It is not every year that you get to talk about the potential for two NCAA players with Canadian connections going in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft. That might be the case in 2013 though as Kyle Bekker and Ashton Bennett are heading into the draft with every chance of going in the first 19 selections.
Bekker, an Oakville, Ontario native, is a four year senior midfielder with Boston College who has all the tools to make an impact at the MLS level. He is a creative midfielder with a bag full of tricks, an eye for goal, and the ability to create for his team-mates. The one draw back for Bekker has been the fact that his senior season was greatly hampered and he was not able to truly showcase all that he has to offer. He managed to make 17 appearances for the Eagles scoring just 1 goal and added 4 assists despite leading the team in shots and shots on target. It was rare in 2012 that Bekker was at his best and able to show the skills that made him a top prospect heading into his senior year. Scouts will now have to take a look back at his first three years with BC during which he notched 16 goals and 18 assists including a junior year with 8 goals and 7 assists. That year was good enough to see him earn All-ACC honours and a lot of attention from scouts as a top prospect for the 2013 draft class. As a senior his numbers may have been limited but he did still do enough to earn Team of the Year honours from Top Drawer Soccer, being named to their third team.
Bekker built on his junior season this spring when he suited up for Canada in Olympic Qualifying. It was interesting to see Bekker placed into a completely different role for the U23 side than his typical free roaming attacking role with Boston College. For Canada, he was asked to play in a much more defensive role and act as a holding player rather than an attacking play maker. He ended up making 3 starts in the role including the win over the United States and the semi-final against Mexico. In every game that he was involved in Bekker acquitted himself quite well and proved that he could not just handle the added defensive responsibility but also the faster pace and higher quality of play that came with the Olympic qualifiers.
Bekker will head to the combine with a few questions about his fitness but if he is able to showcase his creative skills and remind scouts and coaches just how well he can hit a set piece, it should be enough to remind them why his stock was so high at the start of the 2012 college season. His injuries in 2012 may see him slipping into the second round or later but if he is focused on playing in MLS rather than heading to Europe he should be able to find a home. It will be interesting to see where he ends up playing if he does come to MLS as he does have the pace and skill to play out wide if needed and proved with Canada that he can also play in a deeper role if asked. In a draft year that has lots of attacking midfield talent Bekker has all the skills needed to be one of the top performers in the group.
Bekker comes into the draft with a bit of a Toronto FC connection as well. He has trained with the team in the past during his college off season and though he was never a part of the club's academy he is certainly a known commodity to many around BMO Field.
Ashton Bennett, is a bit of a different case. He was born in Clarendon, Jamaica but he has Canadian Residency Status which could potentially allow him to avoid taking up an international roster spot on a Canadian MLS team. He is also one of the top forwards heading into the 2013 SuperDraft. If you are looking for a whole lot of speed from an attacker than you could find that in the Coastal Carolina senior. His game is far from being as well-rounded and polished as you might like it to be at this stage, but he makes up for that with his pace and physical ability. In his two seasons with Coastal Carolina he tallied 39 goals and 16 assists in just 47 appearances. The numbers were so eye catching that he was a semi-finalist for the MAC Hermann trophy in both 2011 and 2012 along with earning a pair of NSCAA All-American first team awards.
It is an impressive resume for a player who spent his first two years playing for Cincinnati State Technical College. He scored 35 goals and added 22 assists in his time with that program making his four year totals all the more impressive. He did a lot of his best work against weaker opposition in junior college and Big South but he did manage to net a couple of goals against big name opposition in his time at Coastal including scoring his sides only goal in a 5-1 defeat that saw them knocked out of the NCAA tournament in this year's third round against Maryland.
