The Chicago Fire certainly confounded expectations in the first two rounds of the 2015 MLS Draft today. The question is, will the surprise turn to elation or confusion? Are today's surprises the result of a club working an unexpected plan well, or some less salutary exercise?
Coming into the draft, conventional wisdom was that the Fire would add defenders left, right and center. After all, the Men in Red are fresh off the worst defensive performance in club history, a defensive stank so profound and lingering that it chased Jhon Kennedy Hurtado off to
Brigadoon Chivas USA, sent Bakary Soumare to Montreal to lick his wounds, and cut Patrick Ianni adrift from playing soccer altogether.
Sure, there were other needs. The wings are undermanned, at least until Patrick Nyarko and Mike Magee are available for selection. There's a few box-to-box guys who try to play as destroyers. But it was in the defense that we expected to see the most action.
And the first draft pick, the seventh overall, seemed to confirm that thinking. Matt Polster is a known quantity to the coaching staff, a solid if unspectacular defense-minded player who played with simple authority in the Combine. He'd played with the Chicago Fire PDL team last summer.
The pick was something of a shock to every else, though - Polster was not considered one of the top 10 centerbacks in the draft by most pundits, but the Fire made him the very first backline guy selected. Of course, Polster said in interviews after the pick that he preferred to play in midfield, but everybody wants some things they cannot have. Yallop's quote on the matter was "We see him as a centerback right now." So, central defender, sorta, to bring the total on the roster to four.
Polster's passion is not to be questioned, however. Stunned to have his name called this early, the NSCAA Scholar All-American wept throughout a passionate series of thank-yous. If he can play, expect to love him, and for him to love the badge.
In the second round, things got truly interesting. With the 28th pick in the draft, the Fire selected the very last guy added to the MLS Combine list - St. Louis attacker Kingsley Bryce. Bryce's numbers with SLU are hardly eye-popping, and his selection triggered a stream-of-consciousness explanation from former USA captain John Harkes: "Last guy added [to the draft], who knows what he did. Coaches see something, some little glimmer, make a little move and they think, 'That was good.' "
Whatever glimmer Yallop & Co saw from Bryce was apparently enough to warrant selection. Bryce can play on the right wing or up front, which means he might see his most time in the Fire badge early in the season, while attacking stalwarts Magee and Nyarko are still on the shelf.
The question now is, what do these off-the-beaten-path picks betoken? Here's a few possibilities:
Yallop & Bliss see around the corner
It's possible that these guys were simply the best players available, either at their positions or overall. There's no script. It's possible. Geoff Cameron, 42nd pick overall, would like to emphasize this. And don't kid yourself - however big a nerd you are about football, unless you're deeply involved with scouting college soccer in the Midwest, you don't know these guys as well as Yallop, Bliss, and their scouting staff do.
Mind over matter
Another interesting tidbit coming from the draft is that both Bryce and Polster have outstanding academic records. If this is meant to signal a more cerebral style of football from the Chicago Fire, that's outstanding.
The St Louis gambit
An affiliation with new USL Pro side Saint Louis FC has long been rumored, and could be announced any day. Do Yallop & Bliss have enough other irons in the fire (heh) that they feel confident drafting guys they figure will spend a year or two in USL Pro? Maybe Yallop is happier with his current roster than he's let on? Both players have spent the last four years in the St. Louis area and would certainly feel comfortable there, if not delighted at failing to make the big club.
Sources have told me that almost every department within the Fire organization has seen its budgets tightened since last season. Has this hurt the Fire's efforts to scout collegiate players in the SuperDraft? When both one's picks are from a single metro region, and both immediately provoke whispers about 'reaching' ... hmm.
Beware the herd
There is a massive amount of herd thinking around the draft. The lists begin coming out in mid-December, the mock drafts, and everyone reads them and shares them - but the poisonous fact is there's really about five guys writing who actually scout the college game at the depth necessary to make an informed opinion, and they're just human. They have their prejudices and their misconceptions, but their mock drafts still have an outsized influence on the soccer hive mind. If you're going to do better than the baseline, you've got to think differently than the baseline, eh?
Of course, there is the other possibility - performing worse than the herd. Results, those implacable curmudgeons, will tell all.
Matt Polster, Kingston Bryce, we who love the Fire wish nothing but triumph for you. Be incredible.