A busy offseason for the San Jose Earthquakes is about to enter the next phase, as the team prepares to add even more players to its roster through the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
By virtue of their last-place finish in the Western Conference, and second-worst overall record during the 2014 MLS season, the Quakes will select near the top of the list when the draft gets underway at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday from Philadelphia.
Expansion sides Orlando City SC and New York City FC will select at number one and two respectively on draft day, and the woeful Montreal Impact will select at number three. San Jose, winners of only five league games last year and carrying a club-record 15-game winless streak to end the season, select at number four overall -- high enough on the list of 20 teams that some very enticing prospects will be available.
So which players are likely on the Earthquakes draft board? Who is new head coach Dominic Kinnear and longtime general manager John Doyle going to drape a Quakes scarf on as he heads for the podium and a handshake with MLS commissioner Don Garber?
Since returning to MLS in 2008, the Earthquakes have had a first round selection as high as #4 only twice. In that inaugural return season, the Quakes held the #1 overall pick, but they traded it away to the Kansas City Wizards for veteran defender Nick Garcia. In 2010, selecting at #3, San Jose chose underclassman defender Ike Opara, who coincidentally also ended up in Kansas City, three uneven seasons after joining the Quakes.
Building through the SuperDraft has not been a forte of the Earthquakes. In fact, more second round selections have broken through to find success in San Jose than those selected in the first round. Shea Salinas from the 2008 SuperDraft, selected at #15 overall, and Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow from the 2010 SuperDraft, both key members of the 2012 MLS Supporters' Shield winning side but now with clubs in Canada. And for every Salinas, Beitashour, and Morrow there was a Sam Garza, Tommy Muller, and Anthony Ampaipitakwong that never quite panned out.
Kinnear and Doyle's job on Thursday will be a bit of a crapshoot when it comes to identifying a "sure-thing," and the option will present itself to trade away the #4 selection for a proven player, but that doesn't mean there aren't any enticing prospects from which to choose. Perhaps like they did in picking Opara and Garza, the Quakes will elect to go with a Generation Adidas signing -- a player whose salary won't count against the cap. Or maybe San Jose will select among the talented college seniors already inked to a deal by the league ahead of the draft -- players that have already signed up for MLS and won't require any contract negotiations.
MLS announced its 2015 Generation Adidas class this week, scooping up five players that will all get selected early in the SuperDraft. The top prospect in college soccer, forward Cyle Larin of Connecticut is a sure-fire #1 overall selection by Orlando City, and skilled midfielder Cristian Rolden of Washington is a shoe-in at #2. The remaining three players in the GA class are goalkeeper Alex Bono, defender Conor Donovan, and forward Romario Williams.
Not needing a goalkeeper, and perhaps with eyes on another defender other than Donovan, the Earthquakes could go with the intriguing Williams. A native of Jamaica, Williams has speed to spare, something lacking in the current crop of Quakes forwards, and the Central Florida standout is projected to have a solid upside. If selected, San Jose will hope he doesn't pan out as the next Garza, maybe more someone like Darren Mattocks in Vancouver.
If budget-minded San Jose skips the Generation Adidas class altogether, the next best thing might be to take an already MLS signed player, ensuring an addition to the roster from the minute he is selected. Ahead of this weekend's MLS Combine in Florida, the league secured the services of eight college seniors, highlighted by Oregon State forward Khiry Shelton and U.C. Davis defender Ramon Martin del Campo. Either one would be a solid choice for San Jose.
Shelton was the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2014, and the Texas native was a member of the NSCAA All-American Second Team. He was a potent in front of goal for the Beavers and notched double-digits in goals and assists his senior season. Martin del Campo, a name more familiar to Earthquakes fans from his time with the club's PDL team in 2014, was a dominating center back for the Aggies and made the breakthrough to the USMNT U-23 squad last summer. A native of Chula Vista in Southern California, Martin del Campo flirted with a move to Liga MX before signing with MLS.
A third option for the Quakes is to draft a player not yet signed by the league, but one who impresses in this weekend's MLS Combine. UCLA midfielder Leo Stolz has to be in consideration. The engine of the Bruins, Stolz could step in and start for many MLS clubs this season. He would be a similar selection to the Earthquakes 2014 pick, JJ Koval of Stanford, but his talent is not in question.
Of course, the last remaining course of action would be for the Earthquakes to trade the #4 overall pick, perhaps for a veteran player, perhaps for allocation money and a lower selection in the draft. The Quakes already are without a second round pick in Thursday's SuperDraft, having sent that selection to Orlando City for forward Mark Sherrod, and might want to parlay their high pick for multiple lower picks. This options seems the least desirable -- unless it comes with a significant allocation money haul -- and the Earthquakes may as well use their natural selection.
Williams the speedster? Martin del Campo the presence? Shelton the finisher? Or even Stolz the General? The Quakes could do worse than any one of the four. If the pick if for potential, Williams seems the best bet. If the pick is for need, Martin del Campo would fit the bill.
If odds existed on the draft, Martin del Campo would certainly top the board for the Quakes. One thing is certain: the 2015 MLS SuperDraft is yet another opportunity for Kinnear and Doyle to improve the roster and push a disappointing 2014 farther from view. San Jose is on the clock, and supporters anxiously await its decision.