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Analysis: Quakes Continue Recent SuperDraft Excellence

Since Dominic Kinnear rejoined the club for the 2015 season, the club has done a remarkably good job in the draft, and the 2017 haul, although unusual, continues that tradition

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes-Press Conference Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The MLS SuperDraft is definitely not as important as it once was, due to the Homegrown rule, an expanded league, and higher quality of play, but as Matt Doyle argues, it still offers franchise building blocks for teams that play the board right.

When I evaluate the SuperDraft, I see the first round (particularly for teams that have top-10 picks) as a place you need to get players who move your club forward, and every subsequent round as basically a lottery where finding any contributors at all is worthy of praise. By that score, the Quakes have kept up their good run of form with another strong first two rounds in 2017.

While some have uncharitably noted how unlike Dominic Kinnear the two players selected appear to be, and new GM Jesse Fioranelli’s high regard for Yueill was confirmed by friend-of-the-blog Quakes Epicenter, I think the credit for this recent success falls squarely at the feet of the Glasgow-born manager and Technical Director Chris Leitch, who have run the draft board for three years now and were given primary college-scouting responsibility in 2017 even with Fioranelli’s arrival.

With that being said, here are my impressions of the two draftees:

Jackson Yueill, Midfielder (UCLA) Round One, Pick 6

MLS: Combine Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Talk about a pick falling into your lap. Yueill was one of four prospects (along with Miles Robinson, Abu Danladi, and Jeremy Ebobisse) who were considered no-brainers at the top of the draft for pretty much the entire past year. Fioranelli, as alluded to above, rated him his favorite player in the combine. Oh yeah, and he’s just 19, seasoned as a US Youth International (most recently at the U-20 level), and comes on a Generation Adidas contract. I doubt the club had to think twice about pulling the trigger, except perhaps to field some phone calls to see if some other team felt like paying a king’s ransom to trade up for him.

As a player, Yueill has technique and class we don’t usually associate with college prospects, and the player himself claims to model his game on Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta. He’s fairly two-footed, knows how to keep the ball ticking over in the middle of the park, and has good vision for unlocking a defense, refined in UCLA’s hyper-attacking system. His passing range is superlative, and coaches have spoken warmly of his Soccer IQ. He’s not a particularly big or strong presence in the middle, but he’s a decent 5’10” and seems to have decent tactical awareness about how and when to close down his man on defense. He has a grace on the ball and finesse on his touch that are, for lack of a better term, kind of beautiful, unlike much of the football I’ve seen in San Jose the last few years.

That all speaks to a possession-oriented, deeper-lying central midfielder that we haven’t seen in Kinnear’s two years at the club, but who may fit into the mold of Stuart Holden, who played under Dom in Houston a decade ago. For now, the slight teenager would be almost certainly better suited to spending some time in Reno in order to develop his skill set and add some ruggedness to his game. In the long run, however, he’s an exciting MLS pro prospect.

Here are some highlights for him. The first is from his days at UCLA, and the second (featured on the Quakes website) is from his MLS combine performance:

Lindo Mfeka, Midfielder (South Florida) Round Two, Pick 6, 28th Overall

MLS: Combine Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As I said above, the second round is not a place to reliably find future starters, so you’re really just punching a lottery ticket. Mfeka is a worthy ticket to punch, however, having put on a show at the combine with audacious dribbling and unusually good ball control, paired with some real end product in the form of a few tidy strikes and a few belters as well. He’s something of a creative force, racking up 18 assists in his 69 collegiate starts, and he exudes calm on the ball in the attacking third. He’s good enough with both feet that I’m actually not sure which is his stronger one, but it was listed as “right” on this scouting report.

There are definitely some limitations, however. He’s undersized at just 5’5”, although he’s well-built enough to survive at the next level. He’s fairly quick in small spaces, but I didn’t see any evidence he was an open-field pace-merchant, or particularly athletically explosive. He’s not on Yueill’s level in terms of vision or passing range, but those traits are harder to assess from limited tape. I haven’t gotten clarity on his international status, since he went to high school and college in the US, but I think we can assume that having been born in South Africa and being listed with South African citizenship, he’ll probably require an international player spot. He’s also three years older than Yueill, so he probably has less developmental upside.

By the way, he’s pretty much an ideal Reno candidate. I think he’d rip it up at that level, and the Quakes would be perfectly happy to be patient with him to see if he ever shows MLS potential.

Here are some highlights, the first apparently uploaded by the player himself to YouTube, and the second the official MLS highlights that include some combine tape:

Why I like this three year run so much

In 2015, the Fatai Alashe pick at #4 was unexpected at the time, but turned out to be a stroke of genius. He played so well that he finished runner-up rookie of the year despite being a defensive player, got serious work as a US Youth international, and has been an essential part of the first team for two years. He’s now arguably the best contract value on the team.

The 2016 draft is a bit more speculative in its value, since we still don’t know precisely what we have in Andrew Tarbell, but scouting reports at the time, his potential trade value, the quality of a summer cameo against Columbus, and his Generation Adidas contract all point towards a solid pickup. Finding a player in the third round in Kip Colvey who could cover gaps right away at the MLS level, and potentially develop further, is a fairly remarkable trick.

2017, as suggested above, seems like quite a lot of value and developmental potential for a team without a top-5 pick. The two editors of TopDrawerSoccer each independently rated San Jose’s draft as fourth best in the league, and I’d happily endorse that level of praise.

The only teams that had better drafts over that three-year period, for me, were NYCFC, Philadelphia, and Chicago, all of whom enjoyed much higher picks on the whole, and in Philadelphia and NYCFC’s cases, spent extravagantly for that privilege. San Jose spent absolutely nothing to improve its position.

For comparison, San Jose’s three year run before 2015-2017 had first-round draft picks Sam Garza, Tommy Muller, and J.J. Koval, with Adam Jahn the only late-round pick to make an impact. Koval was the only one of those first-rounders to ever really participate in the first team, and even he was waived after two seasons so that he could drop down to USL. That overall haul is appalling, and is one of the factors in the lack of squad depth or quality contracts for Kinnear to inherit. While the picks were lower on the whole for this period than the one that followed, there were at least half a dozen All-Stars that were selected after the San Jose pick went in.

There was a lot wrong with the front office’s decision-making over the past decade. They invested approximately $2.5 million in Matías Pérez-García and in return got two seasons of decent but unspectacular and inconsistent production. Innocent earned a similar amount in a similar timeframe, yet was only average before his injury, and wasn’t good enough to even play in MLS after it. Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi was a flop. Some of the contract extensions seem bizarrely generous and un-hedged against risk.

What I’m here to argue is that these failures shouldn’t color your perception of the recent drafts: Kinnear and Leitch have scouted the college game comprehensively, have played their board very well, and haven’t spent any extra assets to move up and make that job any easier. All of that should be applauded. And if Jesse Fioranelli can get the Designated Player and TAM signings back in order, these drafts will serve as a building block in turning the franchise around.

The SuperDraft isn’t over, so stay tuned for Rounds 3 and 4, which may well feature a few players with Quakes ties: Christian Thierjung (Cal/Burlingame Dragons), Tanner Thompson (Indiana/Tommy’s brother), and Josh Smith (USF/Burlingame Dragons).