Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs met with the media after his team picked five players – Irakoze Donasiyano, Tom Judge, Sondre Norheim, Tor Saunders, and Leroy Enzugusi – in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. Read his full comments here or watch the video I posted yesterday.
“First off, I don’t want to sound boring and give you ‘coachspeak,’ but I’m sure everyone goes into a draft and when it’s all done they say, ‘well we got all the players we wanted.’ For us, this process – led by our chief scout Chance Myers and his staff – they started a long time ago from a standpoint of how long we’ve been tracking a lot of these guys. And where we rated the top 20 players initially, the task we gave to the scouting department and our coaching staff was, if we felt like out of our top 20 players that we rated, if we were happy with No. 20, we knew – opposed to where we had the second pick last year, and other than one player we could choose from anyone on the board – we knew if we could find 20 players we rated, we’d be happy when it was all done.
“I have to tell you: there were obviously some players that you could have forecasted were going to be at the very top of the picks, with some of the GAs. If you saw the board in my office, the five names that we ended up with in our selections were all players we kind of said in a best-case scenario we would have landed. From Irakoze dropping to 20, to Leroy Enzugusi being available in the third round: each player we selected was with a specific role in mind, were guys we thought could have the potential to not only make the roster right now, but fit the future of our club, and when you look at the idea of kind of a fledgling academy that maybe still isn’t feeding our first team yet, the idea of the SuperDraft is really important for our club – in some cases more than most – because of us needing young players to help populate our roster.
“I definitely want to add also, whether it’s my own experiences from having coached in college so long, or Chance Myers who in 2008 was the No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft for Sporting Kansas City – at that time, the Kansas City Wizards – we just placed a lot of value in college soccer. At a time where people question the value sometimes, or the importance and significance of the SuperDraft, I think we demonstrated last year with our selections – and we hope we’ll do the same thing this year – that not only can you find value in the SuperDraft, but that we’re going to be able to maximize the picks we have. We walk away today very excited with the haul we have, the picks we selected.”
What is your prognosis for these guys in terms of immediately making the roster with later picks than last year’s pick, and balancing that with long-term needs and a potential spring college season?
“Tim, it’s a great question, and you think about where we were at this stage last year, not only being on Jack Maher’s front yard, but when you look at the idea of what we’re trying to do with the Draft, what we’re trying to accomplish, obviously our roster’s in a different spot than we are today. I think when you look at some of these guys that we selected, not only did we try to find guys that we thought could potentially push certain roles for the future for us to provide depth, but one thing we’ve stressed all along when we first started our roster build as an expansion team, was looking for players who’re versatile.
“You look at someone like Koze, who has the ability to play centrally and wide as a winger, wide midfielder, or as a right back. When you look at guys like Tom Judge who can play anywhere up and down the left side – I think some of these guys have demonstrated to us already, just from the time we spent tracking them through their careers, they can probably chip in in a number of different roles. For us, we always kind of feel that, if you can only play one spot on the field, you better be really good, because only one guy can play there. For Walker Zimmerman to only play centerback: I mean, he’s the best centerback in the league this past season. For some of these guys like Koze, like Tom Judge, like Sondre – who’s played as a right centerback and right back at Syracuse – there’s some of these guys in this group that have the potential to contribute this season for us.
“This ’21 season will be as unique as any other. I know that sounds like a broken record from how unique last season was, but for the first time, you’re going to have the Gold Cup, Euros, Copa América, all going at the same time along with [World Cup] qualifiers, and Olympic qualifiers, and the depth on our roster is being tested that much more. I think when you look at what we’ve put together for ’21, this roster has the potential to be that much deeper than we were last year.”
Was your draft-morning trade to move up to the slot where you ultimately selected Tom Judge made specifically with him in mind? WHhat other value did you get out of the trades you made for draft picks?
“That’s a great question, Drake. I would tell you that now the draft’s all over, if you saw the board in my office, we had three names written down, ironically, with Koze, Judge, and Sondre. The hope was that if one of those guys was available at No. 20 we would take them. Even Gary [Smith, head coach] was joking before that we just can’t believe we were able to land all three of those guys.
“You think about how we tried to be active in this draft. The reality is: you guys know how big of an NBA basketball fan I am, and the reality is where in the NBA and NFL, the draft picks are much more-coveted assets. In our league, the most-coveted asset is GAM, which we’ve obviously been spending a lot of time collecting this offseason. We tried to be very active to try to get ourselves into this draft with more picks, and really kind of banked on the fact that we know where bodies are buried, and be able to find value. Once we were able to add a second-round pick in that trade from Philadelphia, the idea for me was: in the event if any of those three guys were still around in the second round, how can we keep moving up? So after acquiring the pick from Philadelphia, we were able to do a pick-flop with Vancouver, and I would tell you, once we got through pick 20 with Koze, the idea was, ‘what do we have to do to try to get Tom with our second pick, the 36th pick.’ I can tell you I was fairly aggressive with trying to trade up, because I just didn’t know if he’d be around at 36. So for us to land Tom at that pick, we were just tickled.”
How do you see Donasiyano fitting in this season, especially having traded Derrick Jones earlier in the day?
