The 2024 MLS SuperDraft will be held on Tuesday, December 19 at 3 pm ET.
Toronto FC has four picks over the three rounds of the draft: their three natural picks – first overall, 30th in the second round, and 59th in the third round – as well as the one acquired from Austin FC last week in a Re-Entry Draft related trade – 85th overall, also in the third round.
What to do with that first pick was the primary topic of discussion when TFC General Manager Jason Hernandez spoke to the media via conference call last Thursday.
“We've put a lot of time, energy, and resources pinning that down,” he said.
“We've done a really comprehensive assessment of the opportunity, the prospects out there, and who would be the best fit, the best addition to our club.”
“We're going to utilize the first pick and it'll be someone that's going to help us, not only now, but for years to come,” Hernandez continued. “As we all know, the way that draft day works things can get a little bit complicated at the 25th hour where other clubs may value that position and are willing to give X. If that were to come across our table, we certainly would have to evaluate everything on its merits in real-time, but at the moment we intend to use it.”
With the changing landscape of North American soccer, the draft is no longer the same resource it once was – Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Justin Morrow, Hernandez himself, all emerged from the college game – but it is not to be discounted.
“There's value, just a different expectation considering the pool of players that's afforded to us now versus a ‘lifetime’ ago when I was running around in college,” replied Hernandez, asked about that evolution. “The days in which you can get full international level players out of the college draft are fewer and further between.”
“To see guys like Taylor Twellman, Clint Dempsey, Sacha Kljestan, Michael Parkhurst, guys who end up in and around the national team, guys who end up in and around best XIs, guys who then have international opportunities, those seem to be the outliers more so now than in the past where that was almost a guarantee that there was going to be someone coming out of the top five that was really impactful on an MLS club,” he continued. “Those opportunities exist, but are fewer and farther between.”
To adjust MLS has altered the parameters of the draft by opening up selection to collegiate sophomores, juniors and above, previously only seniors and above, as well as Generation adidas signings, were eligible.
“The idea that now there's a larger pool to select from opens your eyes as to what the different possibilities are when you extend to the underclassmen,” explained Hernandez.
“That is both a positive and a negative: it's a positive in that you get eyes on prospects earlier on in their development; the negative is that they’re way earlier on, so you are now in an exercise to project potential.”
Hernandez summed up that new balance with a hypothetical: “There's a senior that you feel really good about, but his ceiling is at an 8.5 out of 10 or you're looking at a younger player who has some tools and some skills that you think [could be] a 9.5 should the development go right.”
“A little bit of the risk assessment and the cost/benefit as far as what you do with the pick,” he continued. “That's the challenge that all MLS clubs are facing now considering that this is the first time the draft is structured in this way, but it's very exciting to be able to get eyes on more players in the college scene.”
Unlike past years where drafts have been particularly strong at one position, the TFC GM sees this year’s class as being relatively even.
“I don't see a trend in this draft class, that there's a bunch of strikers that you need to get your hands on or a bunch of centre-backs,” he said. “It feels as though the talent is spread pretty evenly across the defense, the midfield, and the striker position.”
Draft day is unique to North America in the soccer world. It is a special day for every player selected, something Hernandez himself got to experience, twice.
“As a senior in college, I was not a highly-touted draft pick,” he began. “I had one special day against a special player, got two MLS clubs to take notice, invite me to some mini-camps, showcases, to train and both communicated that they would select me in the supplemental draft.”
Hernandez was selected sixth in the first round of the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft out of Seton Hall University, 54th overall if the SuperDraft and Supplemental were combined.
“It just so had it that my local club, the MetroStars, had the pick prior to the other club, New England. I remember waking up in the morning and getting a phone call telling me that you've been drafted, which was great because social media didn't exist then and it was to my local club,” he recounted. “It was an incredible feeling.”
“Fast forward one year, in the same place, the same house, [and I’m] getting a phone call from Sasha Kljestan that says, ‘Hey man, I just got drafted to Chivas USA and they told me that part of the package was to trade for you, so me and you are going to LA,’” Hernandez recalled. “He lived on the third floor of the house and I lived on the second floor, but he was at the draft getting drafted. So I was like, ‘Alright man, I'll wait for you to get back and we'll fly to LA.’ Those are the two back-to-back draft days: my own draft day and then my college teammate/professional teammate’s draft day that I was a part of.”
That special player he shutdown?
“It was one of the best freshmen in the country, Charlie Davies,” Hernandez added.
Every year there is somebody selected later in the draft who down the road goes on to have an excellent career. In MLS rarely is a club selecting a finished product.
In the 2023 MLS SuperDraft TFC picked Western Michigan University forward Charlie Sharp in the third round (61st overall) to little fanfare.
Sharp returned to school this year, scored 19 goals and registered eight assists; he is a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, awarded to the top NCAA soccer player – the winner will be announced on January 5, 2024.
“Charlie was someone that we identified early last year. We were able to select him and still retain his rights from an MLS perspective,” said Hernandez. “We've had conversations with Charlie. He had some time where he got to see us and experience us this year, train a little bit, so he knows very well what we're about and the project we have moving forward.”
“We're going to continue to have conversations over this next stretch,” he continued. “See how it unfolds for him here TFC.”
The SuperDraft is one of the many items on the agenda during the MLS off-season. The trade window and free agency opened last week, End-of-Year waivers and Stage 1 of Re-Entry have come and gone, but the action is just heating up.
Toronto are expected to be very active over the winter. Preseason will begin mid-January and Hernandez hopes to have most, if not all, his board set by then.
“We did an analysis of in an off-season, typically, when do signings take place,” he laid out. “Not like I'd be breaking news to you guys here, but the majority, almost 60% of international signings, actually take place after preseason day one. Being able to operate after seasons end or have a break and then to acquire and get everything over the line rarely gets set before our preseason start date.”
“My goal is to get as many things done and have as many people in the spots that they're supposed to be for day one. We know with all the work that we have to do as a club we're not going to get everybody by day one, but that's my goal,” Hernandez underlined.
“I'm optimistic and hopeful that there will be new faces ready to go day one, but what the numbers will tell you is that you're not going to have everybody. That's the work.”
Aside from that one trade with Austin, it’s been quiet. On the surface at least.
“I can promise you it’s been anything but quiet around here,” said Hernandez. “We are very much into the puzzle pieces that are a roster reconstruction and an MLS offseason, dealing with what's to come in and around the trade window, free agency, re-entry, the draft, waivers – MLS agenda items.”
“That's without including the external discussions we're having about players currently on our roster that potentially could be on the move and then conversations being had for players to join us. We are very active in all of those areas,” he closed. “I'm very hopeful that we'll have some news to report, sooner rather than later as we are in some advanced discussions in different areas, but it would be too early to share any details behind that. But yes, a lot is happening.”