MLS draft preview: Top-6 choices for Union

MLS draft preview: Top-6 choices for Union
January 15, 2014, 1:30 pm
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Pictured: Goalkeeper prospect Andre Blake (left) and top college goal-scorer Patrick Mullins. (USA Today Images)

As rumors continue to swirl around potential marquee signings for the Philadelphia Union, including some drama around U.S. national team player Maurice Edu (see story), the club will shift some of its attention to the best college players.

And with eight picks, including two of the top six, in Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft in Philadelphia -- which will be held in front of scores of Sons of Ben at the Convention Center -- the Union will certainly have the opportunity to snag at least a couple of the best.

Here’s a look at a few potential players the Union might take with the No. 2 and No. 6 picks in the first round.

Patrick Mullins, F, Maryland
Mullins won his second straight Hermann Trophy (college soccer’s Heisman) and scored three goals in the College Cup (college soccer’s Final Four) to prove he truly was the best player in the nation. It might seem like a sure bet D.C. United would take the high-scoring striker with the No. 1 overall pick, especially since he played in the shadow of RFK Stadium for the past four years. But D.C. has already brought in a couple of big-time goal-scorers this offseason. And with some teams unsure of how he’ll fit in at the next level, there’s a chance Mullins could slide to Philly at the No. 2 or even the No. 6 slot.

Steve Birnbaum, D, California
The big center back is being touted as the most MLS-ready player in the draft, and with Tuesday’s trade of Jeff Parke and the continued uncertainty surrounding Carlos Valdes’ return, that’s a position the Union desperately need. If D.C. United pass on him, Union manager John Hackworth might look to pounce and let the 22-year-old compete with Ethan White (the player Parke was traded for) for a starting spot on the backline.

Christian Dean, D, California
Of course, the Union may also opt to take another Cal center back as, rather remarkably, the Golden Bears may see two defenders go with the first two picks. Dean is viewed as a player who might not be as ready to step into an MLS lineup immediately but one that likely has more upside than his former Cal teammate. Dean also has experience at left back, another position the Union really need to upgrade in terms of depth.

Steve Neumann, MF, Georgetown
The Hoyas' midfielder enjoyed a standout four-year college career, hails from the Philly area and has expressed a desire to play for the Union -- all of which could sway Hackworth to scoop him up. And Hackworth told reporters earlier this week that he believes Neumann is "going to be successful in this league." The only issue, it seems, is that some scouts are unsure how he’d best be utilized at the pro level. And the issue for Philly could be that taking him with the second pick is too high but that he might not still be around at No. 6.

Andre Blake, GK, Connecticut
The praise for Blake has been coming from everywhere recently, with Hackworth bringing him up unprompted and remarking that he’s the “player getting rated more than anybody.” But do the Union need a goalkeeper? Considering they have a young starter in Zac MacMath and another future Homegrown signing in Zack Steffen coming through the pipelines at Maryland, it seems unlikely they’d use their first pick on one. Hackworth was probably just bringing his name up to make Vancouver (the team that picks at No. 3 and is projected to take Blake) sweat a little bit. Speaking of sweat ...

Ben Sweat, D, South Florida
The best true left back in the draft would be a great fit on a Union team that’s been using either natural right backs or midfielders in that spot for much of the past two seasons. And as a mobile, attacking defender, Sweat would mesh nicely on the opposite side of the field of right back Sheanon Williams. But Sweat is projected to go in the 9-12 range, so the Union probably won’t go after him unless they trade down.

Pedro Ribeiro, MF, Coastal Carolina
This is another player the Union probably wouldn’t take unless they trade down -- although after an excellent performance at the MLS Combine, perhaps Ribeiro will end up being selected in the top six. The Union know the creative midfielder well after he played for affiliate Reading United over the summer, and they might just view the Brazil native as a diamond in the rough. Stay tuned.