Call it The Year of the Center Back.
The 2014 MLS Draft is jam-packed with impressive central defender prospects, and in a year in which elite attacking options are scarce in the draft pool, center back will be the flavor of the day when the draft kicks off in Philadelphia on Thursday.
Trying to project this draft is as difficult as any draft in recent memory, and not only because the current holder of the top pick is unlikely to select the players who are actually rated as the best in this draft. The potential for trades, coupled with several teams being faced with either reaching at positions of need or drafting good prospects in spots where they already have plenty of options, makes projecting picks all but impossible.
UConn goalkeeper Andre Blake is considered the best talent in the draft, but not the only talent. A wealth of center backs, and some impressive right backs, will surely garner the attention of teams looking to bolster their defenses. Teams needing an attacking boost will have a tougher time, but there are some options, including Maryland teammates Patrick Mullins and Schillo Tshuma, as well as Coastal Carolina midfielder Pedro Ribeiro.
The recently concluded MLS Combine has also served to shake things up even more, with several players underachieving, and some unfamiliar faces emerging as exciting prospects who could push their way into the first round. Jamaican teenager Andre Lewis and Division 2 college prospect Tesho Akindele both impressed enough to contend for a place in the first round.
So just how good is the center back pool in this draft? Our MLS Mock Draft projects a total of eight to go in the first round, and it would be a surprise if fewer than seven were taken in the first round.
Here is Goal USA’s 2014 MLS Mock Draft:
1- D.C. UNITED- Patrick Mullins, Maryland, Forward/Midfielder
This pick would be seen as a reach by scouts who don’t see Mullins as worthy of the top spot, in part because of uncertainties about where he best fits on the next level position-wise. But D.C. United has seen Mullins as much as anybody, and the club is also known to favor Maryland players.
And if not Mullins? Steve Birnbaum would be a good young center back to groom as a future starter behind veterans Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke. D.C. United also stands a good chance of trading the pick, with several teams eager to move up to grab UConn goalkeeper Andre Blake or Cal centerback Christian Dean.
2- PHILADELPHIA UNION- Andre Blake, UConn, Goalkeeper
Folks in Philadelphia won’t be happy with this pick because it won’t be seen as a need pick with young starter Zac MacMath in goal and future superstar Zack Steffen waiting in the wings as a Homegrown Player currently at Maryland, but the reality is Blake is widely regarded as the best talent in this draft, and best goalkeeper prospect in more than a decade. For a team with four picks in the top 26, going for the best value at No. 2 is a wise move, even if it's to position for a trade.
And if Blake isn’t available or not the pick for Philly? Steve Birnbaum is the kind of center back who would fit in well with the defenders the Union currently have. Philadelphia needs someone who can dominate in the air in central defense, and Birnbaum can do just that.
3- VANCOUVER WHITECAPS- Christian Dean, Cal, Center back
The Whitecaps love Andre Blake and could be a team that moves up to the top spot to select him. If Blake goes before this spot, the Whitecaps can turn to a player in Dean that they also rate highly. Dean had his struggles at the Combine, but mostly playing out of position at left back. He’s 6-foot-3, supremely athletic, left-footed and a Generation adidas player, meaning he won’t count against the salary cap. That mix makes Dean a safe bet to go high, even after the shaky Combine.
If Blake and Dean go before the Whitecaps pick, then Steve Birnbaum would make the most sense as the best center back on the board.
4- NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION- Schillo Tshuma, Maryland, Forward
The departure of Juan Agudelo, and serious injury to Saer Sene, has left the Revs lacking some dynamism in their stable of forwards, and Tshuma is the one forward who could offer something special while also being worth this high a pick.
The Revs could also be angling to jump up even farther, potentially to make a play at Blake. Despite the center back options here, the Revs are already stacked at that posiiton and might consider reaching for Pedro Ribeiro here as well.
5- FC DALLAS- Pedro Ribeiro, Coastal Carolina, Midfielder
The Oscar Pareja era in Dallas should promise a bit more creative brand of soccer, and if Pareja is looking for a technical player who could elevate the quality of soccer played, Ribeiro is the choice. He could be tempted to grab a Patrick Mullins, but Brazilian-born Ribeiro has the sort of on-the-ball control and vision that could translate very well to the next level.
Ribeiro might seem like a bit of a reach, but at this spot the draft has a plethora of center back and right back options, two positions FC Dallas doesn’t need. Trading out of this spot is certainly an option.
6- PHILADELPHIA UNION- Steve Birnbaum, California, Central defender
If the draft breaks out this way, the Union will be jumping for joy, not only getting the draft’s best talent, but also its most pro-ready defender. If he’s available at this pick, it will be a no-brainer.
And if Birnbaum is gone? There is a scenario where our projected No. 1 pick, Mullins, could slide to this spot (D.C. is pretty much the one team that would take Mullins very high in this draft). If Mullins does fall to this pick, the Union would be hard-pressed to pass on him.
