A year after upending Major League Soccer’s draft by trading all their picks away, the Union once again decided the event was of little use.

Holding the No. 21 pick in a year with few top college prospects, the Union dealt the pick to D.C. United on Thursday in the hour before the draft kicked off.

The Union received D.C.'s place in MLS’s allocation ranking, a system that enforces parity by forcing teams to trade for the right to sign select Americans and ex-MLS players coming in from abroad. Teams are ranked by reverse order of finish in the previous year, so D.C. sat at No. 17. It moved down to the Union’s No. 21.

Coincidentally, United used the pick on a player with Philadelphia ties: Temple goalkeeper Simon Lefebvre. The 6-foot-9 France native turned heads as a collegian because of his size, but he’s likely to play in the USL at best.

D.C. agreed to send the Union $50,000 in allocation money if Lefebvre hits performance metrics that weren’t specified. The year the money would apply to also wasn’t specified, which is unusual in MLS.

At least the Union got something for the pick, as small as the return was. The deal also spared MLS from the potential of the Union’s passing in the first round, which would have been a first in the league’s 25-year history.

"As was the case in 2019, we’re committed to focusing on our academy pipeline as our primary source of cultivating young talents such as Jack de Vries and Cole Turner,” Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said in a statement. “Not only will we look to continue signing Union Academy products to our MLS and USL squads, but we will continue to devote resources to developing players we bring in from abroad.”

The Union didn’t have a pick in the second round, which was also held Thursday. They traded it to Columbus in the July deal that brought Joe Bendik here. The third and fourth rounds of the draft will be held Monday.

Union academy product Jack de Vries (right) signed a pre-contract last August to move up to MLS this year.
Courtesy of Bethlehem Steel
Union academy product Jack de Vries (right) signed a pre-contract last August to move up to MLS this year.

Three other players with local ties heard their names called Monday. Penn State midfielder Aaron Molloy went to the Portland Timbers at No. 16 overall, and two Union academy-bred midfielders went in the second round: Jack Skahan to the San Earthquakes at No. 27 overall and Joey DeZart to Orlando City No. 31 overall.

Clemson forward Robbie Robinson, who won this year’s MAC Hermann Trophy — college soccer’s Heisman — was the No. 1 pick, by expansion team Inter Miami.

Recognizing the draft’s decreasing relevance, MLS did away this year with the stage show that it held at the United Soccer Coaches Convention. This time, teams and players got to stay at home, and the league partnered with ESPN for an online telecast.

The Union still have a lot of work to do to build out this year’s roster, and preseason training starts in just nine days. There’s been just one new signing this winter, Venezuelan defensive midfielder José Andrés Martínez, and the promotion of forward de Vries and utility midfielder Turner.

This team needs at least one more centerback and at least two midfielders, and the hole in midfield is pretty big. Though there were valid reasons for the departures of Marco Fabián, Jamiro Monteiro, and Haris Medunjanin, they brought a lot of talent and results.

Whether or not the Union sign a Fabián-esque star, this team needs someone who can make the big plays in big moments.

Youngsters Brenden Aaronson and Anthony Fontana have earned the right to regular playing time this year, but they aren’t that. And since Martínez doesn’t project as a top-caliber starter, Tanner might still need to sign a defensive midfielder along with a central midfielder and a playmaker.

Tanner has been unusually quiet this offseason, but the Union have sent assurances that signings are coming. Until then, fans who’d like something tangible have a right to wonder.