Yes I did. Yes I did draft John Rooney. And I think it was the right call. (Pete Norton/Getty Images)
We here at SB Nation like mock drafts. You may recall our mock expansion draft back in November, where under my tutelage the Vancouver Whitecaps, as I like to say, cleaned up. Given the success of that enterprise, it's little wonder that we resurrected the same format for the mock MLS entry draft: each SB Nation MLS blogger, along with a few outsiders dragooned into assisting us, put their heads together and sorted out who they would pick at their team's drafting positions.
Now, this mock draft could never be a perfectly realistic exercise, and didn't aspire to be one. We set ourselves a few ground rules (no trading, for example) that don't apply to the real Major League Soccer head honchos. We restricted ourselves to the first two rounds both for the sake of brevity and to avoid stretching both our and our fans' knowledge beyond the breaking point. And, let's be honest, I'm not Tom Soehn. Even if all the rules were authentic, I could hardly do a great Tom Soehn imitation.
Therefore, to put it bluntly, I just drafted to the best of my ability (so did the rest of us, I think). The mock draft took place yesterday at six in the evening. We had fun, a bunch of very knowledgeable people showed off their soccer wisdom, and I got to shout "ROONEY!" a lot. I also got to pick three future Whitecaps at first, eighth, and nineteenth overall.
So here's what I did.
Picking first overall as I was, there was little real suspense for me, as obviously I knew my guy would be available. There was simply the decision on who to pick.
The choice came between forward/very occasional midfielder Darlington Nagbe of the University of Akron and defensive midfielder/defender/fullback/general Swiss Army Knife Perry Kitchen also from Akron. Some will also endorse forward Omar Salgado, late of the Mexican league and not so long ago training with the Whitecaps before MLS scotched his loan, but I never seriously considered him first overall.
Conventional wisdom says that the Whitecaps should take Nagbe, because the Whitecaps have no strikers to speak of. Conventional wisdom is clearly wrong, though, or at least they're right for the wrong reasons. Picking a player in the draft based on "need" is a fool's game. Only a handful of drafted players will be immediate star contributors and who knows what your team's needs will be in a few seasons when the young player hits his prime? It's doubly a problem in Vancouver's case, when so many of our players are untested in MLS. We'd be using our present situation to predict the future when we actually don't know that much about our present situation.
In an entry draft, barring unusual circumstances, a team should always draft the best player available even if they don't need to fill the position. Not to get too tautological, but if you have the best player that means you have the best player: you can trade one of your spare parts for whatever hole you need to fill plus a little extra, and you're not trying to play Nostradamus guessing your 2014 starting eleven in advance.
So why did I take the striker Nagbe anyway? Because, well, he's the best player. Kitchen draws rave reviews for his attitude and his versatility. He's also younger, and gets praise as a "pure prospect". The problem with Kitchen is that he's raw and that, playing with Akron as a freshman last season, he was more inspiring for his tools than his abilities. Nagbe is good physically but already considered an excellent technical player, and specializes in setting up his teammates while getting a not-inconsiderable number of goals on his own. The 5'9" Nagbe is nobody's idea of a physical specimen, he's just good at soccer. Kitchen is taller (though slender), probably quicker, everybody's idea of an athlete. Except that, unlike Nagbe, Kitchen has yet to prove himself as an all-round player. People goggle at Kitchen's six goals while sandpapering his warts: "oh, that'll come." As a long-time observer of the Canadian youth system, which developed its players along much those lines for decades, I can tell you that it usually doesn't.
I don't want to say "Kitchen is a bust", out-and-out. He seems like a very good prospect and I dwelt on him heavily. Even now, I'm not convinced I made the right choice. If the Whitecaps really do take Kitchen, I'll be fist-pumping with the same exuberance as I would for Nagbe. At the same time, there are many more question marks around Kitchen than the more mature Nagbe, and that's that. I can count on Nagbe to go into the lineup, score goals, make some lovely assists, play surprisingly active defense, and look like he belongs. I can't count on Kitchen for that. So I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and went with conventional wisdom selecting Darlington Nagbe first overall.
