PHILADELPHIA -- Why does soccer need a draft? Seriously. It's a concept that still befuddles my English mind. Maybe it's just that I'm so used to the way things should be done in modern soccer; you know, players get plucked and poached from small-market academies to sit in better-paid purgatory in the Premier League or get loaned all across Europe. The proper way!
Even as Major League Soccer's rule refinements and myriad tweaks have devalued and de-emphasized the draft from what it could be, there was much to appreciate on Thursday.
MLS has always thrived best when embracing crossover, American sporting quirks and 2014's annual player-picking pageant certainly didn't lack for glitz or polish. Slick production, effortless transitions and all the details covered. Top players were selected, GMs appeared pleased, managers expressed cautious optimism about their rookies and blue-chip prospects held up scarves, posed for the cameras and nervously answered waves of questions while contemplating what comes next.
Though few in the crowded Convention Center ballroom appeared overly enthralled by the actual process of picking -- several clubs traded up, traded down and took time-outs amid the reasonably smooth (and televised) opening two rounds -- there was a buzz that couldn't be ignored.
It was two-fold; first, the large swathes of fans herded in to cheer on their teams. Philadelphia Union's Sons of Ben dominated given their home turf. Prior to the No. 1 overall pick, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz urged the crowd to "how the world how great of a soccer city we are” and that demand was met in full. Especially when the New York Red Bulls groups turned up, waylaid by typical city traffic, clutching a well-worn travel case containing the Supporters Shield that made several laps of the RBNY section. It didn't go down well.
Local police looked on, amused and bemused. One smirked that he'd never seen anything like this. At least he wasn't working an Eagles game.
Then, with the sixth-overall pick came arguably the best moment of the draft. Of a reported 267 draft-eligible players -- a figure weakened by an increase of foreign player squad slots and the rise of Homegrown Player contracts being issues -- came FC Dallas.
Tesho Akindele, forward, Colorado School of Mines.
Colorado School of Mines. Poring over the pre-draft press kit, I wondered if we'd been Catfish'd, if we'd yet again been Masal Bugduv'd. Suddenly, the school that I still didn't believe existed began trending on Twitter, the kind of singular social media meeting of minds that the SuperDraft surely didn't expect to conjure.
And so, I called.
Digging for ore
"We're a [NCAA Division II] program, we do reasonably well."
CSM men's head coach and six-time Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Coach of the Year Frank Kohlenstein was gracious enough to chat after watching Akindele's selection on TV. "Just recently the BBC announced [the Colorado School of Mines] as 'the greatest engineering school in the world...' I wouldn't go that far but it was nice of them to say that!"
Yet the off-the-beaten-path vibe of the tiny specialist school in Golden, Colorado -- said Kohlenstein, "It's very well-known as far as engineers go, but not when it comes to professional soccer players!" -- only serves to enhance the brilliance of Akindele's breakthrough.
Kohlenstein, a living, breathing embodiment of the rock-hard work ethic that both defines the school and impressed Akindele's observers at the MLS Combine, has been at the CSM for 16 years. Akindele, CSM team captain, is one year shy of completing his electrical engineering degree.
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The striker's on-field performance for the Orediggers -- student body: 5,468, school mascots Marvin the Miner and Blaster the Burro -- is exactly what you'd want it to be, especially the first forward selected in the 2014 SuperDraft and just the third of the entire opening round. 19 goals and nine assists in his senior year to lead the RMAC in 2013 (his school bio lists a dizzying array of accolades), leaving the program as its all-time goals leader with 76 in four seasons.
It's the kind of work ethic that gets you places. But what of his school, the curiously named niche college in the Rocky Mountains? Golden, Colorado was a town founded on its mining culture, formally established in 1859. It took over a decade before the need for a school was properly filled with CSM opening officially in 1873. Ever since, the seat of learning has gone from strength to strength, ranking 40th in U.S. News & World Report's 2014 "Top Public Schools" list.
The student athletes that fill its 18 intercollegiate athletics programs (the most in the state of Colorado, their website proudly notes) also boast average ACT scores of 30. They find jobs at incredible rates: 88 percent of bachelor's, 94 percent of master's and 98 percent of PhD graduates placed into the workforce upon course completion.
Akindele is the first player picked from the MLS SuperDraft under their watch. (Midfielder Craig Thompson, selected by Houston in 2008, came via the Supplemental Draft.)
Ready for the challenge
"It's a surreal feeling. If you go back two weeks [before the MLS Combine], nobody was talking about me." I caught Tesho at his home in Colorado. He didn't made the trip to Philadelphia, choosing instead to take in the madness at home with his father, Toks, a financial analyst and the man who coached him through his days in youth soccer. "I'm almost kind of overwhelmed with excitement."
Kohlenstein, meanwhile, saw it coming. "I actually called him right before his name was called to let him know that Dallas was picking him... [FC Dallas technical director] Fernando Clavijo called to say 'Frank, we are picking your kid.'"
Talking with Kohlenstein, it’s easy to see what attracted FC Dallas to the 6-1 striker with a scoring instinct and willingness to learn. "Education is very important [to his parents, a Canadian mother and Nigerian father] but I knew all along that he had a dream of playing professional soccer."
“I assured him that I [and our program] could put him in a position so that if he was willing to do the work, he could become a professional. So two or three days a week during the season, Tesho would always come and do a thing we call 'Striker's School,' a voluntary thing we do before training."
"He was almost always there unless he was injured. He took advantage of that."
Though Akindele is his first player to graduate into MLS, it's not Kohlenstein's first brush with the big leagues. He coached Jason Kreis during his first professional season at USL Division 3's Raleigh Flyers in 1995. Add to that his coaching work with the Hawaii Youth Soccer Assocation's Olympic Development Program -- alongside the likes of U.S. Soccer legends like Marcelo Balboa, Paul Caliguiri and even Brandi Chastain -- and it's hard not to feel like Kohlenstein's assessment of Akindele has him destined for something special.
"He has a real knack for scoring… what more do you want from a forward?" the Orediggers' coach quipped. "But he does understand how to defend. A lot of times when you have the best player you might give him a pass on some things but Tesho didn’t take a pass on anything."
Influenced by the likes of Thierry Henry -- in Tesho's words, "one of the best if not the best to have ever played" -- and Eddie Johnson, Akindele's speed and eye for goal make him an intriguing prospect in this sea of known entities and Generation Adidas' tipped-for-stardom draft class.
He is, in many respects, what these drafts should be about. With a draft day mood that vacillated wildly between dance party -- there's nothing better than EDM, an aggressive PA system and lager-soaked fan chants to electrify the soul -- and every drab college seminar you slept through, the hopes of those like Akindele, playing hard in the margins are what resonate long after the singing fades, the free sandwiches are consumed (next year, less rosemary in the focaccia, please) and the media room wi-fi quits working.
Drafts always carry risk, but the majority of sports and teams operate with a fair degree of certainty when it comes their turn to shuffle to the podium and make their selections. The pre-draft tracking, scouting, measuring and game tape is abundant. Their assessments -- and, to some extent, their minds -- are largely made up. Yet that doesn't mean there is no room for surprises, players who won't let the gravity of their opportunity pass them by.
Kohlenstein summed it up best: "I hope for all the kids out there it says something that if you have a dream and you go somewhere with good coaching and you're willing you work, you can still achieve your dream."
That's not to say that Tesho Akindele is pre-ordained to be a star, but plenty have worked tirelessly from small beginnings to reach that level. The stories of NFL hall-of-famers Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) and Walter Payton (Jackson State) are well-told.
Now, it's Tesho's turn.