"We got our thing, but it's just part of the big thing." - Zenobia
The benefits and limitations associated with the SuperDraft, and the collegiate system that supplies the picks, have been discussed ad nauseam lately. It has become one of the most polarizing topics of discussion within a North American soccer community that thrives off heated debate and conflict. The entire league headed to Baltimore, Maryland last Thursday - having first assembled in Fort Lauderdale for the annual combine earlier in the week - for one of the most spectacularly bizarre dates in the equally perplexing MLS calendar.
We were exposed to some of the contrasting philosophies that exist across the league with regards to talent acquisition. Philly and Chicago, two of the most dysfunctional organizations in the East, proceeded to take half of the top twelve picks after making deals on the day and earlier in the offseason (though top choice Jack Harrison was dealt). Meanwhile, the likes of LA and Seattle elected to instead trade out of the first round. In this respect, the SuperDraft is far more nuanced than any equivalent, and for that reason fewer direct comparisons ought to be made.
It's important to note that the most active parties of the day - the aforementioned cellar dwellers in the dilapidated Eastern Conference for instance - are conducting their business before the regular season commences with rebuilding in mind. LA and Seattle, on the other hand, have loftier ambitions, and have identified allocation money as the most effective method to achieve their objectives. With this understanding of the context in mind, Vancouver's work at the Baltimore Convention Center is presented with an extra layer of perspective.
Sporting KC have arguably mastered the system through a model that is established on objective thinking. Every variable is considered under Peter Vermes, and each element is weighed up in whichever direction his club wish to pursue. SKC were on the clock on three occasions within the first round in 2015, and have not been disappointed with the output delivered from that to this point. However, with the introduction of TAM, their need to build greater depth, for example, can ostensibly be met through other means. Sporting are fluid and are always evolving in this field.
How could we define the Whitecaps ideology with Carl Robinson at the helm? As with new arrivals joining through the transfer market, the investment is in the character of each selection paying dividends more so than any athletic or productive upside. That sort of personality plays an integral part in facilitating personal growth, something the Caps appreciate to a greater extent than most of their competitors. The culture of entrusting young players with substantial responsibility and elevating kids to unprecedented heights couldn't happen without this.
Christian Dean received limited opportunities in the starting line-up during his first campaign in Upper Cascadia, as a consequence of the intense battle for minutes in the heart of the defence. Many before him have voiced frustration when placed in the same circumstances, but Dean has used the situation as a motivational resource. He's accepted the challenge to better himself, and in doing so has found new importance to his manager. Although most don't give that exemplary conduct the recognition it deserves, the technical staff are certainly appreciative.
Tim Parker was chosen at #13 overall with that same professionalism fueling the team's decision. Few anticipated his meteoric rise to the USMNT, as one of the most promising centre-backs in Major League Soccer, but with the right mentality that progression eventuated. Hence why excitement should surround former Georgetown stalwart Cole Seiler. Seiler's stock as the top player in his position on the Blue and White's draft board was founded on the same ideal as Dean and Parker, and with that going for him there isn't a ceiling on what he can achieve.
It remains to be seen whether he'll experience a similar trajectory to Dean or follow in Parker's footsteps on the field, however there is no doubt that he is in the optimal environment to take his game to the next level. He can learn from Christian and Tim in how they adapted to pro soccer, and he can gain masses of insight in playing and training alongside Kendall Waston and Pa-Modou Kah. Seiler will also have the luxury of featuring in a WFC2 outfit that is well-coached by Alan Koch, and one that looks set to excel in its second year of existence in the USL .
Another impact, to a lesser degree, on the tendency to make additions to the back through the draft is simply a matter of supply and demand. Typically, with the lack of emphasis on unique technical quality, the pool of defenders is deeper than elsewhere - especially outside of the top ten where Vancouver will hope to remain as they strives towards postseason glory. Collegiate talent in midfield and attacking roles tend to lose more from their chosen education in the beautiful game than those with greater reliance on physical development.
Then there is the fact that the Whitecaps currently possess two youngsters with more current ability and value than anyone swapping NCAA for MLS this winter. Kianz Froese and Marco Bustos can accomplish this without the scrutiny that comes with the territory of being a draft pick, and have enjoyed far superior tutelage since joining the residency program too. Both will head into the preseason preparations well aware that a strong impression could return great rewards once competitive fixtures return in the spring. Incentive for optimism is abundant.
Bustos captivated observers in his first taste of the USL after returning from a foot injury that sidelined him for the first portion of the campaign. His play was mesmerizing at times from behind the #9 and out wide, helping to create a distinct identity for the team through his presence on the pitch. This effort was rewarded back in October as he earned his first cap for Canada and made his MLS debut in the space of 24 remarkable hours. He didn't let the magnitude of either occasion overwhelm him, though, and left the fan base eager for more.
It's blatantly obvious that the 19-year-old is a force to be reckoned with. He's already capable of altering the shape of a match through his advanced reading of the game, punishing the opposition after drifting into unoccupied space with frightening regularity. What distinguishes him from a future option as the future option though, is his prowess within the box. His intelligent movement coupled with a consistently prolific goal-scoring rate - 14 in 33 and 19 in 24 for the U18s, a team-leading 7 in 17 for WFC2 in 2015 - will place him in very esteemed company.
Froese has claimed more of the spotlight in the time that has passed since both he and Bustos penned their first professional deals back in late 2014. Kianz was able to contribute down the stretch and capitalized on that in the Cascadia Cup clinching victory at CenturyLink Field. When Marco was still regaining his fitness with the Thundercaps, Kianz was again figuring in Robbo's plans and even proceeded to net the winner on the road against the Red Bulls last June. He has a reliability from the bench years beyond his age, but his ceiling extends far beyond that.
The only question mark surrounding Froese concerns where in the side he will realize his staggering potential. He seamlessly offers another dimension to the team going forward and without the ball when used out wide, and that may be where we see his best performance from. Yet there is definitely scope to experiment elsewhere when part of the reason why he's succeeded as a substitute is in his sensibility in possession, and how he depends on his innate tactical discipline. Perhaps this is a facet of his play that could reap rewards centrally.
The beautiful thing about this is that the Caps are blessed with the perfect laboratory to mould these starlets in whatever fashion they like, thanks to the platform afforded by WFC2. Bustos can learn how to function as the team's first choice #10, gaining experience that will put him in good stead when he's handed the same role at BC Place. We can enjoy a trial-and-error process with the Froese conundrum, in various positions with various tasks asked of him. This talent has to be nurtured, and there are more ingredients than ever with which to approach that.
It may be wise to abandon this column if you subscribe to the Greek chorus of supporters that demand for Canadians to receive first team minutes solely because of their nationality, though. That deeply flawed rationale is a litmus test of an individual's grasp of the beautiful game, one that frequently returns underwhelming results in the highly sophisticated realm of social media. I'll trust Robinson's judgement of what a young player is immediately capable of over some expert insight from Bob in Abbotsford, but it's a demoralizing sight to witness in 2016 nevertheless.
This is why labelling Deybi Flores' new long-term contract at the club - with a criminally low hit on the cap no less - as controversial is hilarious. The cynicism is unwarranted because Robbo deserves blind faith when it comes to personnel decision-making anyway, but to spin such astute business as something detrimental to others is frankly unacceptable. The Caps know exactly what they're doing with their prodigiously gifted assets, and will continue to operate with that nous going forward. Regardless of what narratives are manufactured around them.