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Jan 19, 2008

Heard through the grapevine at the draft

BALTIMORE -- Phrase heard most often in the beer- and wine-infused meet and greet on the eve of Friday's MLS SuperDraft:

"We're listening, but nobody really wants to do anything."

A draft that was clearly diluted, accessorized with wildly disparate opinions, one that ultimately played out with flash fire unpredictability, turned into an antidote for truly substantive trade talks in the pre-event run-up.

A hotel bar is always ground zero of the pre-draft hash. The party gathers, unofficially and organically, in this case in the main bar of the Marriott Inner Harbor, across from the Baltimore Convention Center. Almost every manager and GM made an appearance, some going the full 90, so to speak.

A good time was had by all. A good deal was made by none. Almost, anyway. One coach put it this way: "Nobody wants to do anything. Then, the last 20 minutes before the draft, everyone's going to be in a huge panic."

Moving up: Typically, a hunger to move forward in the selection order feeds the pre-draft swap talks. But given the absence of blue-chip prospects, teams had little incentive to climb. As Red Bull sporting director Jeff Agoos said: "This is a draft of projects, not a draft of superstars."

There were some attempted take-offs, though most failed to gain altitude. Two general managers confirmed that Colorado was shopping veteran midfielder Pablo Mastroeni -- with little success. The Chris Albright trade was the biggie of draft day, and that was surely a topic of conversation as U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, New England coach Steve Nicol and other Revolution officials excused themselves briefly Thursday night from the Marriott bar for a quick lobby huddle.

Meanwhile, Kansas City boss Curt Onalfo enjoyed dominating the leverage and listened, somewhat indifferently, to offers.

FC Dallas seemed willing to deal some of its league-high seven picks. Steve Morrow and other club officials consumed one little corner, about three steps from a power table topped by Houston and San Jose coaches, who have swell history and obviously still get on well. Coaches from other clubs would wander by the Morrow mass, say a few words, then move on, with nothing much accomplished.

Real Salt Lake had third dibs, along with two other primo picks. GM Garth Lagerwey admitted that his club was treading carefully, a humble acquiescence to their relative inexperience in the process. Unless he was tossed a fat, juicy pitch, Lagerway preferred to protect the club's three early picks and eliminate the possibility of being fleeced by some draft graybeard.

Say it "Fell-HAY-ber": With talks mostly stalemated, managers had plenty of time for speculative chitchat. Benny Feilhaber's name came up a few times, as Derby apparently is shopping the out-of-favor American midfielder.

But a league source said that no team has alerted the MLS front office of interest. Until then, the league will make no overtures. Yes, in the old days, MLS would identify players who made sense, talk numbers, then play the placement game. The new math dictates that clubs absolutely must initiate the process.

So, what are the chances he'll come home? Not great, actually. Derby paid about $2 million. For it to recoup some of the investment, even at 50 cents on the dollar, Feilhaber would cost MLS about $1 million. For a league that generally balks at transfer fees, that kind of money probably puts him in DP range.

It's good to have options: There were no Bruce Arena sightings. At all. There was Chris Armas, however, getting his coaching future in order. The longtime Chicago Fire and U.S. midfielder has opportunities back in his native New York, with smaller colleges or clubs. But Denis Hamlett's introduction at Toyota Park might open doors there as he and Armas have a good, long-standing relationship. Armas wants to be back in New York but enjoys the thought of staying involved at the highest level. Either way, he knows he's lucky to have options and doesn't seem like a guy who takes that for granted.

"It has to make sense": Hamlett has the job, in part, because Fire officials couldn't entice Houston assistant John Spencer. Spencer knows he's in a good situation in Houston.

So it didn't make sense to uproot his family for what amounted to about a $20,000 salary bump, he said. Plus, the Fire was offering three single-year contracts. Everyone knows it's a notoriously transient profession; but a series of one-year deals is pretty stingy. The team probably would have put him on a monthly retainer if he would let it.

Spencer was upset to hear whispers that he was holding out for the head position in Colorado. Nonsense, he said. He believes Chicago is a great job, with passionate ownership, a new stadium and a good direction.

"Did I want the job [in Chicago]? You bet I did. But it's got to make sense for you," he said.

Yuks for Yallop: Some of the coaches and GMs, led by San Jose manager Frank Yallop, had some fun with Alexi Lalas and other Galaxy officials, wondering with comically raised brows how the Los Angeles club will pay for all that pricey talent? David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Carlos Ruiz will eat up approximately half of the $2.2 million salary cap.

Maybe he watched "The Wire" and got, you know, scared: Ruud Gullit's choice to dodge the draft drew a few eye rolls. Seriously, the man had this on his calendar, right? Galaxy officials say Gullit needed to wrap up matters back in the Netherlands, the better to be prepped and pumped for training camp. Fair enough.

But, again, he knew this thing was coming, right? He couldn't have, you know, moved things around a bit? It didn't help that he showed up at the MLS combine for only a day and spent much of his time chatting with fellow Dutchman Thomas Rongen instead of actually watching players. So Paul Bravo, Lalas and Cobi Jones handled the Galaxy draft. We'll see how it works out for 'em, but word is that Lalas wasn't totally on board with his manager's decision to skip Baltimore.

It's a little like wearing ill-fitting pants. It might not mean anything in the bigger picture, but it just doesn't look good.

Midnight analysis: The week's trades were hot topics. Consensus: Kansas City scored a win in shipping Nick Garcia to San Jose for the top draft pick. Yallop is well-liked among MLS managers and GMs, and most understood his desire to anchor the back line with a reliable vet (especially as he apparently got nicked by Clarence Goodson's decision to play abroad). Many just weren't sure that Garcia represented good value.

"Catch me on YouTube?": Most speculation had Virginia Tech forward Patrick Nyarko going first. Did a little stunt at the MLS combine have something to do with his devaluation?

Nyarko was able to squeeze in just one day at the combine. He seemed all set, with plenty of interested eyes. As he was about to go in, he suddenly asked not to play. Something about not feeling well or something. Coaches there explained that wasn't an option, that people had gone to some expense to ferry him down for the day. So, he graciously agreed to play for about 30 minutes. Nice.

It smells like a tactic that players, teams and agents sometimes have used to help "arrange" a selection. The gambit goes like this: a player lets his stock fall a bit, hoping to scare away some less desirable suitors while a complicit club awaits.

Some club officials wondered whether that kind of thing was going on with Anthony Beltran, whose appearances were limited at the combine by some nebulous neck spasms. Beltran still went No. 3 to Real Salt Lake. Nyarko fell to No. 7, where Chicago selected him.

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