Trading up for another goalkeeper at No. 1 hardly a game-changer

Posted: January 17, 2014

OK, SO THIS wasn't on the same level of WIP's drunk-filled "Dirty Thirty" having traveled to New York City in 1999 to razz the Eagles' selection of quarterback Donovan McNabb.

The Sons of Ben, the Union's ardent support group, did not fill the Pennsylvania Convention Center with boos yesterday when the hometown team selected University of Connecticut goalkeeper Andre Blake with the No. 1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, but the reception was modest, at best.

By all analysis, Blake, a 23-year-old Jamaican, has been called the player most ready to step in and play in MLS, but the Union already has a 22-year-old keeper in Zac MacMath, who was selected fifth overall in 2011 and has started 66 games the last two seasons.

Taking the best available player is rarely a bad strategy, but while it is hard to argue with the Union's logic and, quite frankly, its aggressiveness in making a trade with D.C. United to swap the No. 2 overall pick and allocation money for the first overall pick, the move highlights how poorly management has evaluated its previous four drafts.

You don't do what the Union did if you are happy with the status quo, so evidently the organization has given up on MacMath. If that is the case, then the Union has now flubbed its first pick in all four drafts.

The first-ever pick, forward Danny Mwanga, who went first overall in 2010, was traded to the Portland Timbers after appearing in 61 games and scoring 12 goals.

I can't imagine MacMath is thrilled by yesterday's events, so don't be surprised if he pushes to be traded.

UCLA forward Chandler Hoffmann was picked 13th overall in 2012, but made only seven appearances for the Union before being traded to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

The Union traded the 12th overall pick in 2013.

The Union could keep both Blake and MacMath, but can a team that will be under a lot of pressure to make the playoffs afford to have two top-five picks at a position that only one can play?

Any one of the next three picks after Blake - University of California defenders Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United) and Christian Dean (Vancouver), and Council Rock North and Georgetown midfielder Steve Neumann (New England) - would have been a useful addition, had the Union simply stayed at No. 2.

Now, manager John Hackworth has an interesting dilemma going into training camp.

The only thing that would be worse than keeping MacMath as a dead asset would be if he actually beats out Blake for the starting job. Then you'd have a guy you clearly don't want outplaying the guy for whom you traded up to No. 1.

Two quality goalies wouldn't be an issue if there was an age difference, so that one plays now while the other is groomed for the future.

That's not what you have in this situation. Not only is MacMath a year younger than Blake, but he also has 3 years of MLS experience. If he were viewed as part of the future, the trade up for Blake would not have been necessary.

Considering what the Union did, Blake must be an upgrade over MacMath this instant - not a year or 2 down the road.

"Blake is clearly a guy that has a very bright future," Hackworth said, adding that MacMath is the starter for now. "He had an excellent career at UConn, but is also a Jamaican international already.

"He needs a little bit of time, but we have instantly given ourselves a guy who we feel that, if something happens to Zac, can step in and be incredibly valuable to our team and also our future."

Part of that explanation is straight horse hockey. You don't trade up from No. 2 to No. 1 to draft a backup goalkeeper. If that's the prevailing logic, it shows why the Union has been scattershot with its first picks.

The Union then really took the fun out of yesterday's draft by dropping from sixth to 10th and finally to 15th. The Union finally picked Coastal Carolina midfielder Pedro Ribeiro. It's good that he's from Brazil, but how good could a 23-year-old Brazilian who played at a small U.S. college be?

Meanwhile, in the second round, the Union took a pair of defenders, Michigan State's Kevin Cope and Akron's Robbie Derschang.

What the Union has done is raise expectations that immediate improvement will come through transfers, signings or a big-ticket trade.

On Wednesday, it inked 26-year-old Argentine junior midfielder Christian Maidana as a designated player.

Speculation is that the movement in the draft to acquire allocation money is connected to the effort to sign 27-year-old U.S. defensive midfielder Maurice Edu, a member of the 2010 World Cup team who can't break the lineup for Stoke City, of the English Premier League.

Reports are that the Union is prepared to make Edu the club's first million-dollar player, but MLS headquarters, which would have to approve the salary, reportedly is fearful that such a contract would set a precedent. Fewer than 15 MLS players make a million dollars or more.

The fear is that a million-dollar contract for Edu would become the starting point for good but not marquee players to come to MLS.

"I can tell you we're all working really hard at it," Hackworth told ESPN of the effort to acquire Edu. "I'm an optimist, so I think something very good is going to come out of this.

"I know the league, ourselves, and [Edu's representatives], we're all doing what we can to make this work."

MLS' putting a kibosh on an Edu deal won't take the heat off the Union. The expectation is that, in whatever way necessary, this franchise will add to the talent base so that it can make the playoffs in 2014 and soon challenge for the MLS Cup.

The Union might have gotten the best player in the 2014 SuperDraft, but, in itself, I'm not sure the acquisition did much to move the franchise closer to those goals.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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