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The Union has found value in not using the SuperDraft over the past three years

Out of eight picks the Union have traded away over the last three years, only one has recorded any minutes in MLS

MLS: SuperDraft
Tommy McCabe is the lone player drafted with a pick traded by the Union over the last three years to log minutes in MLS
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s MLS SuperDraft week so get ready with your jokes about the Philadelphia Union we definitely haven’t heard before.

The Philadelphia Union last drafted a player in the MLS SuperDraft in 2018 when they selected Dartmouth defender Matt Danilack with the 77th pick. He departed the club shortly into preseason with the Bethlehem Steel FC.

Since then the Union have earned some allocation money and a whole lot of generous earned media for their SuperDraft strategy.

All told they have traded eight picks that have ended up in players being drafted and passed on the three picks they still had when the draft rolled around, perhaps most notably the 101st pick they acquired in a trade for Kevin Kratz in 2020. It’s notable (ironically so) in that Kratz was signed by the Union in 2016 but traded to Atlanta United before ever featuring for the blue and gold.

The Union has acquired at least $200,000 in general allocation money, the homegrown rights to Nathan Harriel and an upgrade in their MLS Allocation Order (whatever that means) in exchange for picks that have logged a grand total of 256 minutes in MLS.

Those minutes were all logged by Tommy McCabe, drafted 26th overall by FC Cincinnati with one of the Union’s picks in 2019. McCabe was on the roster for two seasons but did not return to the team in 2021.

The ridiculousness of the Union having to give up anything for Harriel’s rights simply because he lived on the edge of Orlando City’s homegrown territory but was never part of their academy setup aside, it’s hard to say the Union don’t value the draft so much as they see a better way to make it work to their benefit.

By getting assets in return for the equivalent of soccer lottery tickets, the Union have been able to more strategically approach their offseason roster building with the additional assets. Add in the returns they’ve gotten for draft prospects whose homegrown rights they own — $50,000 for Kalil ElMedkhar and $50,000 for Tomas Romero last year — and the strategy is less of a joke and more of a savvy way to operate.

The earned media side doesn’t hurt either. Whether it’s a way for the Union to send the message that they prioritize the academy, to collect assets to make other deals or a little bit of both, the message has definitely gotten out that the Union are serious about their academy and not all that interested in domestic players over the age of 21.

While other teams take a chance on players who likely won’t stick with the team beyond preseason, the Union use the SuperDraft to push their academy and continue their efforts to get the best youth players in the country to move to the King of Prussia area long before they would be eligible for a draft.

They do all of this while still having two of the SuperDraft’s biggest ever success stories in former No. 1 pick Andre Blake and No. 77 pick Jack Elliott in the backbone of their defense.

This fact brings us to the strange contradiction present in the Union’s draft strategy: the Union trading away picks they might do a better job scouting and producing into players of value to teams for returns that are reduced when the players they choose don’t pan out.

While the Nashville SC deal still hinges on the performance of the player Nashville selects 26th in tomorrow’s draft, the two picks taken so far in last year’s draft likely didn’t yield much toward the $175,000 in performance-based general allocation money built into the deal.

The Union received $150,000 from the trade with Cincinnati that kicked off the new era of opting out of the draft in 2019 but probably received very little of the additional $50,000 attached to undisclosed performance metrics.

What it boils down to for me is the question of whether the Union would’ve gotten better returns scouting and drafting players with those eight picks than they received trading them away. Given the diminishing returns from the draft, maybe the answer is no but it’s also hard to look at the season Jack Elliott had last year and not think that there aren’t other gems like him the Union might be uniquely positioned to unearth.

The Union still have the 85th pick in tomorrow’s draft and while it’s likely they’ll pass again like they did with their three picks in 2020, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take a player and see what happens.

Union SuperDraft Picks Since 2019

2021

No. 19 - Rio Hope-Gund, Orlando City (pick traded for Nathan Harriel’s homegrown rights)
No. 46 - Eric Iloski, Vancouver Whitecaps (part of trade with Nashville SC for $50,000 in allocation money)
No. 73 - Sondre Norheim, Nashville SC (part of trade with Nashville SC for two 2021 picks and one 2022 pick for $50,000 in guaranteed allocation money)

2020

No. 21 - Simon Lefebvre, DC United (moved up to No. 17 in the MLS Allocation Order)
No. 47 - Remi Prieur, Columbus Crew (part of trade for Joe Bendik)
No. 73, 99 and 101 (acquired in Kevin Kratz trade) - Union passed

2019

No. 13 - Logan Gdula, FC Cincinnati (part of trade for $150,000 in allocation money)
No. 29 - Tommy McCabe (acquired by Union for Fabian Herbers, traded to FC Cincinnati for $150,000 in allocation money)
No. 37 - Ben Lundt, FC Cincinnati (part of trade for $150,000 in allocation money
No. 61, 85 - FC Cincinnati passed