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Minnesota, Atlanta begin expansion with prime MLS draft selections

With several trade offers on the table, both Minnesota and Atlanta opted to bolster their respective rosters with key MLS draft selections.

LOS ANGELES — Minnesota United came into Friday’s MLS draft with 12 signed players. It’s first game is in less than two months. Coach Adrian Heath needs bodies, and the Loons received trade offers from “nearly every club in the MLS," he said here at the LA Convention Center. Heath and MNU sporting director Manny Lagos could have accepted one of those offers and received multiple players or money in return. They could have turned one player into two or three.

Instead, they used it. Heath, a former forward who scored regularly for Everton during a long playing career in his native England, is highly regarded for his work with goal scorers and he saw one in the 2017 draft class he had to have. UCLA forward Abu Danladi was hindered by injuries during a junior season in which he tallied seven goals in 11 games, but he possessed a combination of athleticism and endeavor that Heath believes is worth the No. 1 pick.

“We just think the upside of this kid is huge. The potential he has is absolutely massive,” Heath said. “He has incredible pace, natural athleticism, wants to run in behind—which is a dying art, people want to come to the ball now and this kid wants to play off the back shoulder.”

2017 MLS SuperDraft: Minnesota resists trading, takes UCLA's Danladi No. 1

And so Danladi, 21, became the first draft pick in Minnesota’s new MLS history. A few minutes later, the second 2017 expansion team, Atlanta United, opted for defense and selected Syracuse center back Miles Robinson. Atlanta could have traded down as well, of course, but stuck with the Massachusetts product.

“We liked his physical attributes, particularly his pace for [coach Gerardo Martino’s] high line," said AUFC president Darren Eales.

Robinson, who was a semifinalist for the Mac-Hermann Trophy (college soccer’s Heisman), said he didn’t regard Atlanta as an expansion team, even though it obviously is. The southern United has made waves with its early acquisitions, from Martino to foreign stars like Miguel Almirón, Hector Villalba and Kenwyne Jones. The back line already boasts former U.S. international Michael Parkhurst, MLS veteran Zach Loyd and Greg Garza, who’s currently in camp with the national team. In Robinson, Atlanta now hopes it has an imposing center back to compliment a promising roster.

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“I love how it’s a new team but they already have the name of being a big club,” Robinson said. [Martino] is a great coach. He’s coached so many great players in the past. I’m definitely excited to get out there and play and show myself.”

Danladi moved to the U.S. as a teenager via the Right to Dream Academy, a program that places talented Ghanaian players in U.S. high schools. EmaBoateng (LA Galaxy), David Accam (Chicago Fire) and Josh Yaro (Philadelphia Union) are among the alumni. Danladi was the 2013-14 Gatorade National Player of the Year and finished his three years at UCLA with 18 goals and 18 helpers in 42 matches.

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He’s as excited to play for his new coach as Robinson.

“Everyone knows his reputation,” Danladi said. “He’s a striker’s coach. I’m a striker and I’m looking forward to improving and I think I’ll learn a lot from him.”

Said Heath, who last coached Orlando City and 2015 Rookie of the Year forward CyleLarin, “You ring as many people as you know who’ve been in contact with the kid but I’m very much a gut feeling person. We had a very straight and frank exchange of views, from my point of view, and we made him aware of where we are. He’s used to being in Santa Barbara and UCLA!”

Heath said Minnesota has “three or four [signings] in the pipeline. We hope to make some announcements in the next few days.” They do need players. But for now, on Friday, United got their man.