever side Ababio ends up playing in MLS, he should have no problem adjusting and finding a comfort zone.
Others to keep an eye on: Chris Korb, Sr., Akron; Demitrius Omphroy, Sr., California
By far the top player available at his position, MacMath has the pedigree of a star goalkeeper. Along with standing out on the international level with the U.S. U-20 team, the 6-2 MacMath was stellar in his three years at Maryland. In addition to his physical tools and outstanding instincts and stout positioning, MacMath commands organization from his defense with a strong vocal presence.
A two-year captain and anchor in the back for the Huskies, Ford represents "the whole package" according to Reid. Ford possesses the technical ability to make the routine saves and the athleticism and reflexes to make the extraordinary ones. With a blue-collar work ethic, the 6-1 Ford is a bright prospect who could bide his time behind an established starter and work his way up the league ladder without a problem.
Another top senior goalkeeping prospect, Attinella reportedly has an offer from a club in Portugal. Attinella was a three-year starter at South Florida and a productive one at that, but given his desire to play abroad, teams may hesitate before overpaying for the MLS rights to a player who might not join the league, and his draft position among a keeper-thin class could drop as a result.
The hero of Virginia's 2009 championship run, Restrepo didn't turn in a banner 2010. Nevertheless, Restrepo's instincts and shot-stopping ability make him an intriguing prospect. Rumored to be seeking a contract with a club in his native Colombia, Restrepo wasn't invited to the combine and likely won't be selected until the later rounds, but he could be high-reward choice should he wind up in MLS.
At 6-5, Willis makes for an imposing figure between the pipes, and he turned in a productive career in his three years as a starter. He could turn some heads with an outstanding performance at the combine, but his lack of experience against top-tier competition won't work in his favor. Willis helped guide the Pioneers to the NCAA tournament and made 10 saves in keeping UCSB off the scoreboard until the second period of extra time despite being under immense pressure in the team's first-round matchup.