From their campaign to sign Danny Mwanga to their late pick-up of U-20 goalkeeper Brian Perk, MLS’s newest club, the Philadelphia Union, had a banner day at the MLS SuperDraft. And their fans let them know it.
There are several teams that undoubtedly had good drafts. New York got two players in the first round, Tony Tchani and Austin da Luz, who could easily be in the first eleven come opening day. San Jose snagged two defenders, Ike Opara and Justin Morrow, to bolster a questionable backline. And the Chicago Fire, despite having just hired a coach who was still grasping the entire concept of a draft, picked up several players who fell farther than expected, Wake Forest’s Corben Bone, taken at #13 overall, and Maryland midfielder Drew Yates, still available late in the second round.
But the undeniable winner on the day was Philadelphia.
First of all, before the Union were on the clock for the first pick, their fans turned the Grand Ballroom into an echo chamber of brotherly love. They filled half the room, made Sixers center Sam Dalembert feel like one of them, politely applauded the D.C. United fans for their efforts on the day—and for United’s decision to trade Philly the #7 overall pick—and serenaded every Union pick.
They had every reason to be pleased with those picks. Coach Peter Nowak had four of the first 17 picks, and he made each one of them count. From the look of things, the Union are shaping up to attack lustily—and not just in season one, but for years to come.
It starts with Danny Mwanga, of course. By now, everyone knows the story of how Nowak flew out west and convinced the Congolese-born striker from Oregon State to forgo Europe and sign with MLS. Big, fast, and a suave finisher, he is, if some of the press is to be believed, as polished and pro-ready as it gets. I’m withholding some judgment, just because it’s hard to imagine anyone matching this hype. But I’m sure the league will feel his impact. Big time.
Mwanga is the just first enrollee in what I am coming to think of as Philly’s finishing school. Nowak, the former D.C. United and U.S. Olympic team coach, has a way with young players—breaking them in slowly but forcefully, showing them the right way to do things as a professional, and most important getting production out of them. Freddy Adu, Robbie Rogers, Sacha Kljestan—Nowak has made them all better. (Aside: What if Adu rejoined Nowak in Philly? Win-win?)
Philly’s youth movement continued on draft day with 18-year-old UCLA midfielder Amobi Okugo, taken with the #6 overall pick acquired through a morning trade with FC Dallas in exchange for allocation money, followed by the most inspired draft pick of the day: Jack McInerney at #7.
Some will wonder about using such a high slot on a slight, 5’8” 17-year-old striker who admits he struggled against the big, bruising defenders at the combine earlier in the week. Not me. This kid is a prodigy. Space and movement are imprinted on his DNA, like the great chess players. Once the U-17 international fills out some, improves his finishing technique, and acclimatizes to the adult world of professional soccer, he has the potential to be one of the most devastating assassins the U.S. has ever produced.
Yes, this is over-the-top bombastic hype, but McInerney already excites with the unteachable things he does instinctively, things I’m sure Nowak is salivating about. McInerney moves off the ball to find space before it opens up. He times his runs to make the pass easy for his teammates. He presents himself to collect a pass with an understanding of the situation, and shields the ball like an Argentine. And perhaps most promising, he’s seemingly at ease standing at a podium in front of a thousand strangers. Simply put, he’s a natural.
Obviously this doesn’t mean the shaggy-haired teenager from Alpharetta, Georgia, is going to lead the U.S. to the World Cup someday. A lot of things could go wrong. But he has the potential to be a world-class striker. No doubt. Just not next year. Or the one after that. He needs time. And Philly’s perception of time is what I like most about the club’s draft-day haul: They took the long view. Remember, this is an expansion team. Nowak and Co. are under tremendous pressure to be at least competitive right from the opening kick in order to fill seats and sell season tickets.
But despite this pressure, the Philly braintrust is thinking about the future and undertaking development projects like McInerney. It’s a decidedly European way of thinking, namely, that a club is forever, even if it is brand new. This should be applauded.
Greg Lalas is the features editor of Goal.com.
For more on Major League Soccer, visit Goal.com's MLS page!