Parts of the city were still dark. The steam from the buildings nearby showed how cold it was as Indiana’s largest city woke up. From my hotel room, I watched the cars drive into downtown Indianapolis this Thursday morning and, for the workers behind the wheels, it was just another ordinary work day – one they’ll likely forget by Saturday.
Unless of course, they were driving here to the Westin Hotel, sitting in the shadows of Lucas Oil Stadium and connected to the Indiana Convention Centre, home of the 2013 MLS Superdraft.
Welcome to Planet MLS, where one can’t walk fifty feet without seeing a club logo or an official from one of the 19 teams. No one walks far here as they are regularly stopped to talk to an old friend. If you are from Canada, everyone wants to talk to you.
The Starbucks inside the lobby of the hotel was the place to be up to 10am. Free coffee coupons from Fox Soccer helped of course, but in a city famous for its 500 mile race, this was the pit stop for the sport’s smartest minds. Fuel up, discuss strategy and go. The ladies behind the counter very likely have never watched a game in their lives, but if they listened, they’d have heard exactly how the afternoon draft was going to go. I decided to give it a go.
“Where’s Bekker going?” I cheekily asked the lady behind the counter.
“Beckham? Is he here?” she replied.
Toronto FC, holders of the third and fourth picks in the draft, after the deal with New England, were the team on the lips of the cups and a Canadian named Kyle Bekker was the trending player.
Bekker, from Oakville, Ontario, had climbed the mock drafts quicker than any player in the past month. Everyone had an opinion and an interest in where he would end up. Even the teams who didn’t plan to draft him hoped he’d go early, leaving them free to take their target.
With my Starbucks source keeping it to herself, it was time to make my way to the draft room to find out for myself. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your draft boards!
10.40am – The suits arrive. MLS teams led by their head coaches make their way to their draft tables and, for the next 80 minutes, all go about their business in their own way. Chivas USA, Philadelphia and New York’s representatives barely crack a smile while other teams look much more loose.
11.17am – As dance music blares out of the speakers as if its Ibiza at 1.17am, Toronto FC President and General Manager Kevin Payne leaves the table to take a phone call. Ryan Nelsen, the club’s new head coach, was the media’s consensus pick for being on the other end, but at the stage, he may well have just called Geico to save 15 per cent on his car insurance.
11.30am – Fans are allowed into the Sagamore Ballroom to watch the draft. Columbus and Chicago fans do their best to sing their hearts out, but they are getting drowned out by a combination of David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia.
12.01pm – Opening statements – after being told how great they are, the fans are asked to be respectful of all picks. Let’s hope there are no New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles fans in the house.
12.13pm – Commissioner Don Garber, who said Canada at least six times (told you they are a big deal here) wraps up his speech with the words: “Our vision is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022.” At least he didn’t say 2-22 like Sepp when he made that brilliant decision to send the world to football hotbed Qatar.
12.19pm – New England selects Louisville defender Andrew Farrell first overall. Absolutely no surprise. A raw talent who has a big upside and a player they clearly ranked higher than most by moving up to get. Toronto FC, who decided to move down and pass on Farrell, will be hoping he doesn’t become Omar Gonzalez.
12.23pm – Carlos Alvarez to Chivas USA. Thank goodness – considering they just played a feature on him in the ballroom.
12.24pm – Toronto FC are announced on the clock and Columbus fans next to me chant, “Don’t screw up!” followed by, “They’re Canadian, they can’t help it!” and “Coach on layaway!”. So a combination of funny, insightful, and complete morons then?
12.29pm – Toronto FC select Kyle Bekker and there it is: A Canadian soccer marriage begins.
12.33pm – Toronto FC call a timeout ahead of the 4th overall selection. “Seven year timeout,” chant the funny section of the Columbus fans. TFC announce a trade with Vancouver, swapping number 4 for 10 plus allocation money, and with that it is time for me to head to the interview room….
I find a smiling Bekker, who tells me he wasn’t surprised by his rise up the draft in the last few weeks but knows he is far from guaranteed to start under Ryan Nelsen in what appears to be a crowded midfield: “I have to work for any minute I can get and play where I am asked, I am an attacking midfielder but I can play as a box-to-box midfielder.”
We talk about the modern game and the need for players to be good with and without the ball and his eyes widen: “An idol for me my whole life has always been Dennis Bergkamp, a number ten, but, right now, I like Christian Eriksen and Jack Wilshere, an amazing midfielder and if you can bring any of their qualities into your game then you are doing something right. I’m always trying to move my feet (without the ball) and cover as much ground as possible, get in between the lines of the defence and create chances.”
Vancouver select Kekutah Manneh and Erik Hurtado back-to-back while I chat with Bekker and on the way back to the room I bump into Martin Rennie who talks about his team’s need for speed: “Both players have good pace and a lot of athleticism which you can’t coach, they can improve on their movement and tactical understanding. With Kekutah, I knew his PDL coach Paul Dalglish, so I’ve tracked him for some time and he is willing to work very hard to make this happen. We are starting to build an exciting group of players, we needed to be more creative and find more pace to give us a different dimension to our team.”