There was far more pressure at my eighth pick. This was the choice we got from Toronto FC for Nathan Sturgis and I felt like the honour of my city was on my back. I had to get a better player than Nathan Sturgis or the TFC fans would be rubbing my face in it until the sun exploded. My great hope here was Omar Salgado, who's been slipping in a lot of rankings lately, but the striker-lusty Martin Shatzer snapped him up for D.C. United at third overall. Sticking to my established "best player available" philosophy, I again went the attacking route and got attacking midfielder Michael Farfan eighth overall out of the University of North Carolina.
Farfan was, by consensus, in the top three of this draft class until the 2009 season. A mediocre junior year at the University of North Carolina dropped him down the boards. "Oh, he's really not all that good," everyone said, even though his senior year was right back up to expectations. Farfan is another senior (I'm trending towards the mature players, all right), but a good one. The Tar Heels aren't a great soccer power, but that doesn't mean they didn't get their money's worth out of Farfan. He's another very strong technical player, with ball skills good enough for YouTube highlight reels underpinned by very good athleticism. Farfan's shot is not powerful, but it's accurate and he has an eye for the audacious that's good for at least one did-that-just-happen? goal per season. It usually takes players like this some time to adjust to the tougher defenses of the professional game, but once they do oh heavens, it can be worth it.
At this point, I was able to have a cup of tea, sit back, and consider where I was. I had just drafted two attacking players with two draft picks. But remember, best player available. It isn't like the Whitecaps don't need attacking options anyway. If another striker came down the line and I thought he was the best player, well, it was time to take him. I was also limited by our format, for if I were really an MLS general manager I might look to trade some of my mediocre expansion draft fodder for a later second-round pick.
I am not a real MLS general manager, so when I came up again in the second round I had little choice but to grit my teeth, suffer through the mockery, and take forward John Rooney at nineteenth overall.
Roooooooney! You're going to laugh at me, I just know it. People concentrate on Rooney's mediocre scoring record, including only three goals with League Two Macclesfield Town in forty-odd games. He's famous because of his name and retreating to MLS was seemingly the last act of a desperate man. People say "oh, he's going to sell tickets" but I've never been sure how he's going to do that: is "confused old Brits who see the name 'Rooney' and think 'that young Wayne scamp is running around for the 86ers now, is he?'" really that large a market? He'll get attention, some press clippings, maybe even a sidebar in Sports Illustrated that'll mention the Whitecaps. But that's about it.
Here's the catch. First, Rooney is twenty years old, and a young twenty, having just had his birthday in December. He is, by all accounts, a fine if not spectacular young player. People assume he has an attitude problem because of his brother, but there's never been any whisper of problems with his discipline or his determination, and heading back to Major League Soccer to sign a Generation Adidas contract rather than ringing Sir Alex Ferguson's cell phone every day for a month at least shows that Rooney has his feet on the ground. He's not tall but not short either, surprisingly quick with a bit of explosiveness in his stride, and has a high work rate. He sounds a lot like Chad Barrett in my books, and I don't actually consider that an insult.
Moreover, in context Rooney's goalscoring record in League Two wasn't actually that bad. Three goals in three seasons, it's true, but he often came off the bench which evens accounts slightly. Moreover, Macclesfield has always been a poor team and a particularly poor offensive team. I confess that I didn't watch too many Macclesfield Town games in the last few seasons, but they have a reputation for staid play and a lack of creativity that's so far just kept them above relegation. Rooney picked up three goals, from probably pretty poor service, as a teenager. It's not good, but it's not nearly as poor as his hatedom would tell you.
Finally, people are just flat-out underrating League Two. Is it as good as MLS? No. Is it as good as the USSF Second Division? Maybe. Before we signed him, Terry Dunfield was plying his trade with Shrewsbury Town of League Two and he had no better a reputation in that league than Rooney did. An utterly limited, hard-nosed but completely talentless midfielder, they said. Well, Dunfield came to Canada and tore the second division apart. He now holds an MLS contract and a sizable Vancouver fan club of which I think I'm probably the president. League Two is not a poor league, and even its rejects can have success here.
John Rooney may not sell a single ticket to the Whitecaps based on his name alone. But based on his skill and his pedigree, he's worth a flier. On a Generation Adidas contract, he won't cost us a penny in salary cap space. He's young. He should improve, especially since he seems to work hard. And perhaps playing with a little more space and a little better service in Vancouver will unleash John's inner Rooney.