With the hiring of a sporting director, Jay Sugarman and the ownership group of the Philadelphia Union have hopefully ushered in a new era in Philadelphia soccer under the leadership of Earnie Stewart. Stewart will not officially take the helm of the Union until the new year, and one of his first challenges will be navigating the 2016 MLS SuperDraft. The SuperDraft is the primary mechanism in which college players are brought into the league, and it can be best described as a crap shoot. In other sports, teams can build championship caliber teams through a few well placed draft selections and in many cases a top five draft pick can alter the course of a struggling franchise. In MLS this is not always the case, but this year the Union have the third overall pick and therefore a chance to draft a player that can have a lasting impact with the team.
There is one very important thing that Stewart and the Union back room staff must consider when making there selection - taking the best player available regardless of position. Before anyone says, "What if it's a goalkeeper?", at the time of the writing of this article there are no goalkeeper prospects listed in the top ten of any mock drafts, so we should be safe on that front. Assuming the Union remain in the top three they should select the player with the most talent and highest ceiling, even if it means picking a player who plays a position the Union are deep in.
Initially the obvious choice may be to take a position of need, however the idea of "best player available" is not only a sound move but it fits within the "Moneyball" strategy that Sugarman and company are trying to implement. Moneyball isn't just about doing things on the cheap, it's about getting the most value out of every move and drafting the best player available increases a team's chance of getting the most value.
The most obvious aspect of value would be talent. It's never bad to have solid mid-level players on a team, but in order to have sustained success a team needs talented players. Designated players have been one of the main avenues to acquire talent, but for a team like the Union this is not the most financially feasible option. This leads into another equally important aspect of value, cost against the salary cap. Players like Steve Birnbaum or Cyle Larin have already had a big impact at their respective clubs while having a minimal effect on the salary cap. These cheaper contracts allow a team to continue to make improvements to their squad while assessing the long-term prospects of these younger players. Simply put, a team has much more flexibility when some of it's most promising players aren't tying up cap space.
Despite the often unpredictable nature of the SuperDraft the opportunity is there for the Union to select a player that can be an important contributor for years to come. But it is important that the Union technical staff resist the possible urge to reach for a player who fills a need and instead select the player that has the most talent. Just because the team is deep at a particular position now, does not mean that will hold true even a year or two from now. The drafting of Andre Blake was criticized at the time only to be further complicated by signing Rais M'Bolhi. However, the Union selected arguably the best player in that draft and after the dust settled, the Union ended up with one of the most promising goalkeepers in the league. A similar strategy should be considered at the 2016 SuperDraft, especially with the team in more capable hands than it has been in the past. With someone like Stewart at the helm and a bold draft strategy at the ready, the Union could be well on their way to a solid team in no time.