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Anatomy of a Trade: Was Sending Sturgis to Toronto Brilliant or Batty?

Once competitors, now comrades: will Nathan Sturgis help Julian de Guzman and Toronto FC, or was the price too high? (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images)
Once competitors, now comrades: will Nathan Sturgis help Julian de Guzman and Toronto FC, or was the price too high? (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images)
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Last week, the Vancouver Whitecaps selected Nathan Sturgis in the expansion draft then promptly flipped him to Toronto FC for Toronto's first-round SuperDraft pick. Toronto's pick will come up eighth overall, making it Vancouver's second top-ten pick in 2011 after their own first overall selection. I was pleased by the selection of Sturgis but even more pleased by the trade, which I viewed as taking a useful asset and turning it into an even better one.

Sturgis wasn't the only piece of wheeling and dealing the Whitecaps did surrounding the expansion draft, but he was definitely the most notable piece. Nobody is going to be staying up late with the graphing calculator analyzing whether O'Brian White was worth some allocation money (my opinion, of course, is that White isn't worth the piece of paper you'd need to fax the trade into the league office). But as soon as Sturgis departed on the first ever trade between two Major League Soccer teams, there was an inevitable burst of commentary from both Vancouver and Toronto fans on whether the Whitecaps got reamed. To Vancouver, we just got a potentially useful pick for a journeyman. Toronto's reaction was to say that the MLS draft isn't the same as the NHL draft; a fairly obvious statement but given the experience Toronto fans have had trading NHL draft picks recently I'm inclined to forgive them.

The trouble with a draft pick is that you never really know. If the Whitecaps draft a young Jonathan de Guzman, we'll mock the Toronto FC faithful until the sun explodes even though we could never have guessed that would happen. If Vancouver drafts a young Jonathan McDonald, well, the Toronto fans will be doing the same thing to us with as much justification. My instincts tell me that the likes of Sturgis aren't going to be worth more than what the eighth overall pick could potentially snare us. But I'm not a particularly jaded observer of Major League Soccer, and I certainly don't know Nathan Sturgis as well as I could have. So to find out, I asked those who know both MLS and Sturgis best: Dave Clark and Jeremiah Oshan of Sounder at Heart.

Jeremiah Oshan said that Sturgis "can probably start for most MLS teams," calling him "a steady holding midfielder" and suggesting that he could fit in well with Julian de Guzman. Though a simple player without many tricks and little offensive instinct, Sturgis was a neat and tidy player who didn't make many mistakes. Dave Clark praised Sturgis's tactical awareness and added, perhaps slightly back-handedly, that "as a second CDM he's actually good." He passed well, if a bit simply and with a seeming blind-spot to his left, and provided fairly good service on set pieces. Clark's final assessment was simple: "I'd rather Seattle kept Sturgis."

I actually like Sturgis myself. I didn't watch him that often, obviously, but what I did see and what I heard was positive. When Vancouver selected Sturgis, I actually called it "the first Whitecaps pick I properly like" and, in my later expansion draft review, added that "as a cost-effective utility player, it would have been hard for the Whitecaps to do much better." I liked Sturgis then and still do, even if he is now playing for the enemy. He's the sort of player who could have been very useful for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

But just how useful? Sturgis is a natural central defensive midfielder natively who can play some defense (I thought centrally, although I've since been informed he mostly played at right back). The Whitecaps actually have a fairly strong cadre at central midfield. If we're looking for a somewhat undersized, reasonably athletic, hard-tackling midfielder who can complete passes and hit set pieces, we're looking at Terry Dunfield and if anything Dunfield is better than Sturgis. Young, recently-signed Philippe Davies is a step below Sturgis today but will almost certainly get better. And veteran John Thorrington, though neglected in Chicago, should be able to handle that role in Vancouver. If we need more attacking flair, we need look no further than the Swiss Ronaldinho Davide Chiumiento. And if we were to ask Sturgis to step back to right back we'd be asking him to step into boots already occupied by Wes Knight. Moving Sturgis into central defense would be moving him into the strongest position on the team.