So move aside Barry Robson then.
1.02pm- Back in the draft room, Kesha’s awful ‘Gonna Die Young’ blurs out ahead of Toronto FC’s pick at number ten. Then, just as it is about to stop, Seattle calls a timeout so the music continues. New rule – no timeouts allowed during Kesha songs. Make it stop.
1.09pm – Question to me in press row: “Where is Oakville?”. ‘Oh Canada’ continues to play a big part here.
1.11pm – TFC trade down again, this time to number 16. That means they have now moved from 1 to 16 for allocation money. That is a major problem for people who do not understand MLS. Rhianna sums it up best as, ‘We Found Love in a Hopeless Place,’ rings out from the Ibiza speakers.
1.20pm – My twitter followers ask what does all this allocation money actually mean. Wait, shock horror, my educated followers who love this game don’t know what it means? Of course they don’t – it remains a big problem in the league as amounts don’t get published. I overhear an executive from a different club say: “This is a smart move for TFC, it can help a team short term very quickly because they can buy down salaries and use it on transfer fees.”
1.35pm – TFC make it two for two with Canadians as they select Mississauga’s Emery Welshman. “I am coming home to the best city in the world, the best fans in the world,” he proudly says from the podium. Good start.
1.45pm – Montreal Impact, who earlier rose eyebrows across the draft room taking Blake Smith at eight (who isn’t here) selects a second player, Fernando Monge, who also isn’t here.
Time to go meet Welshman, whose love for Toronto FC shines through: “I know Toronto very well. I have grown up there, this is an ideal situation for me. I can’t wait to get back to the fans, which I was once and will continue to be now as a player for this team.”
The 21-year-old forward, who played with Bekker at Sigma FC, offers a glowing scouting report of his new teammate in Toronto: “Kyle Bekker is the most creative, attacking midfielder Canada has. This is a great pick for Toronto, they need some creativity in the middle, they could use some quality there for the box-to-box element, some young legs there and I’m glad he is there with me.”
1.58pm – The second round begins and Don Garber leaves his duties in announcing picks. This is basically now a game of fun between teams throwing darts at player names with little drama. Unless TFC somehow find a way to get back in. Maybe they can flog some old shirts for a pick and allocation money?
2.45pm – I am told Kevin Payne will speak to me. Payne gives a lot in our 13 minute conversation:
- On Bekker: “He was the best player in this draft from our point of view. We would have taken him at number one if we stayed there. We were very impressed with Kyle from an early stage. He is in a great position to learn from Torsten Frings and Julio Cesar, he may play further up the field, he’s in a good spot and is the kind of player Ryan Nelsen really likes.Technically he is very good, can play quickly and tactically is way ahead of anybody in this draft. He spends a lot of the game in space, that’s a pretty good quality to have. There’s a player whose name starts with X on the B-word team who plays that way, I am not going to compare Kyle with Xavi, but he is certainly a good role model and that’s what characterizes him, how often he seems to have time and sense of space on the field.”
- On Welshman: “We knew less about Emery because he played on the west coast more, but he does a lot of things well, superior athlete, very strong, determined, needs to work on his finishing but if he can learn to finish the simple chances he is going to be a dangerous player.”
- On them being Canadian: “Canada is a big country. A guy from the west coast of Canada isn’t that much different from a guy from the United States. We are about Toronto. We love the fact that they are from the greater Toronto area, grew up cheering for the team. The crest means something to them when they put the shirt on and that is important to us.”
- On trading the first overall pick: “We actually made the deal on Monday, it was embargoed until Wednesday. They approached us, frankly I may have not done that deal with many other teams, but I really trust New England. (General Manager) Michael Burns is a really honorable guy so when I said ‘Lets not talk about this’, I knew he wouldn’t. We had asked them what position they were going to draft, if they had said midfield, we would have asked who and if they said Kyle, we wouldn’t have done the deal but they told us centre-back. It was a good position for us because we got the added value and we knew Kyle would still be there at three. We were still in control of the draft at three and four.”
- On how confident he was in getting Bekker at three: “Listen you always worry, spend the night tossing and turning, wondering if a crazy deal will happen to get ahead of you but I didn’t think that was likely. We were helped by finding what value was on the number one pick so before we did the deal with New England we talked to a bunch of teams.”
- On how much allocation money they received in their trades: “We don’t talk about amounts but we have increased what we had by 75%, a big chunk of allocation money now that we can use to make ourselves better. Money is important, we have a bigger salary cap now than what we had when we started. We have some big contracts that I inherited and we have to accommodate so this gives us a better opportunity to build a team around those.This was a really fun exercise today, we were in a great position, in the catbird’s seat.”
And with that Payne left the draft. His team just got more Canadian and his transfer market wallet just got a lot thicker; two significant goals the club will have been delighted to fulfill here.
Whether this goes on to make them better, only time will tell. Time and the Starbucks lady, who I’m off to ask how Toronto FC will do this season.