Even though Major League Soccer teams tend to fill immediate needs with established players, either based domestically or internationally, there has been a growing presence in the league among first-year professionals. This upcoming season should be no different. Combine yet another strong college class with a few promising young prospects from abroad, and Thursday's MLS SuperDraft should feature a bevy of players who will significantly influence the 2011 campaign.
The league shortened the draft from four rounds to three rounds last week, with all preexisting fourth-round picks becoming first-rounders in next week's supplemental draft. As such, each round contains 18 picks with each team having at least one selection. Houston has the fewest selections (one), while New England and Seattle have the most (five).
Here's a breakdown of what each team has added and lost in the offseason so far, what holes each team, including the expansion teams Vancouver and Portland, will try to fill and who some potential selections may be in Thursday's MLS SuperDraft:
The Whitecaps' lack of goal scorers is as glaring a need as there is in the league. Enter Akron product, Hermann Trophy winner and Generation Adidas signee Darlington Nagbe, who could step in immediately and provide a physical presence with a deft scoring touch atop Teitur Thordarson's formation.
After acquiring Toronto FC's first-round pick, the Whitecaps have three of the first 19 picks in the draft and are well-positioned to add top-tier young talent to an intriguing roster that already contains U.S. national team center back Jay DeMerit and veteran goalkeeper Joe Cannon. Securing a left back is a must, though, and with either its second or third pick the Whitecaps could land talent like UCSB's Michael Tetteh or Connecticut's Greg King, respectively. Either would bring an attacking aspect to the left flank.
The Timbers carried over their abundance of goal scorers from their USSF Division 2 side, but can they contribute at the MLS level? If the Whitecaps don't go with Nagbe, the Timbers will be hard-pressed to let him slide past them. If he's off the board, they should take a look at perhaps the most highly regarded overall talent in the draft, versatile defensive midfielder/center back Perry Kitchen of Akron.
Like Vancouver, Portland should benefit greatly from its three early selections. The Timbers have a solid core group of defenders, meaning they may focus on adding attack-minded players with their picks.
D.C. appears to be set at midfield and goalkeeper, which is a plus considering this year's draft class is top heavy with strikers and defenders. With the third overall selection, D.C. will have its choice of top-tier attackers, fullbacks and center backs. After already signing the University of Maryland's would-be first-round defender, White (a homegrown player), D.C. may turn its attention to the rebuilding effort on the front line, which already includes re-entry draft selections Ngwenya and Wolff. Indiana's Will Bruin and U.S. Under-20 product Omar Salgado seem to be the likely fits, with the latter being the least likely to contribute immediately (although 17-year-old Andy Najar did just fine in his first season in the nation's capital).
Incoming coach Robin Fraser knows one thing quite well: defense. Fraser, a former Best XI defender in his playing days, is fresh off overseeing the stingiest defense in the league as an assistant coach with Real Salt Lake. With plenty of options on the board, he could continue to rebuild Chivas' back line with Akron's Zarek Valentin or Kofi Sarkodie. The club has two young options at forward to build around in Justin Braun and Tristan Bowen, but considering Omar Salgado's ties to the Chivas de Guadalajara organization, the Mexican-American would be a natural fit and might be too tantalizing to pass up for the Goats should he be around at pick No. 4.
With veteran Colombian and FC Cologne goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon rumored to be signing with the club, the Union could attend to their other issues with the fifth overall selection, which would seemingly rule out their picking touted Maryland goalkeeper Zac MacMath. The club relied far too much on Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga to produce offensively and could use some more firepower up front. Even though Jack McInerney should have a more expanded role in his second year, Penn State's Corey Hertzog, whom the club unsuccessfully attempted to sign as a homegrown player, and Bruin would be solid fits for coach Peter Nowak. The Union could also use a playmaking central midfielder and could address that need with their second pick.
After missing the postseason for the first time since becoming head coach, Steve Nicol is looking for a remedy to his team's problems. Nicol has a history of drafting league-ready talent from the Atlantic Coast Conference, and even though he'd be a reach at No. 5, North Carolina's Michael Farfan could be the playmaking midfielder to step into the lineup and contribute after re-entry draft selection Fred spurned the team for other options.
The Revolution also could use help at forward, as the team has yet to find a scorer with that killer instinct to replace the injured-turned-retired Taylor Twellman. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Generation Adidas signees Bruin or Hertzog wind up in New England if either is available when the Revolution pick.
After being in the unusual position of missing the postseason, Dom Kinnear's squad is gearing up to rebound in a big way in 2011. Finding a complement to veteran forward Brian Ching is a must, as is retooling the defense, which has already gotten a boost by the addition of Freeman. A selection of Salgado, if available, would go over quite well with the large Mexican contingent of Dynamo fans and would fill a need up top. Depending on where the versatile Geoff Cameron is stationed next season, the team may have a more immediate need at center back.
With only one pick in the draft, the Dynamo may want to make it count with a 2011-ready defensive prospect like California's A.J. Soares or North Carolina's Jalil Anibaba.
The Fire swung for the fences and missed last season by adding Ljungberg and Nery Castillo and then missing the playoffs. The team still has some young attacking options (Patrick Nyarko, Marco Pappa), and Castillo is still a wild card, but finding a dependable forward is extremely necessary.
With Conde's departure and Brown's retirement, there's also a need to restock at center back. Gibbs and 2010 rookie Kwame Watson-Siriboe could theoretically start, but if Soares and/or Anibaba are available, Chicago will have to seriously consider both of them.