In Vancouver, Sturgis was never going to be more than a bench player and a spot starter. I don't want to slight Sturgis's utility or value: somebody with his sort of skills who can come off the bench to play any of a number of positions is a rare luxury. All the same, he wouldn't have been a regular member of the starting eleven unless injury or the unexpected had intervened, and we should bear that in mind when we assess this trade. The Whitecaps traded something relatively less valuable for that draft pick; a draft pick that may be traded for a player at a more exposed position, or kept to draft somebody who'll be useful in three or four years when Thorrington and company are starting to slow down.

I actually expect Sturgis to do better in Toronto than he would have in Vancouver. Toronto has a desperate need for simple, no-nonsense midfielders, and have been starving for one ever since their improbable exile of Sam Cronin. The players they've been using at midfield have been flashy me-first types (Dwayne De Rosario, everyone), players being used incorrectly (Julian de Guzman qualifies here), a variety of promising but not-there-yet midfielders such as Nicholas Lindsay, and scrubs. Sturgis will give them some much needed depth and hopefully take the pressure off de Guzman to hold the ball and win challenges like he does best. Jeremiah actually mentioned pairing Sturgis with de Guzman as an interesting proposition for Toronto, and it's hard to disagree.

The problem with comparing MLS drafts is that the quality of the Major League Soccer youth pool has improved radically over even the past half-decade. If you look back to 2006, for example, Justin Moose was the seventh overall pick (and right now every Vancouver Whitecaps fan reading this is laughing so hard milk shot out their nose). The 2011 draft pool is said to be the deepest yet, praise that not so long ago went to the 2010 draft pool. The evidence is bearing it out, as players from the 2009 and 2010 drafts are already key contributors to their Major League Soccer team. Comparing Sturgis to eighth overall picks from 2001 doesn't illustrate a damned thing, to put it frankly.

Here's my comparison of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th overall picks from the last five MLS drafts. Even that's probably too far back, but it's the best we're going to get. A player in blue is a player who I would take, straight up, in a trade for Nathan Sturgis right now. Listed is the player's name, position, team that drafted them, and age on the day they were drafted. Click for the table in HTML format.



Slightly over half the players in the last three years, and only the God-awful 2007 draft drags us down below a 50% success rate. I tried to be conservative (I'm a big Josh Lambo fan, for example, and think he'll be starting somewhere eventually but he'd obviously only be our third-best goalkeeper right now), and had I added guys I'd be on the edge about like Calen Carr and Matt Besler the success ratio would be even better. The 2011 draft, meanwhile, is supposed to be better than all of these, and this is without considering the possibility of a trade snaring Vancouver an asset.

Nor is taking a draft pick necessarily loading up for tomorrow over today. Ninth overall pick Zack Schilawski played 25 games last year and scored five goals, although three of them were against Toronto FC so they don't really count. Blair Gavin also played about as regularly for Chivas USA as Nathan Sturgis would have for Vancouver. There are lots of teenagers like Omar Salgado in every SuperDraft, of course, but by the eighth overall pick you're usually grabbing physically mature college players who are more than able to step into a professional lineup to some extent. Even in cases where they're not currently as good as the likes of Sturgis, they're close enough to be competitive and will usually wind up a few strides better.

It must be said that my Seattle compatriots don't entirely agree with me. Jeremiah Oshan says that "a No. 8 pick is fair" as "you actually end up being able to draft very similar players to Sturgis at that spot", but bases that partially on his perception that Vancouver is loading up for the future rather than the present and that if a draft pick is Generation Adidas, he doesn't count against the salary cap for a couple of seasons. Dave Clark was as blunt as ever: "I'm not a prospect guy in general. I always tend to prefer players who actually can play. In this case, Sturgis can." Dave does add that the pick is more valuable if the Whitecaps are looking two to four years in the future, but those of us who want Vancouver to make the playoffs before Toronto does aren't looking nearly that far ahead.

Even I don't want to say that trading Sturgis for the eighth overall pick is a sure thing. There's always a chance we end up with the next Jerson Monteiro instead of the next Jack McInerney, or that we draft a decent player but Sturgis becomes the first player in soccer history to markedly improve after joining Toronto FC. If that does happen, I don't doubt that the Toronto fans will spend the next decade reminding us of it. But all you can do in any draft is play the odds, and in this case I think the odds are slightly in Vancouver's favour. The eighth overall pick is nothing I'd bet my life on, but I'd be willing to bet Nathan Sturgis on it.