The 2011 MLS Draft is fast approaching and now that the MLS season is finally over, teams can begin turning their attentions toward identifying the players who could help them next season.
The 2010 MLS Draft was a major hit, and arguably the deepest in league history, but the upcoming draft could be just as deep. With the quality of college players improving, thanks in part to MLS Academies and U.S. Soccer's player development academy initiatives, MLS teams are finding more and more players worthy of their draft-day attention.
As is the case every year, the Generation adidas draft class should lead the charge in the upcoming draft, and this year could give us the biggest class ever if MLS has its way. While eight to ten are expected to be part of the Generation adidas draft class, that number could wind up increasing depending on the number of high-caliber underclassmen who declare their intentions to leave school.
So who are the best players who could be a part of the 2011 MLS Draft? I have compiled a Top 30 Big Board featuring the top players who will, or could, be available in the draft. SBI will run a weekly Big Board through the end of the year, before unveiling our first SBI MLS Mock Draft at the start of January.
Now, without further ado, here is SBI's first 2011 MLS Draft Big Board:
SBI MLS DRAFT BIG BOARD 1.0 (*-Underclassman)
*DARLINGTON NAGBE, Akron, Forward/Midfielder
Speedy and skillful, some think he can be better than Steve Zakuani and Teal Bunbury.
*ZAC MACMATH, Maryland, Goalkeeper
Top-flight goalkeeper is a U.S. Under-20 starter.
*DILLON POWERS, Notre Dame, Midfielder
Arguably most talented midfielder in the country, a star on the U.S. Under-20 national team.
*PERRY KITCHEN, Akron, Defensive Midfielder
Just a freshman, and not a lock to leave school, Kitchen is regarded by some as Akron's best long-term pro prospect.
*KOFI SARKODIE, Akron, Right Back
Best attacking fullback to come out of college in years. Another U.S. Under-20 player.
*ZAREK VALENTIN, Akron, Right Back/Centerback
Still young, but skillful centerback projects to some as a top-notch right back.
*WILL BRUIN, Indiana, Forward
Strong striker who has been one of the best finishers in college, he's a safe bet to go high.
*DARREN MATTOCKS, Akron, Forward
Akron's leading scorer is just a freshman, and not a lock to come out, but if he does he's a first-rounder.
*DAVID BINGHAM, California, Goalkeeper
There is a growing debate over who is the better pro prospect, Bingham or MacMath.
*COREY HERTZOG, Penn State, Forward
Fast, fearless and a clutch finisher, Hertzog has quietly climbed the charts this fall.
*ETHAN WHITE, Maryland, Defender
If D.C. United doesn't sign him (He's a D.C. Academy Product), White could be a first-round defender.
OMAR SALGADO, Gen Adidas, Forward
A teenage 6-foot-3 target striker with good feet. Still raw, but his potential led MLS to sign him early.
MICHAEL FARFAN, North Carolina, Midfielder
Arguably the most talented senior in this draft, Farfan is a skilled attacking midfielder.
A.J. SOARES, California, Central Defender
Best centerback in the draft, he could be this year's Tim Ream.
*ANDREW WENGER, Duke, Central Defender/Central Midfield
Scouts love his skill, size and versatility, but Wenger seems more likely to stay in school.
*CASEY TOWNSEND, Maryland, Forward
A top-notch prospect two years ago, Townsend had a strong comeback season to earn a place here.
*MATT KASSEL, Maryland, Midfielder
Opinions vary widely on the Red Bull Academy product, who is unlikely to be signed by NY and could enter draft.
ANTHONY AMPAIPITAKWON, Akron, Midfielder
His versatility, quickness and passing touch make him a very attractive prospect.
*MICHAEL TETTEH, UCSB, Left back/Left winger
Scouts drool over the thought of a speedy left back with good attacking qualities, but injuries are a concern.
JASON HERRICK, Maryland, Forward
Best senior forward in the draft is mature, quick and a good finisher.
JALIL ANIBABA, North Carolina, Defender
An athletic centerback who is 6-feet tall, but still dominates in the air.
*BRIAN OWNBY, Virginia, Forward
If not for injury concerns, this blazing fast striker would be near the top of the board. Still could be surprise GA inclusion.
COLE GROSSMAN, Duke, Midfielder
Overshadowed by Wenger and Duke forward Ryan Finley, but Grossman has won over his share of scouts.
JEFF ATTINELLA, South Florida, Goalkeeper
*LUIS SILVA, UCSB, Midfielder
Good two-way midfielder with goal-scoring ability, considered a long-shot to score Generation adidas deal.
*MICHAEL NANCHOFF, Akron, Left winger
A quality left midfielder who has enjoyed a strong season at Akron, Nanchoff is a GA long-shot.
STEVEN MCCARTHY, North Carolina, Midfielder
A 6-foot-4 central midfielder who scouts have had eye on since his days at Santa Clara.
SPENCER THOMPSON, UC-Irvine, Forward
Speedy forward who could be a second-round steal.
DANIEL KEAT, Dartmouth, Midfielder
A polished soccer player with skill and work rate to be effective two-way player.
JUSTIN MERAM, Michigan, Forward
Turned heads at Big Ten Tournament with his finishing ability. Former Michigan football kicker has size, speed and shot to be a good pro.
Some things to note:
Ethan White (D.C. United) and Matt Kassel (NY Red Bulls) are MLS academy products and could be signed by their developing clubs to Homegrown Player contracts. If White comes out, D.C. would be hard-pressed to pass on a player as highly-rated as White. As for Kassel, New York is believed to not be interested in signing him, which means he could enter the draft if he decides to come out, and if MLS deems him worthy of one of its Generation adidas contracts.
Perry Kitchen, Darren Mattocks and Andrew Wenger are all believed to be closer to returning to school than to turning pro, but all three are very highly-rated and just might end up signing. The situation at Akron is very interesting because if the Zips win the NCAA title we could see a mass exodus. If Kitchen and Mattocks come out, they'll both be top-half first round picks.
It should be noted that, while we have 18 underclassmen listed, only seven to nine are likely to be added to a Generation adidas class that already includes Omar Salgado. We could see that number stretched by one or two, but any more seems unlikely. If Akron wins the NCAA title and sparks an exodus, and if White and Kassel declare but aren't signed by their MLS teams, the league and adidas will have a tough time keeping the Generation adidas class to only 10 players.
Regardless of the size of the Generation adidas class, it is widely believed that Nagbe, Sarkodie, Bruin and MacMath are all but locks. Powers and Valentin are locks assuming they leave school (which some believe isn't automatic yet). If those six are essentially locks, that leaves just three more spots for a host of quality prospects. As we said, it won't be easy picking the Generation adidas class.
Last year, the goalkeeping pool in the draft was widely regarded as week. This year, the opposite is true. Bingham and MacMath are both highly-regarded and there is a belief that Vancouver could be tempted to grab the best of the two with the first pick in the draft. Today's MLS Expansion Draft should go a long way toward telling us how likely that is (The Whitecaps could select Joe Cannon, which would make drafting a goalkeeper in the first round unlikely). Either way, Bingham, MacMath and Jeff Attinella come into this year's draft as first-round values, though Attinella is likely to slip to the second round.
That's all for now. We will adjust the Big Board from week to week as the NCAA Tournament goes on and scouts change their opinions on players. We'll