With the core of Columbus Crew SC’s championship-winning roster set to this season in addition to the likes of free agents Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kevin Molino choosing Columbus, the Black & Gold’s roster-building venture continued on Thursday afternoon with the completion of the virtually held MLS SuperDraft 2021 presented by adidas.
With the 27th pick in Round One, the Crew selected Clemson University defender Justin Malou, followed by Ohio State University Joshua Jackson-Ketchup with the 52nd overall pick. The Crew passed on its 58th overall pick.
In terms of how the Club approached Thursday’s Round One draft pick, it came down to getting the best player available overall. Malou was a four-year starter at Clemson and twice named to the Atlantic Coast Conference All-Tournament Team (2017, 2020). Originally from Kedougou, Senegal, Malou started all 11 of the Tigers’ matches during the 2020 fall campaign.
“I think for us, we’re looking at that player as hopefully someone who can be a project,” said VP of Soccer Operations and Technical Staff Director Pat Onstad when asked about the Club’s Round One selection.
Onstad went on to explain that “you never know with players coming out of college – sometimes they can develop in a year or two and make a push into the First Team … but that’s our goal, I think, is to try and find a guy that can fit Caleb’s system in the way he plays and have a better chance at reaching and playing in MLS.”
All things considered, the odds of finding players that late in the draft who can break into the First Team are tough, said Onstad, but there is encouraging precedent. Onstad, who served as an Assistant Coach from 2014-18, went on to cite Orlando City SC’s 27th pick in the 2019 SuperDraft, Kamal Miller, who was recently traded to Montreal in exchange for $225,000 in General Allocation Money and a first-round pick in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft.
“When it comes to the draft, the interesting thing is that I think the top youth players in the country, generally speaking, are coming out of academies now and they are getting signed as young as 16 or 17 years old,” Onstad said. “I think now at this point, when it comes to these college guys, we look for athleticism and make sure guys can be at our level, our speed of the game in MLS.”
While the role of the SuperDraft may differ from club to club, it’s a roster-building opportunity nonetheless, as Onstad highlighted recent Crew draftees who made their way from the college ranks and eventually into the First Team lineup.
“We are big believers in guys who have had to strive and work hard to get where they are in college,” Onstad said. “The guys who haven’t had things handed to them, especially with the later picks, we’ve been fortunate. We had guys like Connor Maloney, Luis Argudo, guys that really worked hard in college and I think once they got in the pro environment, they were able to step on the field and they fought hard for their minutes. I think that’s the attitude and those are the type of guys that you love to pick in the college draft.”
That said, the Crew’s focus on developing a pipeline of talent through the Crew SC Academy enters its next chapter following the recent signing of Homegrown midfielder and Medina, Ohio native Isaiah Parente.
Billed as a likely top-10 SuperDraft selection should he have gone that route, Parente stayed in school at Wake Forest University longer than his fellow Academy products in Aboubacar Keita, Sebastian Berhalter, and Aidan Morris.
Nevertheless, Parente’s signing serves as another reminder of how Clubs’ top youth players are being acquired through academies.
“Isaiah’s a little different, he stayed at school a little bit longer and while he wanted to come out, he’s in a bit of a skill position,” Onstad said. “So for us, in terms of his development, we felt it was best for him to lead a team like he did at Wake Forest – a very good ACC team – and we also looked at him knowing that if he would have gone to the draft, we projected him going at least as a top-10 pick in the draft. So we are happy to be able to sign him and he chose to come play for us and start his career with the Columbus Crew.”
In a brief statistical comparison between the Academy and the SuperDraft, the impact the Club’s Homegrowns in the last two season rivals that of any high Round One draft pick when looking solely at the metric of minutes-played.
Going back to Keita’s signing in 2019, of the first 10 Round One picks in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, only two had more regular-season minutes than Keita (801) that season. Meanwhile, of the first 10 Round One picks in 2020, only four had more regular-season minutes than Berhalter (395), and only five had more regular-season minutes than Morris (360), a fellow 2020 Homegrown signee.
Of course, the scouting capabilities granted to technical staff members leans in favor of cultivating talent through the Academy as opposed to facing the inherit unknowns of the draft, as Onstad went on to mention the benefits of his team’s weekly meetings with Academy Director Kelvin Jones and Assistant General Manager Corey Wray.
“Kelvin Jones does an excellent job of keeping me up to date on players and who is doing well week-in and week-out, and Corey Wray does a good job of keeping an eye on those guys, so we have a really good feel of where we are,” Onstad said. “But what I would say with where we are in the SuperDraft is that it’s tough to predict. We have positional areas that we think might be an area to pick, but then again, when you are 27th in the draft, you usually just take the best player that’s left on the board, in your opinion.”
So, as the Black & Gold prepare for preseason, they hope to do so with the additional of a promising “project” of a player, but nonetheless hold a promising crop of young players given the recent examples shown by the likes of Keita, Berhalter, and the youngest starter in MLS Cup history in Morris.