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Monday, January 14, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: January 17, 5:59 PM UK
Top 10 all-time draft steals

Steve Davis, ESPNsoccernet

No one in MLS history has proved to be more of a draft day clairvoyant than Steve Nicol. The wily ol' Scotsman has somehow turned the annual draft into an exercise in alchemy. Surely that requires some complex formula, no? Something cooked up in a math lab with guidance from pale, bespectacled and bookish fellows?

Well, not exactly, Nicol says. He claims that draft selection is the province of the educated guess. "And anybody who tells you otherwise, they're lying," he said with a grin.

Could be. But he does seem to guess better than others. Nicol and a few other managers have turned over some real draft-day steals: lower-round selections who beat back long odds and low expectations to rise above ordinary. Major League Soccer's next Cinderella story is out there. Here are the best 10 so far:

10. Adam Cristman, New England, Fourth round 2007, 48th overall -- There were only five fellows selected lower in last year's draft. And about 20 guys selected ahead of him have already seen their MLS days numbered. Cristman played in 28 matches last year, starting 14 of them, recording four goals and four assists along the way.

9. Chris Rolfe, Chicago Fire, Third round 2005, No. 29 overall -- Defenders and midfielders were the belles of the ball in 2005. Only four forwards went in the first two rounds. All remain around, with Scott Sealy and Chad Barrett standing as the most productive of the foursome. But none of them appears to have Rolfe's upside. He was slicing up defenses before falling, injured, in 2007. He commenced slicing anew once he got healthy late in the season.

8. Matt Reis, Los Angeles Galaxy, Third round 1998, No. 26 overall -- Goalkeepers aren't often tapped in the first two rounds. Perhaps Bryheem Hancock (Galaxy) and Mike McGinty (D.C. United) had something to do with that; they dragged down the 2002 second round and quickly went the way of Budweiser's Wassup Guys. But back in 1998, Reis did his part to reinforce the position as a draft-day resource. Reis has started in three MLS Cup finals; only Kevin Hartman has started in goal in more of them.

7. Andy Dorman, New England Revolution, Sixth round 2004, No. 58 overall -- OK, so Dorman got sideways with Revs management this past season, sulking on the back end of 2007 while firmly tethered to Nicol's doghouse. But give the man his props. He was a valuable super sub in past Revolution versions, and he had quite a run early in 2007. Not bad considering about 30 guys taken ahead of Dorman may as well be in the witness protection program -- good luck finding them now. Nicol didn't have a hard time finding Dorman. The attacking midfielder played locally at Boston University.

6. Davy Arnaud, Kansas City Wizards, Fifth round 2002, No. 50 overall -- Asked to rank MLS midfielders, most fans would go for a while before mentioning this kid from West Texas A&M. Too bad, because he's been a consistent contributor for most of his seven seasons. He's a blue-ribbon finisher and his aggressive mentality with the ball is a perfect fit for manager Curt Onalfo. Last year Arnaud recorded four goals and nine assists in 28 starts. Only four players in MLS had more assists.

5. Jeff Parke, MetroStars, Sixth round 2004, 60th overall -- Say what you want about the guy; opinions vary widely on the Red Bulls center back. But here's a fellow who was taken dead last in 2004 (which is why he wears jersey No. 60). And yet he's been a starter (mostly, anyway) since his rookie season. He's reliable when paired correctly, especially when you consider that MLS honchos picked 59 guys ahead of him.

4. Eddie Lewis, San Jose, Third round 1996 college draft, No. 23 overall -- A pretty ordinary résumé here: four years holding down the left side for San Jose in MLS. Recorded 35 assists in 115 matches before embarking on a lucrative career in England. Oh, he did figure in a couple of World Cups, 2002 and 2006, supplying a big assist to Landon Donovan in a historic win over Mexico. Pretty standard stuff for a third-rounder. Yawn.

3. Jozy Altidore, MetroStars, Second round 2006, No. 17 overall -- Generally, turning over a precious stone in the second round doesn't qualify as a "late steal." But there are two picks that defy that standard, players who have absolutely rocked the house (especially when compared to some of the names called before them). Shalrie Joseph was taken No. 14 overall in 2002 and may go down as the best second-round selection ever. But how about the pick turned over by Mo Johnston and Alexi Lalas two years ago? Considering that it wasn't a remarkably deep draft, lots of teams missed big on Altidore, who is still only 18 years old. Here are the fellows picked in the second round before Altidore: Jed Zayner, Jeff Curtin, Justin Moore and Lance Watson. See what we mean?

2. Frankie Hejduk, Tampa Bay, Seventh round 1996, No. 67 overall -- It seems reasonable that somebody would unearth a real lulu in that very first year. The staffs were new. No scouting systems were in place. Plus, everything was such a free-for-all, with 16 rounds to stock the original rosters with pro and college talent. Sure enough, there were some real finds as the day went on. How about Jason Kreis in the fifth round (No. 43 overall). But Hejduk was surely the plum of the day, a talented surfer dude, but one yet to fully commit to soccer. How'd that turn out? Hejduk still looked great last year in his 12th professional season.

1. Ante Razov, Los Angeles, Third round 1996 college draft, No. 27 overall -- The third round of the original college draft (held about a month after the pro-amateur draft), was a doozy. Most of the names from the first two rounds fell off the soccer map pretty quickly. But in Round 3, Jesse Marsch went first, followed soon by Lewis and finally, with the 27th selection overall, by Razov. You might recognize Razov's name as the league's third all-time leading scorer. With a decent season he could become Major League Soccer's all-time scoring leader this year. Not bad, considering only two names were called after Razov that year.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.


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