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Toronto FC pass on Canadian prospects in MLS Draft

The Reds did not show any interest at all in adding to their group of young players born north of the border.

MLS: MLS SuperDraft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC had a couple of notable opportunities to add an extra sprinkling of Canadian talent to their ranks via this year’s MLS SuperDraft.

Kwame Awuah and Brian Wright were both off the board by the time the Reds made their first pick, but the two Generation Adidas Canada players - Shamit Shome and Adonijah Reid - were still on it as they considered their two consecutive picks in the second round. Neither were tempting enough to dissuade Toronto from accepting the $75,000 in allocation money the Chicago Fire offered to take both selections off their hands.

On Tuesday, Chris Nanco - tipped to go in the second round or even late in the first after a strong combine - was available when Toronto made the first of their two third-round picks. Instead, they grabbed Germany-born goalkeeper Robert Moewes.

What was the lack of interest down to?

Positional need

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Once you’re out of the first round, the idea of ‘best player available’ goes out of the window a little bit in MLS. Pretty much everyone from the second round onwards has a high degree of uncertainty attached to them in terms of carving out a professional career.

For that reason, figuring out where and how each player fits on your depth chart is vital to their development; one lost year without enough competitive games and a college graduate can be as old as 24 or 25 with little prospect of an MLS call-up on the horizon. Toronto FC II, where the latest crop of picks are likely to land, conceded the most goals in the USL’s Eastern Conference last season and only two defenders who played a major part in the 2016 campaign, Anthony Osorio and Mitchell Taintor, have been brought back thus far.

Moewes, for example, could have the chance to start immediately with Quillan Roberts still unsigned and Alex Bono now a permanent part of the first-team squad. Phil Di Bennardo, a 19-year-old from the academy who played seven games for TFC II last season, currently looks to be his main competition.

In front of the goalkeeper, Skylar Thomas and Wesley Charpie were both released despite seeing significant playing time last season and Clement Simonin’s future is undecided. Brandon Aubrey, TFC’s first-round pick, is likely to be down with the reserve club to begin with and later selections Oyvind Alseth, Lars Eckenrode and Juan Pablo Saavedra should also get the chance to play.

That may not have been the case in midfield and up front, where TFC II’s options are much more plentiful. In the club’s view, someone like Shamit Shome would either have blocked the pathway of existing players they like and want to bring on or would have been rooted to the bench himself.

Focus on the academy

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto did not pass on any picks in the latter rounds like some clubs, but almost certainly would have been open to trading them had any offers been on the table. Their deal in the second round backs up the feeling that the Reds like adding a first-round prospect each year but do not really see the draft as the primary means by which they can bring through young players.

That makes sense. This is not the NHL or NBA; TFC are able to operate their own academy and attach themselves to young players before they become college or draft-eligible, and the most talented Canadian kids are far more likely to develop into elite-level players if they are given a professional-standard education from their formative years. Those players also need a route into the senior teams to be open, not blocked by drafted players who are two or three years ahead of them in their development but may not have higher upside.

The importance Toronto place on that pro environment was evident in the picks they did make in the later rounds. Alseth and Saavedra have both played for the youth sides of professional clubs (in Norway and Bolivia respectively) and Eckenrode has travelled to Germany to train with Bundesliga teams. The hope will be that they find the transition out of college easier both on and off the pitch.

Draft strategy

MLS: MLS SuperDraft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That last point does not just apply to Canadians, but Americans coming out of college with an amateur background as well. The vast majority of second, third and fourth-round players will not play in MLS for any significant length of time, so it is about looking for points of difference and reasons to believe a player possesses something the rest of the world has missed.

In that respect I’m still a little surprised Toronto didn’t seem to have much interest in Adonijah Reid - perhaps it was just a momentary mental blank, but Greg Vanney had to be reminded of his name in one interview - because he is so much younger than most draft-eligible players. The fact that it was a very good developmental organization in FC Dallas that eventually picked him up is also noteworthy.

What is clear, though, is that nationality does not really play any part in their thinking. It’s hard to enough to find serviceable players from the latter rounds - and even the first round, outside the top 10 - without further restricting yourself or adopting a bias towards a certain group of individuals. The draft is now about clutching at potential MLS talent in whatever shape or form it comes in; it is not a place to build foundational prospect depth or a spine of homegrown players.