With the MLS SuperDraft coming up on Thursday at 10:00 a.m., it’s time to look ahead at what the Timbers may be looking to acquire with the 20th and 40th picks. But before we get to specific names, it’s important to take stock of the reality of the Timbers’ drafting position and identify realistic areas of need that Portland can fill in the draft.
First, it’s important to keep in mind how valuable the 20th pick -- last in the 1st Round -- really is: Not very. The back half of the first round of the draft becomes a bit of a crapshoot, as the lack of depth in recent MLS SuperDrafts has limited the field to a relatively limited number of clear MLS prospects.
With that said, the 20th spot in the last five years has punched a little bit above its weight. Here’s every 20th pick taken in the SuperDraft during the Timbers’ tenure in MLS: Michael Tetteh, Calum Mallace, Ryan Hollingshead, Tommy McNamara, and Amadou Dia. That is, all told, a pretty solid list, with four of those five players having played over 1000 minutes in at least one MLS season.
How does 19th fare? Jeb Brovsky, Tommy Meyer, Charlie Rugg, Grant Van De Casteele, and Sergio Campbell.
And 21st: Leone Cruz, Chris Estridge, Donnie Smith, Jimmy Ockford, and Ignacio Maganto.
Of those 10 players, only Jeb Brovsky has ever played over 1000 minutes in an MLS season.
Right. So maybe 20th is a blessed position. Or maybe it’s a fluke and the late-1st and/or early-2nd Round just isn’t a terribly great drafting position.
So the Timbers’ expectations for what they’re likely to pick up at 20 should be pretty tempered. It’s a win if the Timbers come away with a player who, a year or two down the road, can become a contributor on the first team. Moreover, the inconsistency of talent in this part of the draft highlights another point: Because the talent available is pretty sparse, a team can’t be too choosy about which position they are drafting. So there’s a lot of merit to simply taking the best available player on the board at 20.
But the "best available" philosophy is limited by a team’s ability to get their pick on the field. Which brings us to our second point: The most important criterion for who the Timbers select is to make sure it is somebody who has a realistic chance to play significant T2 minutes in 2016.
And this helps us prioritize the Timbers’ needs. T2 is pretty well covered at striker (Kharlton Belmar and Michael Seaton), centerback (Anthony Manning and Rennico Clarke - albeit with the latter carrying an injury into early summer), and defensive midfield (Nick Besler and George Fochive - the latter of whom will hopefully get a long early-season run with T2 before the late-summer and fall schedule crunch pulls him into the 1st team). Moreover, Andy Thoma seems to have a beat on the starting left back spot in light of Jeanderson’s return to Brazil.
Subject to unannounced T2 signings (of which there are almost certainly some), the likeliest spots for T2 to have plenty of minutes available for a draft pick, therefore, are on the wings, in an attacking central midfield role, at right back, and at goalkeeper. In each of these positions, the Timbers could very well draft an immediate T2 starter and give him the minutes that he needs to make a legitimate run at the 1st team in 2017 or even at some CCL appearances in the fall.
Accordingly, in SB Nation Soccer's Mock Draft, I selected technical Wake Forest forward/winger Michael Gamble on behalf of the Timbers with the 20th pick (although his stock has been slipping just a bit in recent days after a so-so Combine) and Kentucky goalkeeper Callum Irving with the 40th selection on behalf of the Timbers.
A few other prospects to keep an eye on are Stanford winger Eric Verso (who has been perhaps the Combine’s biggest stock riser thus far), winger Tsubasa Endoh out of Maryland, Generation adidas goalkeeper out of Clemson Andrew Tarbell (although I have my doubts that he’ll last until 20), and VCU right back Dennis Castillo to keep the Rams pipeline open.
Finally, watch for any steep fallers in the draft. Once in a while a mass of teams will talk themselves out of a top-10 quality player because they have positional questions, as happened with Christian Roldan last year. If that starts to happen to a player, the Timbers could be in a very nice spot at 20 to take a flyer on the talent and figure out the position later. Because, ultimately, if the Timbers are fortunate enough to have a player with clear MLS talent fall to 20, they should be more than willing to jump at that chance and sort the rest out in camp.