The MLS SuperDraft happens Friday, January 11. At one point, MLS teams could count on acquiring frontline talent that could realistically start on Opening Day. With the rise of the academy system, and with more and more youth players eschewing college soccer to turn pro — either in Europe or elsewhere — the SuperDraft isn’t what it once was.
With New York City FC, there’s added complexity. The Pigeons have shied away from doing what other MLS teams do, because they have both the benefit and burden of being part of a larger global enterprise. Unlike the rival Red Bulls, New York City hasn’t really established a reserve system. They’ve chosen instead to rely on scouting, and at the beginning, on Manchester City’s academy, though not since.
We can probably toss out the word “yet” at this point, too. This is a theme that I’ll be coming back to throughout the year, but it’s time to stop grading the Pigeons on the expansion curve. New York City FC was established on 2013; the 2019 season will be its seventh season of existence, and its fifth on the field of play.
As much as people would like for there to be a NYCFC II squad, there seems to be no sign of one. They don’t seem likely to set one up anytime soon. We can get into the reasons why, but that’s another discussion, with lots of elements not particularly germane here. While they’ve had affiliation agreements with various USL teams, NYCFC haven’t really maximized those relationships. It’s hard to find fault here; there’s only so much you can do there when your affiliate is in San Antonio, nearly 1,800 miles away.
But that means that youth players don’t have the chances to maximize their playing potential. By my lights, the best thing a youth player can get is regular playing time. Others can, and will, disagree; they will advance the notion that players can benefit from being around veterans at practice and on the bench.
My response to that is that I learned how to play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor not by listening to Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin and Josef Suk, but actually practicing and learning how to play it myself, and finally performing it in public, accompanied by an orchestra.
Yes, you can learn how to play music by ear. Lots of people do, and lots of people can play guitar or piano well enough that way. But if you’re going to earn a living doing that, playing by ear will only take you so far. You’ll need to read music, and musical technique, and all the other things that playing by ear simply won’t teach you.
I could say the same thing about rugby, or marksmanship, or any number of things that I’ve learned to do in my life.
You have to play your kids, as the saying goes. Historically, New York City don’t really do that, and they especially don’t do that with folks they draft. Let’s look at the evidence on hand. These are the players drafted by the Pigeons since joining MLS:
Khiry Shelton, Connor Brandt, Andre Rawls, Markus Naglestad, Jonathan Lewis, Jalen Brown, Chris Wingate, Jeff Caldwell, A.J. Paterson, Alex Bumpus.
Yes, you’re reading that right.
But what about Jack Harrison? New York City didn’t draft him; Chicago did, and the Pigeons traded for him. Of the players that they’ve actually drafted, only Shelton and Lewis have seen real action. As the team improved under Patrick Vieira, particularly later in 2016 and into 2017, Shelton’s minutes vanished, and he was eventually traded to Kansas City. He’s now with SC Paderborn in Germany’s 2.Liga.
Of the rest, none made an impact of any kind. You’d have to be a real American soccer anorak to even recall some of those names (though now that I’ve noted them, you’re welcome to get them as hipster player name choices, if you’d like). Rawls and, now, Caldwell are the locked-down third string keepers.
The one that stands out is Jonathan Lewis, and not for good reasons. New York City traded a quarter of a million dollars in allocation money to Chicago to acquire him with the Fire’s third pick in the 2017 draft. That’s real money, as people might say! Lewis, in every appearance he’s made for New York City, has played decently, at worst, and sparklingly, at best. You’d think that, given the amount of money they gave up and how he’s played, that he’d be a regular player.
Reader: you’d be wrong. For whatever reasons there may be, he has hardly played. We’ll explore that in another piece, but his lack of playing time vexes fans and observers alike.
I write all this, at such great length, to tell you that, no matter whom New York City pick on Friday with the 19th and 43rd picks in the draft, it’s extremely likely that it won’t matter. Those players probably won’t feature for New York City, except at the margins, if at all. That’s the way this team, this front office, has designed things. There will be players linked to them; I’m sure they’re scouting some. In a moment, I’ll let you know whom I would pick, were I to be the man making that choice. But I cannot be less than honest with you as readers, and tell you that it will matter.
Anyway, I digress. If I were New York City’s general manager, and if this player were available, I would select Santiago Patiño, a forward from Florida International University.
(cue highlight video, complete with non-descript technopop backing music, meant to show the player as the equal of Messinaldo. Stay with me, here.)
Patiño is 6-1, 195 pounds. He’s played in PDL for the Sounders U-23 team, and impressed with them. He’s a focal, back-to-goal striker who can serve as a “plan B” sort of forward. Ostensibly, they have that player already with Jo Inge Berget, but let’s be serious: he ain’t it, chief, especially at his wage point. In their five years on the field, New York City have never had a back-to-goal striker who’s been able to deliver — from Adam Nemec and Kwadwo Poku to Stiven Mendoza and Sean Ugo Okoli to, now, Berget — it’s a perplexing list of players.
Could Patiño be that guy? Maybe! The point is that he wouldn’t be expensive, and given both his NCAA and PDL experience, you already have an idea of what kind of guy he is. In four years at FIU, scored 51 goals in 69 games (nice!). This past season, he finished third on the CUSA scoring charts with 12 goals, and second in goals-per-game with an 0.75 average. He wrapped the season 11th in the nation in goals-per-game and 15th in total goals. Yes, it’s college soccer, but still: those are real numbers. And he’s a big guy at a position where the Pigeons have had size, but not scoring prowess.
So, if Patiño is available at 19, and I’m the GM, he’s my choice. He’s a player whom I think can contribute right away, and even if you don’t start him, he’s someone who’s capable of coming off the bench and playing quality minutes. In a season that will be compressed more than ever, featuring lots of quick turnarounds, that’s actually a valuable thing.
Let’s see what happens on Friday.
Either way, this will be a pivotal season for New York City FC. Pigeons fans deserve a marquee team that goes toe to toe with Atlanta and the LA teams. I am going to make my critiques of this team with that in mind, and I always will.