“In some ways, you helped answer the question before I had a chance to. The hope for us was by trading Derrick, if we were fortunate enough to land Koze, there’d be an opportunity for him to contribute in midfield. The reality is that, where he played a key role for Virginia last year in the middle of the park behind [now Orlando-city striker] Daryl Dike and with Joe Bell [a holding midfielder now playing professionally in Norway] to advance to a national final, he also spent most of the Fall playing as a wingback in a 3-4-3.
“When you look at what Alistair [Johnston]’s done over the last year to now being with Canada, to think about what might happen with Alistair as far as his commitments this year with Olympic qualifying and potentially Concacaf [World Cup] qualifying for Canada. Being able to add someone like Koze who could help us out in midfield, but also on the flanks and specifically at right back, I think he’s got a tremendous opportunity for himself.”
How much did first-hand experience with Tor Saunders (played NSC in the 2019 US Open Cup) and Leroy Enzugusi (participated in SKC Academy when Jacobs was still there) help you scout those players?
“Well first, I would say in regards to scouting college soccer in general: we can’t place enough significance on how important that experience is for young players. The reality is, with the advance of the MLS academy initiative, clearly you have more and more players who are jumping right to MLS clubs straight through their academies. But the reality is some players need more time.
“In the case of Leroy, yes I obviously have a relationship from having watched him play for a long time. Not only was he in our youth academy in Kansas City when I was there, but we also signed him to an academy contract with the Swope Park Rangers in USL. So he’s certainly someone that I was familiar with – not only on the field, but off the field. What I would say is his experience at Drake University, competing in the Missouri Valley Conference has only helped him and aided him.
“What you’ll probably find not only with Leroy, but with most if not all of our college players who we drafted in the SuperDraft, they’ll probably all in some cases probably stay with their college teams for the Spring. I can’t speak for every team with regards to strategic planning, but the reality is, most young players tend to go on loan their first year anyway. When you look at when the USL season will start, the combination of the uncertainty of knowing when the MLS season will start, along with the college season being played in the Spring. You have, in some ways, a de facto loan opportunity for all of these guys to stay with their college teams in the spring. In the case of someone like Koze, to pursue a national championship, and then join us as soon as the college seasons are over.
“From Tor’s perspective, [NSC goalkeepers coach] Matt Pickens has been tracking the pool of goalkeepers all along, and very genuinely – it was unique to see how late goalkeepers have gone in this draft – all along, Tor was our top goalkeeper on the board. I could see the smile on Matt’s face across the table as we got closer and closer to these picks, thinking that we can get the guy that he’d want, and actually that he’s seen in Open Cup, as well.
How important when making these picks is getting guys with a pedigree of team success, with Virginia (despite your personal rivalry with them as a former Duke coach) playing for the national title in 2019, Saunders coming from historic power Akron and helping lead Coastal Carolina to a strong conference run this Fall, etc.?
“Tim, it’s really funny that you said that also, because I texted with George Gelnovatch, the coach at UVa, after we selected Koze, and we talked about coming down this Spring to watch them play, assuming Koze goes back there. I said, ‘I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a really good experience going to Charlottesville during my time when I was at Duke, and I’m looking forward to going back there in a different setting.’
“You’re spot-on as far as how important that reference is. I mentioned the significance of college soccer. To me, part and parcel with that is: being at programs with pedigrees and coaching staffs that have experience and history at developing top talents. What George has done at UVa, the opportunity that someone like Koze has, he’s just going to be more prepared to play at this level than from a lot of other programs. That absolutely was an important factor for us in looking at players.”
Was the status of guys potentially returning to their college teams for the Spring a factor in the specific individuals you ended up taking?
“It’s something we discussed not only with each of these players – who we spoke to previously in interviews – but also the college coaches at most if not all of the schools, to try to make sure we worked in conjunction with them. We want to make sure we’re respecting not only those college programs and their pursuit of conference and national championships during the season, but also what’s in the best interest of each of those players. With each of these guys, in most cases, being so close to graduating, I think in some cases it would be negligent to try to pull them out before they finish that. I can’t stress the importance of the experience that I had coaching in college for over 20 years. The significance in helping develop these 18-22-year olds academically, socially, mentally, and psychologically: that’s an important part of their own development as players.
“Whether that’s going back to finish their degrees, whether it’s getting some extra seasoning by anticipating and playing meaningful matches, rather than kind of coming in and training. What tends to happen with the college season, knowing that the traditional season is only in the Fall, a lot of these guys who are selected to play in the [MLS] Combine have a couple of months where they’re dormant with no soccer before they go in, and they’re not really playing at the best of their abilities. Then you have another break before they hit preseason, and a lot of times you have college players come into MLS and they’re just not prepared because their bodies aren’t ready, their game’s not ready.
“While I can’t comment about any of the guys specifically today about who will return to their college teams, what I can tell you is that for each of these guys, it’s probably in their best interest. If you look at Luke Haakenson, getting the chance to play the full season in Charlotte last year, someone like Jack Maher who was unfortunate that his loan in Charlotte was cut short because of the pandemic, but the hope was to get these guys games, and in Jack’s case to come back, really kind of played-in and sharp before joining our team, and I would tell you that we’re going to be very strategic and calculated about trying to do similar stuff with most if not all of them.”