Drafting players from college always has a certain degree of uncertainty. From the varying levels of competition, to the limited time spent with the actual players themselves, and a propensity for teams to be consumed by overthinking and the orthodoxies established in post-Combine hotel bar chatter: the process presents its fair share of challenges. As has been noted recently, the New York Red Bulls haven't enjoyed the greatest success with their draft picks over the past few years, if success is measured by players still on the roster and contributing to the team.
2 of 30 are still with the club.— Mark Fishkin (@MarkFishkin) January 4, 2017
4 of 30 are playing in MLS.
1 is with RBNYII. pic.twitter.com/kqsRrtr3KM
Since taking over the helm of RBNY in 2015, Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch have been credited with guiding the Red Bulls to make great strides in the aspect of youth development. Much of that credit is well deserved, but there is one area in which the RBNY brains trust appears to have faltered over the past couple of seasons: the SuperDraft.
The current front office has only had two drafts, so it is not as though they have racked up a string of Draft Day failures for RBNY. And it should be noted that the team was good when Ali and Jesse inherited it, and they have kept it performing at a high level in MLS: so they haven't had high draft picks to play with in either of their two efforts to pick winners from the process. Still, it shouldn't be outrageous to call those efforts busts.
In two years, Curtis and Marsch have drafted six players: four in 2015 and two in 2016. Of those six players, just one is still under contract with RBNY heading into 2017: Justin Bilyeu, the 18th overall pick of the 2016 SuperDraft. And Bilyeu managed a total of eight appearances and 407 minutes in all competitions for the first team in his rookie year. He looks a worthy prospect, but he will hope to be trusted with more time on the field at the MLS level in 2017.
By contrast, Ryan Meara just re-signed with RBNY. The 26-year-old was the 31st overall pick of the 2012 SuperDraft- drafted by Hans Backe, whose reputation for youth development at RBNY was as bad as that of Curtis and Marsch is good - and worked his way into the Rookie of the Year conversation that season, before injury sent his career on a prolonged detour. And the Red Bulls just lost Chris Duvall to the Expansion Draft: the right back was the 22nd overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft, and gave his head coach, Mike Petke, 1604 minutes in his rookie year, developing into a solid MLS starter in his three years with the team.
Duvall put in more than 3000 minutes for Jesse Marsch in MLS over the past two seasons: more than all six of the Curtis/Marsch RBNY draft picks combined. And Meara captained the NYRB II side to a record-setting, trophy-laden year in USL last season. When it comes to getting help from the draft, Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch have got more from the draftees they inherited than the ones they picked themselves.
The entire crop of 2015 draft picks is has now left RBNY. Two years ago, Marsch and Curtis landed at the SuperDraft with the 18th, 39th, 59th and 79th overall picks. With those, they selected Leo Stolz, Stefano Bonomo, Shawn McLaws, and Manolo Sanchez.
Stolz was the story of the draft. He was the reigning MAC Hermann Trophy winner: the best player in college soccer. But he was also a player MLS teams were wary of selecting, and the tale of Jesse Marsch's work to get the inside track on securing the commitment of the best player nobody else dared touch was one of the highlights of the 2015 preseason. But Stolz made no first team appearances for RBNY and was released at the end of his first year with the team. He has yet to sign with another professional team. In fact, he is currently getting his MBA in Germany.
With hindsight, perhaps the rest of MLS was right and Marsch and Curtis were wrong: Stolz's apparent ambivalence toward MLS (he skipped the Combine and turned down a Generation Adidas contract the year before he graduated college) and unsuccessful trials with European clubs were red flags. The Red Bulls took a gamble few MLS teams knew was an option (it was unclear whether he would agree to sign for any team that drafted him) and it did not pay off.
RBNY's second pick in 2015, the 39th overall, was Stefano Bonomo - who promptly fled the country on a frantic tour of lower-league European clubs. He did eventually return to sign a contract with NYRB II and contribute to the team's 2015 and 2016 campaigns. But he was released at the end of last season.
At least Bonomo got the better part of two seasons with the II team. The Red Bulls' third and fourth round picks of 2015 - Shawn McLaws and Manolo Sanchez - were both let go before the start of their second year with the team. They remain in the professional game, in USL: full back McLaws parlayed a steady year with NYRB II in 2015 into a starting role for Harrisburg City Islanders; Sanchez signed with San Antonio FC, where he has found it a little more difficult to get time on the field than he did for NYRB II.
In 2016, the Red Bulls only had two draft picks: a first and second rounder. The first of those - picked 18th overall - was Justin Bilyeu. The second - selected 38th overall - was Zach Carroll.
While Bilyeu hopes to get a more substantial role with RBNY in 2017, Carroll will play for Orlando City B this year. He suffered the indignity of being twice cut by the Red Bulls in one season. Released from his MLS contract in May, Carroll was signed to NYRB II where his performances won him selection to USL's All-League Second Team. But he was released again, and for good, by the Red Bulls at the end of the 2016 season.
It's not an enticing prospect to be drafted by RBNY in the Curtis-Marsch era: join the Red Bulls, where you might get a solid career in USL.
It is true, of course, that the last two seasons have seen the Red Bulls put most of their youth development energy into homegrown players. The Draft is now regarded as a steadily diminishing source of talent for MLS, precisely because teams like RBNY have found they can get better prospects at a younger age under the league's homegrown player rule.
But that doesn't mean there isn't pro-caliber talent in the draft, even as far down the board as RBNY has tended to be in recent years. Hindsight is famously 20/20 and it is a little unfair to compare the way different players fared for different teams who had different needs at different times during the past few seasons. But let's do it anyway.
In 2015, Sporting Kansas City drafted Amadou Dia with the 20th pick - after the Red Bulls picked up Stolz with the 18th. Dia made 22 regular season appearances in his rookie season. Orlando City picked up US youth international defender Conor Donovan with the 22nd pick.
Further down the board, after RBNY had selected Stefano Bonomo with the 39th pick of the 2015 SuperDraft, Seattle Sounders grabbed full back Oniel Fisher with the very next selection. Fisher won a 2014 NPSL Championship with NYRB U-23s (and Sean Davis), and now he has won MLS Cup with Seattle (putting in three appearances during the Sounders' playoff run). In the third round, with the 45th overall pick, Montreal Impact selected Cameron Porter: a forward, like Bonomo, who became the unlikely hero of L'Impact's unlikely CONCACAF Champions League campaign in 2015. Jesse Marsch was one of Porter's college coaches and bigger fans.
It is a little early to apply hindsight to the 2016 draft class, but the first step toward developing talent is to retain it - and the Red Bulls have already released half their 2016 intake (Zach Carroll).
Drafting and player evaluation is an art and not a science. Perhaps it is time for RBNY to change its approach to the draft. Curtis and Marsch have seemed to favor drafting established college players with limited upside. The result has been a string of busts. With (hopefully, since it will mean the team remains one of the better ones in MLS) low draft picks, maybe the strategy ought to be more along the lines of that guiding the selection of homegrown players like Derrick Etienne and Tyler Adams: pick players who might need a little more time to develop, but who have time on their side and who have shown significant potential. Etienne and Adams need time because they are younger than players tend to be in the SuperDraft. But their Draft Day equivalents are out there, and maybe it is time RBNY stopped trying to play it safe and looked for higher risk, higher reward candidates.
With one of the best academy systems in the country, the Red Bulls don't need to hit a home run every year in the draft. But it would be nice to see them try to hit home runs. Swing for the fences, RBNY. Go brave in the SuperDraft. There is nothing to lose: your returns from it can't get much worse.