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Union looks for best fit in MLS draft

IN A MATTER OF need, one can ill afford to make the wrong decision. John Hackworth swears by that. It is why the Union assistant manager and his scouting crew have repeatedly combed over the crop of talent in today's Major League Soccer SuperDraft (12 p.m. ESPN2), and were doing so long before MLS combines earlier this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Those proceedings, Hackworth claimed, provided one last look, not the only one.

Peter Nowak is entering his second season as head coach of the Philadelphia Union. (Rich Schultz/AP file photo)
Peter Nowak is entering his second season as head coach of the Philadelphia Union. (Rich Schultz/AP file photo)Read more

IN A MATTER OF need, one can ill afford to make the wrong decision.

John Hackworth swears by that.

It is why the Union assistant manager and his scouting crew have repeatedly combed over the crop of talent in today's Major League Soccer SuperDraft (12 p.m. ESPN2), and were doing so long before MLS combines earlier this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Those proceedings, Hackworth claimed, provided one last look, not the only one.

See, Hack - as Hackworth is known in soccer circles that far extend the Delaware Valley - already has a handle on many of the 150-plus choices of which the Union will have crack. Subject to change, the Union owns the No. 5 overall pick.

When Hack and his scout team were present at the NCAA championship game this year, between rising college power Akron and Louisville, he claimed to have already coached or was on a first-name basis with at least 17 players who participated in the final.

One doesn't need to be a Rhodes scholar to realize how that provides major pull when trying to entice young, up-and-coming talent to join your young, up-and-coming franchise.

So, now it comes down to need. And from last season, it's apparent the Union needs a few players to shore up its defensive stance - and a little more offensive firepower wouldn't hurt, either. With the addition of midfielder Brian Carroll, added in the offseason via a deal with Columbus, the Union has 13 midfielders (Sheanon Williams is considered a midfield-defender) on its roster. And with talk of moving attacking midfielder Sebastien Le Toux up to forward, alongside Danny Mwanga, it's evident that while adding a bit more to the attack corps is smart, it's not an immediate priority.

Hack agrees and added that the team already "has our guy" pegged for the first round.

"We've made a lot of acquisitions, but we need to solidify some depth on our roster," Hackworth told the Daily News this week. "Midfielders is not where we need depth at all, even though there are quite a few good ones available this year. In the later rounds, if there is one lying around . . . "

So the priority, one would surmise, is patching a gaping defense that gave up 35 goals last season. And while Hackworth, who along with Union boss Peter Nowak, is remaining tight-lipped about the positions of the team's draft choices, it's evident that this third of the pitch is a major area of need.

If he's still around at No. 5, or if the Union trade up, University of California defender A.J. Soares is a wise choice. Soares, 22, a semifinalist for the college player of the year award, is a 6-foot, 170-pound NSCAA first-team All-America, with a strong defensive stance and a knack for scoring the occasional goal (10 goals, four assists in 4 years at Cal). Better yet, Soares is one of nine players in this year's Generation adidas class, which means his rookie salary wouldn't count against the Union's salary cap.

In layman's terms - a steal.

"We are looking to bring in a guy that already has the skill, but that we can develop to bring in and make a key player," said Hackworth. "Kids that are GA, they have such great value and, basically, it's a free spot on your roster because it doesn't count against the [salary] cap."

Many pundits think if the Union goes for a forward with its first pick, like it did with Mwanga last season, Penn State product and Reading, Pa., native Corey Hertzog is it. Hertzog struggled early in the combines this week, according to an MLSSoccer.com report, but rebounded well. The Union already knows his potential, keeping tabs on him as a player for Reading A.C., one of the Union's two developmental league affiliates. Hertzog, who led the NCAA in scoring (20 goals) this past season, stands 6-foot, 172 pounds and brings speed and a scoring touch. He has already expressed his desire to play for the Union. Oh, and Hertzog? Generation adidas.

Other top defensive picks are Akron's Zarek Valentin and Stanford's Bobby Warshaw. Valentin is smaller at 5-11, 155 but has skill and is tenacious, while Warshaw, a college player of the year award nominee, is bigger (6-foot, 185) and can score (18 goals, six assists in 4 years at Stanford). Both hail from Pennsylvania (Valentin, Lancaster; Warshaw, Mechanicsburg).

One other top forward the Union can realistically acquire at No. 5 is James Madison's C.J. Sapong, who scored 37 goals and added 21 helpers in his 4 years at JMU. His senior season, the 22-year-old Sapong tallied 12 goals and nine assists en route to college player of the year talk and the Colonial Athletic Association's Player of the Year. Sapong helped his draft stock by playing well at the combines, but is still underrated given the crop of forwards in this year's class.

"We want to make sure we make the right decision and bring in the right players to help our franchise grow," said Hackworth. "We try to do thorough jobs of scouting guys even before combines, get to know players personally and [Union goalkeeper coach Rob Vartughian] and I have little bit of an advantage."

One, the Union hopes today, will work in its favor.

Odds and endlines

The long-awaited introduction of Faryd Mondragon, the 39-year-old goalkeeper the Union reportedly obtained via free transfer from German club FC Cologne, is expected to happen in the coming days. Sources tell the Daily News that work papers are holding up proceedings to make the signing of the Colombian international official . . . John Hackworth, on the introduction of international youth players in MLS' SuperDraft: "I think it's a great idea. The only problem is that these kids are so young, and that they would count as an international spot. But it's all about you picking the best players for your specific needs and a lot of those players can do that" . . . Of the nine players in this year's Generation adidas class, five hail from Akron, the current NCAA champion.