CHICAGO — The Union found themselves in a rare place this week: the good kind of national spotlight.
The team’s lack of wins and big-name players over the years have often left the team off Major League Soccer’s marquee. But sporting director Ernst Tanner’s move to trade all of the Union’s draft picks to FC Cincinnati has been one of this week’s biggest stories.
"There were quite a few people who were approaching us and saying congratulations," Tanner said.
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes, a Delran native with a strong track record of playing academy products, told the Inquirer and Daily News that he’s a fan of the trade.
“I actually think it was a really smart move,” Vermes said. “When you can sign a player at 16 or 17, and now you’re drafting a 22-year-old, obviously the upside is much bigger on that younger player.”
Down the hall, Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding defended his side of the deal. He gave up $150,000 in allocation money, and will give up $50,000 more if some player performance benchmarks are met this year.
"In any sport, teams miss on draft picks," he said. "Given that missing on some players is inherently a part of it in any sport, to some degree, the more picks you have, it gives you the ability to move up and get a player that you maybe feel better about; move back you have a valuation differently; or just take multiple players and let them fight it out and see where they come out. This just gave us a lot of flexibility."
Cincinnati started the day with 10 draft picks, including the first overall selection. (The honor went to UCLA and U.S. under-20 national team midfielder Frankie Amaya.)
There were suitors for a few of those picks. Los Angeles FC tried to pry the No. 1 away, and made a strong enough pitch that Cincinnati called timeout right as the draft started. Cincinnati later sold the Nos. 16 and 25 picks to the New York Red Bulls for $100,000, an impressively large sum. (As a comparison, the Chicago Fire sold the No. 15 pick to Minnesota United for $50,000.)
Tanner, Berding and others acknowledged another factor in Cincinnati’s hoarding of draft picks. Because the team doesn’t have a full-fledged academy yet, it needed to use the draft to fill out its roster.
"It probably says more about Cincinnati than Philadelphia, because I think everyone understands the value of the draft has dropped," said Columbus Crew president Tim Bezbatchenko, the architect of Toronto FC's 2017 MLS title-winners.
The deal, he said, "can be a win-win for everyone."
Berding put it succinctly in relaying a quote from another team executive.
"Every pick they make today will be better than any of their homegrown [players]," Berding said he was told, "because they have no homegrowns."
Part of the allure of the draft is the spectacle of it. Players who get picked can stand on stage in front of cheering fans, don the scarves of their new teams, and give heartfelt speeches about how far they’ve come. Virginia Commonwealth’s Siad Haji, taken at No. 2 by the San Jose Earthquakes, got a well-earned ovation as he told the story of how his parents fled Somalia as refugees.
New Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer, a legendary Dutch player in the 1990s who has coached Ajax, Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, said he appreciates the show.
"This is part of the culture of American football," he said. "What I saw is it's very professional, and it's a good opportunity for young players to follow their dreams."
But the spotlight and hype can lead to outsized expectations for players who mostly aren’t great. In the wake of The Athletic’s recent report that the scouting combine might be axed next year, there was plenty of speculation Friday that the draft might be downsized soon.
"Evolution means there's going to be change," Vermes said. "And I think with the combine and this event, there has to be change. I think that over this next year, we'll figure out what that is. Because it's going to be different going forward."
If the draft becomes just a conference call, that would help put it in perspective. It would also encourage MLS to put a bigger spotlight on teams' academy products, who are often better players.
“I’ve heard that being floated around, and I think ultimately that’s where it’s going to go — I just don’t know how soon that’s going to be,” Real Salt Lake manager Mike Petke said. “Drafts are a very American sports thing, a cultural thing. So I’m not sure when that’s going to happen, but I have heard that idea floated around, and I think it’s going to get there eventually.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber came to his mid-draft press conference ready to be asked about the event’s future. He has long believed in the offseason buzz that the draft builds, and he reiterated that belief.
"As I listened to some of these young men talking about growing up and wanting to play in our league and dreaming about that as young players … it makes me feel that much stronger that there is an important role for this draft," Garber said. "As a marketing guy at heart, I think these special moments are good for our sport."
He also admitted — to a degree he rarely has before — that some serious questions need to be asked about the event’s future. That included an acknowledgment of “the question of are we over-hyping the draft.”
And for the record, Garber was asked his opinion on the Union’s trade. His answer seemed to come from that marketer’s heart.