Kansas City lost a major locker-room and on-field presence in Conrad, and finding a replacement for him in central defense won't be easy. No rookie is going to step in and fill that void completely, but there are two top central defenders available in Soares and Anibaba who would be good fits and could be available when the team selects 10th. If neither is available, SKC could reach for UCSB bruiser Michael Boxall or try to find another catalyst in central midfield to add to the 30-year-old Davy Arnaud. Scoring goals was bit of a problem for Kansas City in 2010, and ensuring a strong link between the midfield and star strikers Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and the club's new designated player, Bravo, is a must.
With five picks, including three in the second round, the Sounders have some flexibility, but one area that must be addressed is the midfield, which was the missing link between a solid defense and a prolific front line. The team signed Friberg, a 24-year-old Swedish central midfielder, but adding a player like Farfan or Akron's Anthony Ampaipitakwong would augment Sigi Schmid's attack even more.
A speedy, right-sided midfielder like Tulsa's Ashley McInnes would be a nice fit if he's available when Seattle picks at No. 21. Finding depth at fullback and a backup goalkeeper to groom for the post-Kasey Keller era should also be on the docket.
It's a rebuilding year of sorts for one of the league's more consistent franchises. After committing itself to getting younger and bidding farewell to the likes of Schelotto and Hejduk, the Crew have holes to fill in the midfield and at fullback, even after the signing of Chilean defender Sebastian Miranda.
Augmenting the striker options for Robert Warzycha is also a must. Sarkodie would be a dream fit given his dynamic ability, position and local connection, but unless the team trades up, he'll be long gone by pick No. 12.
Akron midfielders Michael Nanchoff and Ampaipitakwong would also be popular and fitting selections.
It's been a rather quiet offseason for the Red Bulls, who expect big things out of 18-year-old striker Juan Agudelo after losing the longtime face of the franchise, Angel. Finding a long-term solution at center back to pair with Tim Ream would be ideal, along with adding depth at both fullback positions.
While New York's brass is praying for an injury-free campaign for designated player Thierry Henry, the recent past suggests that might not be in the cards, so complementing Hans Backe's pool of strikers would be a useful move. To do so the Red Bulls could use their second-round picks to target either UMBC's Levi Houapeu or James Madison's C.J. Sapong, two small-school players with big-time talent.
Even after losing Findley, Salt Lake has had quite a strong offseason, adding Alvarez to in the midfield, re-signing Alvaro Saborio under the designated player tag and keeping the bulk of the already championship-caliber team throughout the expansion and re-entry drafts. If there's an area to address, it's overall depth, as the team hopes to seriously contend on the CONCACAF Champions League stage as well as make a run at another MLS Cup. RSL needs more bodies who can compete immediately, making senior forwards like Justin Meram and Jason Herrick or senior midfielders McInness and Cole Grossman viable candidates for the team's first selection.
Chris Wondolowski scored an astonishing amount of goals for the Earthquakes last season, tallying a career-high 18 and winning the league's Golden Boot. Regardless of whether he can repeat that effort in 2011, coach Frank Yallop needs more ammunition up top and in the midfield to ease the burden on 2010's unlikely MVP candidate. The Earthquakes also have lost several attacking options, meaning both of the team's selections should be offense-first players. Meram would be an excellent fit if available at No. 15.
Now last month's Bowen-to-Chivas trade seems even more unsettling. With Buddle reportedly leaving MLS to join FC Ingolstadt 04 in Germany's second division, the Galaxy must completely revamp their striker options, and that starts with signing their re-entry draft selection, Angel. Even if the Galaxy do that, when their first pick comes up on Thursday, adding another forward is a must. Potential options available for the 16th pick include Meram, Herrick or Ecuadorian youngster Victor Estupinan.
Reigning MLS Coach of the Year Schellas Hyndman did wonders in 2010, guiding FCD to the MLS Cup final. However, the team lost three dependable attacking options and has yet to adequately replace them, making Hyndman's job even tougher in 2011. Reigning league MVP David Ferreira needs more help in front of him, so targeting a finisher is a priority.
Captain and starting defensive midfielder Daniel Hernandez will be 35 in July and is coming off of knee surgery, so grooming his successor should also be a consideration. Dallas-area native and North Carolina product Stephen McCarthy could be an ideal fit if available.
The Rapids had it all come together under coach Gary Smith a year ago, but finding eventual replacements for the 34-year-old Pablo Mastroeni and star striker Omar Cummings, should he turn some heads with his trial at Aston Villa, should be on the to-do list.
The Rapids could also use more attacking prowess from the wings, where Brian Mullan isn't getting any younger, though the acquisition of Nyassi will help. Even though the team added a veteran like Marshall in the re-entry draft, picking up a player like Boxall would improve the team's depth at center back behind established starters Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor.
Toronto has a ton of holes, but the team has no first-round pick after dealing its eighth overall selection to Canadian rival Vancouver for defensive midfielder Nathan Sturgis. Toronto's attack lacked bite and continuity for much of 2010, and it was way too reliant on Dwayne De Rosario. While the Reds could use help just about everywhere, securing a sharp-passing, comfortable-in-possession midfielder should be at the top of the team's shopping list, especially if new Dutch coach Aron Winter expects to bring "Total Football" north of the border.
Given his Canadian citizenship, towering Alabama-Birmingham center back Curtis Ushedo could also be a target with the team's second-round pick to help fortify the defense.