7- VANCOUVER WHITECAPS- Marco Franco, UC-Irvine, Right back
This pick might surprise people given the fact a Generation adidas right back is on the board, but the fact is Franco simply looks like the better prospect than Miller. Franco is quick, very technical, good getting forward and solid defensively.
If salary cap concerns are an issue, Vancouver will likely grab MIller, but having already taken Dean in this projection, we’ll give the Whitecaps a wild card that would actually be a very smart pick.
8- CHICAGO FIRE- Eric Miller, Creighton, Right back
The Fire have already landed a major talent in this year’s rookie class in Homegrown Player Harrison Shipp, a dynamic midfielder who should help the attack. With Shipp in the fold, Chicago can use this pick for some defensive depth, and Miller can provide that. Capable of playing left back as well as his natural right back, Miller is the type or prospect who could develop into a long-term starter.
9- SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES- Kyle Venter, New Mexico, Center back
You can never have too many center backs, and with Victor Bernardez facing a World Cup year, adding some more depth isn’t a bad idea for Mark Watson. There are several quality central defenders, but we’ll give the Earthquakes the 6-foot-3 Venter, an imposing figure who impressed with his maturity and leadership qualities at the Combine.
10- MONTREAL IMPACT- Mamadou Diouf, UConn, Forward/Midfielder
The Impact struggled at the center back position, so you would think central defense would be a priority in a draft loaded with good ones, but head coach Frank Klopas is believed to have faith in his central defense options. If so, the Impact could land a steal in Diouf, an attacking player capable of playing as a forward or as a wide player in Montreal’s 4-5-1. An injury-hit senior season dropped Diouf off the radar, but he’s as good an attacking talent as there is in the draft.
If Klopas doesn’t like his options here, he could trade down and try to grab Canadian winger Tesho Akindele, who was one of the stars of the MLS Combine.
11- COLORADO RAPIDS- Kevin Cope, Michigan State, Center back
Not as physically gifted as some other center back prospects, but Cope combines intelligence with toughness and impeccable positioning to play the position as well as anyone in this draft.
12- NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION- Ben Sweat, South Florida, Left back
Though not necessarily a pressing need, left back is such a scarce position traditionally that passing on a quality left back prospect like Sweat may be too much for one-time left back Jay Heaps to turn down. Ideally the Revs would land a defensive midfielder, but Sweat might be the best choice left in this slot.
13- SEATTLE SOUNDERS- A.J. Cochran, Wisconsin, Center back
The Sounders need two things badly, salary cap relief and some center back depth, so Cochran fits the bill to perfection. A big left-footed center back with plenty of room to grow as one of the younger players in the draft, Cochran could develop into a long-term starter.
14- COLUMBUS CREW- Steve Neumann, Georgetown, Midfielder/Forward
Eddie Gaven’s sudden retirement has left a void that won’t soon be filled, but the Crew could help their midfield attacking options with the addition of the versatile Neumann. He has the technical qualities to fit well into the type of soccer Gregg Berhalter is promising in Columbus, which emphasizes possession.
15- TORONTO FC- Grant Van De Casteele, Notre Dame, Center back
TFC can use some center back help, and while the need to find some Canadian players is a reality after the plethora of offseason additions, passing on Van De Casteele will be tough. The big defender has the size, strength and maturity to potentially play minutes in year one. Toronto could also be tempted to reach for Combine star Tesho Akindele, a tall and speedy winger who holds Canadian citizenship.
16- HOUSTON DYNAMO- Nick Hagglund, Xavier, Center back
The team’s failure to sign highly rated Homegrown Player prospect Sebastien Ibeagha cost Houston a long-term center back option, but landing the athletic Hagglund, who was one of the more impressive defenders at the MLS Combine would do a bit to numb that pain.
17- PORTLAND TIMBERS- Damion Lowe, Hartford, Center back
The Timbers just signed a veteran center back in Norberto Paparatto and a Homegrown Player center back in Bryan Gallego, but in Lowe the Timbers could be snagging a center back of the future. The 6-foot-3 defender has the frame to fill out and develop into an imposing force (and being the son of former MLS forward Onandi Lowe, a very imposing figure, lends credence to that). Lowe is also a Generation adidas player, meaning cap savings for a Timbers side that has made several big moves this offseason.
18- REAL SALT LAKE- Marlon Hairston, Louisville, Central midfielder
Hairston struggled badly at the MLS Combine, and there are very clear questions about just how far away he is from being able to contribute, but those who watched him at Louisville know he is a much better player than he showed and he did have a strong final day at the Combine to offer a glimpse of what he can do. RSL scouts the college game as thoroughly as anybody and has surely seen him play. More importantly, the team’s salary cap issues make the Generation adidas player an even more enticing option here.
19- NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION- Andre Lewis, Jamaica, Central midfielder
With a forward and left back already in the fold, the Revs can focus on taking the most exciting prospect left on the board. The 19-year-old Jamaican midfielder has an impressive engine, good skill on the ball and a refreshing fearlessness that could fit in well with the nucleus of players currently on New England.
Follow GOAL.COM on Twitter
- Sports & Recreation