The San Jose Earthquakes went down to the last day of the 2015 regular season with a chance to make the MLS Cup playoffs, but a loss to FC Dallas, and the results of other games around the league, consigned the Quakes to missing the postseason for the third straight year. The silver lining: San Jose would receive the eighth pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft of eligible college and international players.
With changes to the soccer landscape over the last few years, notably the successful implementation of the MLS Homegrown Player signing rule, the talent available in the draft has slowly decreased, and only the top few picks are predicted to be sure-fire locks to have meaningful professional careers. So, in an outcome that was eerily reminiscent of the team's quest to make the postseason last year, general manager John Doyle and head coach Dominic Kinnear made every effort to move up in the draft from #8, but they came up just short.
"This morning, we thought we were sitting on something pretty good," said Kinnear at the conclusion of day one of the SuperDraft. "And, as we thought, it was too good and it was taken away from us. So nothing was in our control, it was in other teams' control, and nothing happened, but it was not for a lack of trying."
Such highly touted options as Stanford University defender and current U.S. men's national team camp participant Brandon Vincent and Georgetown center back Joshua Yaro were high on the Quakes' wish-list, but both players were predictably scooped up before San Jose was on the clock at #8. Kinnear and company were forced to make another move instead.
"We had our eye [on them], and we did try to move higher to look at some other players," said Kinnear. "We had a good, long meeting last night in which we identified some players that can help us, including at goalie. I know the top five picks didn't necessarily go in the order people thought, but the suspects were always going to be the same. We were trying to move up in the order to select one of those guys. When that didn't happen, we looked at the depth of our team and felt that the one area that we could provide real good quality at that position would be goalie, and Andrew definitely fit the mold."
When MLS commissioner Don Garber stepped to the podium to announce the Earthquakes selection, most observers believed he would call out the name of a defender, maybe a midfielder, but certainly not a goalkeeper. So as he mouthed the name "Andrew Tarbell," the head scratching began. Tarbell, an All-American from Clemson University, runners-up to Stanford for the 2015 NCAA Championship, seemed an odd choice for a team that had seen its number one 'keeper David Bingham come off a very impressive season. Kinnear, however, was thinking bigger picture with the selection.
"We think he's really good," said Kinnear. "When you look at David and what's going on him with Copa America around the corner, not to say he is going to be involved with that, but there is a little bit of protection involved there. Also, him being GA status gives us a free player. When you look at our roster, it's probably something we need to lean towards. Third, and most important, we think he is a good goalkeeper with a bright future.
"Looking at the other prospects available and considering GA status, our roster availability for us right now, we made the smart choice. People may disagree, but they don't see our roster the way we do."
Tarbell's status as a Generation Adidas signing means that his salary will not count on the senior roster budget -- the salary cap -- that Doyle and technical director Chris Leitch must work to balance each season. Essentially, Tarbell is a selection that for the duration of his contract (not determined, but likely to be up to four years) will be a free asset on the roster. The Quakes benefitted from the same rule when Bingham joined the team back in 2011, having him as a back-up at no cost for four seasons.
"That helped, definitely, yes," said Kinnear of Tarbell's GA status.
For many supporters following the draft live via social media, the responses to the selection of Tarbell ranged from bewilderment to outrage. After all, to anyone not at the Quakes draft day table, the number one need on the roster was defense, and with Bingham and back-up Bryan Meredith already proven professionals, why would San Jose grab a third 'keeper so high in the draft. Was this simply a selection of the best player available, or were the Earthquakes simply looking for cover at a position that already seemed to have it.
"I think a little bit of both," said Kinnear. "The one thing we agreed on was that he was the best player at his position, and we felt that was by a large margin. When you look at the recent signings we've had -- with Andres Imperiale and Simon Dawkins -- we feel we've addressed a couple of needs there. So I don't know why this would be considered a surprise -- maybe someone thought we should have gone with a midfielder or a center back -- but with Imperiale signed and Tommy Thompson and Innocent coming back, we are trying to create competition for some spots. We felt Andrew, who is the best at his position, would be a good fit for us.
"A lot of times and a lot of teams you look at rotate that third goalkeeper like crazy, and I get a little bit fed up with that. We're trying to increase depth in the squad, we think Andrew provides that, we want competition at every position, we think Andrew provides that, and obviously preseason is going to show us a lot. We wouldn't have picked him this early if we didn't think he would be a future MLS player."
Depth is certainly something all MLS teams struggle with. Given the salary restrictions within the league -- even with the ambiguous nature of the seemingly arbitrary General Allocation Money and Targeted Allocation Money and Designated Player money -- the Earthquakes were sometimes a suspension, an injury, an international call-up away to needing to juggle their line-up last season. Shoring up cover at every position will ensure the team can field a quality Starting XI no matter the external influences.
One thing Kinnear did stress, however, is that any player signing is not intended to put artificial pressure on incumbent starters. Instead, the coaching staff wants there to be a healthy competition up and down the roster to make each game-day 18. Add to that thinking that Tarbell provides insurance in case Bingham ever decides to test the waters overseas, and picking the rookie goalkeeper makes a little more sense.
"We are not into mind games," said Kinnear. "We want to create competition here and cover. In every position around the field there is the possibility of injury, the possibility of call-ups. I thought last year, if David were to have missed time, that we were fully loaded as far as cover at goalkeeper goes. It may be a decision that raises eyebrows, but looking at our roster, and I've said this quite a few times, we are not trying to play games here, we are trying to build a roster the best way we can and the best way we know how. Sometimes there are limitations, but I know we have some time to make sure we are roster compliant with the league, but this makes it a little bit easier for us and provides some good competition and cover, as well as a good look for the future."