Nicol will find it difficult to match past success
Staging a draft to supply players for professional teams is a foreign concept to Europeans. But Steve Nicol has not only been able to discern the workings of the MLS SuperDraft, he also appears to have mastered the process.
Since Nicol was named head coach of the New England Revolution in 2003, he has selected Nos. 9, 8 and 9 in the draft. Those picks became the league scoring champion in 2004 (Pat Noonan) and rookies of the year (Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst). This time, the Revolution have the No. 11 pick, and it will be interesting to see what Nicol does.
I have never been part of the draftnik crowd. Since the initial draft, which stocked the league in 1996, the MLS draft has failed to match the hype, and there are many reasons for this.
A few years ago, I attended the draft in Florida and was impressed by the production's organization and sense of drama. But walking out of the place, I felt the lack of significance of what we had just witnessed. Nobody could really evaluate the draft choices because, unlike other sports, it is impossible to quantify the abilities of a soccer player -- which is why the sport of soccer is so appealing.
Draftniks in other sports, simply by checking a first-round prospect's size and speed, have a good chance of gauging whether the guy will have a profitable career.
Not so in soccer.
I will keep watch on the first round of the draft Jan. 20 anyway, just to see what Nicol does. The MLS draft has never been considered an important story in the Boston area. That could change, should Nicol continue picking winners.
Noonan, Dempsey and Parkhurst were not accompanied by high expectations when they joined the Revolution. In fact, their initial meaningful action with the team was outside the country. So there were few witnesses when Noonan was speeding past Brazilian and Costa Rican opponents, Dempsey was holding his own in the Azores, and Parkhurst was shutting down Ecuadorian forwards. When the MLS season started, those three players fit right in.
So how does Nicol do it?
Nicol doesn't scout more games or players than other MLS coaches, nor does he have more contacts in the U.S. than anyone else. Nicol and assistant coach Paul Mariner do have extensive contacts in Europe, and their reputations as players have opened doors in this country. But in the end, all 12 MLS head coaches are viewing the same pool of collegiate players at the combine in Carson, Calif.
"It's a combination of a lot of things," Nicol said. "We just look for ability, a good attitude, and maybe something we need more than something else. We use our own eyes and gut feelings. We use the contacts of people we know around the country, listen to our own players, players we played against, make a lot of phone calls, gather a ton of information from all sources.
"Then, we evaluate who told you what, look at our notes and say do we agree or disagree, is a player better than what people said? We put it all together, make a decision, and write down a top 25. Then, we check them off as they go."
Again, Nicol's methods are no different than anyone else's. So, what did Nicol see in Dempsey and Parkhurst?
"The first thing that hit me is that he was such a big specimen of a boy with such great feet," Nicol said of Dempsey.
Nicol followed his first impressions of Dempsey by conversing with Thomas Rongen, who had coached Dempsey with the U.S. Under 20 team.
"Thomas felt that, going into the pros, [Dempsey] would improve," Nicol said. "He felt that [Dempsey] was somebody who could go further if given the opportunity and time."
Once Dempsey arrived in Revolution camp, it was apparent he could handle the competition. Dempsey displayed a streak of aggression, a good touch and an eagerness to make plays.
Dempsey had anticipated going to Dallas because he had trained with the team and the Burn had two first-round selections. He felt rejected when he was passed by.
Last year, the combine was conducted on artificial turf in a rainstorm. Nicol was impressed that Parkhurst adjusted by lifting the ball out of puddles, scooping out clearances and finding teammates.
"One of the comments I heard two or three times was about Michael being pushed around," Nicol said. "But after having seen him play in the conditions of the combine -- the strange thing, the unique thing, about the combine is that guys don't want to injure themselves or the other guy. So, if somebody is a terrier in the middle of the pack who wins tackles and stuff, you rarely see that at the combine, because they don't play the way they normally would.
"Maybe we would not have taken him if we had not seen him in that particular game, but we went with what we had seen. You can see him using his brain. He did things I don't know if people noticed; he quietly did things. He was clean, he would kill the danger before it even started. People are looking for someone to physically bang with somebody and be a Goliath, but you don't have to do that. Sure, you have to be able to do it, but it is not all about crushing people."
Certainly, no other MLS coach would have chosen Parkhurst in the first round, nor would any coach have inserted him in the starting lineup and played him every minute of every game. Of course, conditions must be conducive for a player to succeed, and the Revolution's 3-5-2 alignment was ideal for Parkhurst. And Nicol installed the 3-5-2 because Dempsey had forced his way into the midfield alongside Jose Cancela and Shalrie Joseph.
Not only were Dempsey and Parkhurst rookies of the year, they also influenced the Revolution's style of play, allowing the team to play an attacking style. Dempsey had been projected as a defensive midfielder, but he is such an offensive threat that he sometimes plays striker. Parkhurst is a connoisseur of the aesthetics of soccer, disdaining aimless or careless clearances, and this allows the Revolution to build their offense from the back.
Other MLS rookies of the year have proven themselves in the league and with the national team, and some have gone on to richer contracts overseas. Few first-year professionals, rookies of the year or not, have influenced a team's style of play such as Dempsey and Parkhurst have.
So will Nicol find another rookie of the year? That is doubtful, especially because the past four MLS drafts have supplied nearly half the Revolution's starting field players. In fact, the Revolution could have had rookies of the year in 2002 (Taylor Twellman was ineligible) and '03 (Noonan rivaled Chicago's Damani Ralph). So, after four successive years of taking impact players in the first round of the draft, the Revolution will have difficulty finding someone worthy of making the starting lineup.
The Revolution have fared better than most teams by drafting players who were headed elsewhere, then returned to the MLS. Joseph was among the top first-year players in the MLS in 2003; Marshall Leonard became a starter; maybe Tony Lochhead will emerge this season.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.