When Tim Bezbatchenko announced the Columbus Crew’s first-round pick during the virtual MLS SuperDraft on Thursday, he did so sitting next to the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. And unlike other teams that showcased past championships as they announced their selections, the Crew’s president and general manager did so with the most recently won MLS Cup by his side.
Because of the Black & Gold’s 3-0 MLS Cup Final win against the Seattle Sounders in early December, Columbus held the 27th overall pick, the last in the first round and the latest the Crew ever selected in the SuperDraft. But the club was more than happy to pick late after winning that trophy for the second time in franchise history.
Of course, some of that acceptance of a late draft pick has to do with winning; any team would trade a championship for a draft pick. But there is also the very real fact that the SuperDraft doesn’t hold as much weight as it once did in building a roster in MLS.
“Obviously the value of the SuperDraft has undoubtedly dropped in recent years,” Bezbatchenko said on Thursday.
Technical director and vice president of soccer operations, Pat Onstad, agreed: “I think the league 10 years ago was built on college picks — certainly the first 10 years of the league it was — and it’s changed.”
The reasons for this change in MLS are easy to see if you’ve followed the league in recent years. Many teams look to build their rosters with international players, especially from the top, while the development of the academies around MLS means plenty of top young players sign contracts before they even reach the draft.
Columbus used both methods in building its MLS Cup-winning team. Record signing Lucas Zelarayan was the MVP of the Final with his two goals but rookie Aidan Morris, a Homegrown signing prior to the 2020 season after one year at Indiana, was arguably equally as important when he stepped in for the championship game for another star, Darlington Nagbe, with just 48 hours notice.
Morris isn’t the only Homegrown helping to fill out the Crew’s roster. Sebastian Berhalter was also signed prior to last year and Aboubacar Keita played 11 games in his second season after signing a Homegrown contract with the Black & Gold in 2019. Columbus already added another Homegrown player, Isaiah Parente, this offseason after his three seasons at Wake Forest.
“Obviously the rise of MLS academies and signing players like Isaiah Parente, Aboubacar and Sebastian and Aidan Morris,” Bezbatchenko said of the change in the SuperDraft’s importance. “So you have only a limited number of slots in a salary cap league. But at the same time, every year it’s proven that the draft produces players for the league.”
Because the SuperDraft remains a mechanism for adding talent, the Crew continues to use it as such. And while the numbers show that draft picks don’t pan out the way the players selected in the MLS of the past, there remains an opportunity to find talent.
“When you look at last year, I think it was 77 players selected,” Black & Gold head coach Caleb Porter said. “Twenty-five actually made a roster and six players out of the 77 selected played a game or more. So as these rosters in MLS become more and more saturated, it becomes more and more difficult.”
Despite the late pick, the Crew did its homework on this year’s draft class. This process was more difficult than in other years because not all of the conferences played college soccer this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by assistant general manager Corey Wray and director of scouting Neil McGuinness, with help from Onstad, the Columbus staff dove into the college players available, but focused on the ACC, one of the few that did play a fall conference season.
The Crew had a number of targets that the team felt might be available at pick No. 27, but the SuperDraft is always unpredictable. Clemson defender Justin Malou was one of the players the Black & Gold identified but wasn’t sure he would make it to the end of the first round. But when the draft reached pick 20 and Malou was on the board, the Columbus staff started to get excited they might get their guy.
Knowing the low hit rate in the SuperDraft, the Crew targeted players that, even late in the first round, might have a chance to make the roster. Columbus knew it needed to add depth at right back behind 34-year-old veteran Harrison Afful and liked the athleticism and versatility that Malou demonstrated during his four seasons with the Tigers.
“Obviously you have your boards and things unwind, but we felt he was the best player available at 27,” Porter said of Malou. “He gives us an athletic guy that can play right back or center back and really that’s the profile that we’ve seen historically that has made it, an athletic profile, in a couple positions that we feel like there will be some opportunities. Certainly with Harry, we know we have a good player but this could give us a player underneath him potentially in time.”
In addition, Malou checked a couple of other boxes for Columbus. He comes from a winning program — Clemson went 26-4-3 the last two years and won the ACC this past season — so he understands the culture he’s walking into with the Crew. He also has the character and the mentality a rookie on a top team needs to work hard and fit into the locker room even if he’s not playing right away.
About that playing time, that may not come from day one for Malou, as the Black & Gold continue to look to add another player at right back to compete with Afful and the rookie. But the opportunity will be there if he proves he deserves it.
“So realistically where will Justin fit? It’s up to him, obviously,” Porter said. “But there is a hole in that second spot. But at a minimum the third spot, which pushes him to potentially the second team. And with his profile, being athletic, we felt it made sense. Because what you don’t want to do is pick up a player that has no chance just because he’s the next best player available.”
With the changes in MLS in recent years, the SuperDraft will never be the primary way to acquire players as it once was. And while the odds weren’t in any player’s favor going pick No. 27 to be a significant contributor, the Crew wasn’t going to waste an opportunity to add a piece in Malou that, at least, could be a prospect for the future on the backline.