What will certainly make Bennett an appealing prospect at the next level is that he is well equipped to follow in a long line of pacey Jamaican attackers who have made a name for themselves in MLS. Scouts are not nearly as high on Bennett as they were about Darren Mattocks a year ago but despite being a bit smaller (only 5-9) he possesses a lot of the same skills that made Mattocks a success in his rookie season with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Bennett is pretty much a lock to go in the first round of this years draft as teams are always looking to add pace and goal scoring ability to their attacks. He certainly brings both of those things and the question will be just how high he ends up going. Some think he could press for a spot in the top 5 picks of the draft and could even be a potential option for Toronto FC if they are looking for a fast striker to team up with the powerful options they already have in Danny Koevermans, Eric Hassli, and Justin Braun.
There are two other Canadians that will be in the combine but both are likely to end up being Supplemental Draft picks as they are much lower rated than either Bekker or Bennett. Those two are Kofi Opare and Emery Welshman who are both coming off fairly impressive four year careers at Michigan and Oregon State respectively.
Kofi Opare has made a name for himself in the Big Ten as a physical defender. The Niagara Falls, Ontario native finished with career with the Wolverines fifth all-time in minutes played (6,411) along with being an all-time leader in appearances (76) and starts (71). He also recorded six goals and two assists during his four years including netting a pair of game winner.
His stats or awards don't really jump off the page and make him stand out as a top defensive prospect but he is a solid defender who might just have something to offer at the next level if given the chance to ease into a solid defensive situation. He has the size (6-2, 190) to at least get some attention from a team that is looking for a bigger defender and the fact that he was a fixture for Michigan should also earn him some attention.
Michigan is certainly not among the powerhouses in men's college soccer having last sent a player to the combine in 2011 when they were represented by Justin Meram and he is just the 8th Michigan player invited to the combine. That said, any time a player managed to be a four year fixture and barely miss any time for a long standing program like the Wolverines it is worth paying some attention to.
Opare also has his citizenship going for him as he is a dual citizen and would not require an international slot for any MLS club. He was born in Niagara Falls but is also an American citizen having played for their national program at the under 20 level. He has fallen off a bit since being included in the U20 team and is certainly not on course to be a full US international anytime soon but he could be a nice pick up for a team looking for a bit of defensive help in the Supplemental Draft.
The last player on the initial combine roster with Canadian ties is Emery Welshman. The Mississauga, Ontario native has taken an interesting road through NCAA soccer as he started his career with Siena College totaling 19 goals and 6 assists in his two seasons at the school. He was also named Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 2009 and MAAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2010.
He used his success with Siena to transfer to Oregon State where he immediately made an impact earning All-Pac 12 First Team honours as a junior. That award came on the back of a season that saw him score 3 goals and added 7 assists. His senior year was even better as he became the first Beaver since Robbie Findley to earn back-to-back All-Pac 12 selections for a year that saw him tally 10 goals and add four assists.
His biggest plus is that he has a deceptive speed and often finds himself getting in behind of the defenders in dangerous positions. He does not have the size (5-11, 180) to be used as a big powerful forward but he has the pace and the intelligence to make the runs off the ball that allow him to score goals. He also proved that he is capable of turning into a provider when needed as he totaled 17 assists in his four college seasons.
Welshman is a player who has enough to offer that some MLS team will certainly give him a chance and if he has a good combine he could push his stock up similar to what Babayele Sodade did in 2012 making him the 34th overall selection by the Seattle Sounders. Welshman is sitting in a similar kind of range right now that could see him maybe sneak into the back end of the SuperDraft but more likely go in the Supplemental rounds. It will be interesting to see if he ends up attracting interest from American clubs though or if his Canadian citizenship will make them shy away.
The 2012 draft was lacking in any real Canadian talent but it is already looking like 2013 will be a bit better for players with Canadian connections. Bennett and Opare have both been part of the national programs for other countries but they do still have connections to Canada while Bekker and Welshman are both Canadian born and raised with hopes of one day playing for the Canadian national team. It is quite likely that before the Supplemental Draft wraps up this January all four of these players will have homes on MLS clubs but first they will be looking to turn in impressive combines to help elevate their stock that last little bit.