Behind scenes: FC Cincy set for draft

FC Cincinnati scouting director Hunter Freeman (right) heads up the club’s draft preparation. Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati

Hunter Freeman was with the under-20 national team during the 2005 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, watching it on television when the Colorado Rapids selected him seventh overall. It was just as big of a deal to him then as he imagines it will be for players drafted Thursday watching the now online-only event.

As FC Cincinnati’s director of scouting and player recruitment, Freeman plays a key role in the club’s draft process and will have a large influence in the team’s decision regarding who to take in the three-round event, starting at 2 p.m. Thursday.

FCC has the No. 2 pick, as well as the second pick of the second and third rounds (picks No. 29 and 56), plus the 54th spot acquired in a trade sending Fatai Alashe to Columbus last August.

“Regardless if it’s online or it was a big thing, or in my case, … finding out on television that I was drafted — it’s a huge day for the player and their family,” Freeman said. “I mean, I would hope that it’s everyone’s dream to become a pro. And so that day is where you think you’re almost there. … And I think, you know, for me it is just, of course, having gone through the process of the draft, especially having been a GA, knowing what the benefits of that are from a player side, but also now from the club side, you know, I think I have a very good understanding on that part, to say the least.”

The draft has changed much since Freeman’s big day. Growth of academies and loss of young talent to clubs in Europe have played into the league’s de-emphasis of the college draft, and now even in a shortened event, it’s not unusual for teams to pass on final picks. The first SuperDraft in 2000 had six rounds, and there were four rounds almost every year from 2005 to 2020.

The final in-person draft took place in 2019 when FCC selected Frankie Amaya No. 1 overall. Then, last year the league moved to an online-stream draft show where picks are made via conference call.

Freeman, who played collegiately at the University of Virginia, has been a part of all three of FC Cincinnati’s drafts since joining MLS ahead of the 2019 season. He joined the staff in October 2018, roughly 14 months after he played against Cincinnati’s USL side in Miami FC’s 1-0 loss in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. Each of his draft experiences – and the way FCC has approached them — have been unique so far.

“There were some long nights heading into that day of the draft, a lot of deals made around the draft, whether it was pertaining to draft picks or just trades of players and various assets, which is always easier when everyone is kind of in the same building,” Freeman said of the 2019 draft, the last one before his promotion from scout to department head in October 2019. “But, you know, the last two years, that’s not been the case, so I don’t think you’ve seen as many deals done outside of the draft, besides just the draft picks themselves. So, I think that’s one thing that’s changed. But in the end, the amount of work, at least from our perspective at FC Cincinnati, the amount of work, due diligence, scouting in the college game hasn’t changed from the very first year to this year.”

In 2019, FCC made six selections over four rounds, passing on the final two, after acquiring all of Philadelphia’s picks. Last year, the club added a young player in a trade during Nashville’s expansion draft to acquire Brandon Vazqeuz and traded its natural first-round selection (No. 3 overall) in the 2020 SuperDraft to Inter Miami CF in exchange for $150,000 in GAM. Cincinnati picked Rey Ortiz in the second round and loaned him to Charlotte for the season before declining his option this offseason. The club never signed its only other pick last year.

Assessing the options

Despite the diminished importance of the draft, Freeman believes FCC can add some valuable players Thursday. 

Five Generation Adidas players are available, including potential picks like Wake Forest forward Calvin Harris or University of Washington centerback Ethan Bartlow. The GA program helps the league bring in young, professional-ready talent that otherwise wouldn’t yet be draft eligible. There are 174 players available to be picked Thursday.

“Yeah, I think we see a few players that we first of all like, and we see them all quite similar,” Freeman said. “It’s not that they’re playing the same position or the same types of players, but as an overall from potential, where they are, how they could fit into our team, how can we improve them and things of that nature, we see them quite similar. So for us, it’s not that there’s a really standout guy, so we feel quite comfortable at this moment, and of course, this is always ever changing — there’s phone calls coming all the time, even until the last minute — but we feel quite comfortable we will get a player at our position at No. 2, that could have a bright future for us.”

Freeman said the depth of talent in this draft class at the different positions is “fairly even across the board,” except maybe the forward spot in terms of how the club sees players being able to translate their game to the MLS level.

At No. 2, there are three or four players FCC could choose, but Freeman said he could see the club making a pick, trading it or even just trading down a bit to gain something else of value (usually allocation money).

“I think when we watch the college game, we are always looking for who are the best players,” Freeman said. “So, who has the most talent, but also who has the most potential? And then from there, once we identify that, then we start to get into specifics of, okay, is this guy fitting our profile for this position? Is this a need for us? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. And it’s not to say, if it’s not a need for us that we still won’t maybe take the player because at the end, if we think his talent outweighs all the others, then we want to find the best talent available in the college game.”

FCC’s greatest needs currently are at centerback, fullback and forward, but teams aren’t going into the draft usually expecting a player to come in ready to start right away. Most of the time, the rookie draft picks need some time to develop and are sent out on loan. Sometimes, that is necessary simply because of roster space.

Generation Adidas players’ higher-than-minimum salaries won’t count against the team’s salary budget, but this year, three of the five GA signees will occupy international spots on the roster. Clemson midfielder Philip Mayaka, Virginia Tech midfielder Daniel Pereira and Harris are all internationals, while Bartlow and Virginia midfielder Bret Halsey are both domestics.

FCC has one international spot open if Franko Kovacevic and Jurgen Locadia remain on loan in Cincinnati – even after acquiring an extra slot in a trade with Nashville and with goalkeepers Tyton Przemyslaw and Ben Lundt both now having green cards, as confirmed by Freeman. Maikel van der Werff is “very close” on his.

Of the draft eligible players who are internationals, Pereira could have the easiest route to becoming a domestic. Although he was born in Venezuela, his family moved to Virginia when he was 15, seeking asylum. His family is still waiting on an application to be approved before that would be granted, at which point MLS would consider him a domestic.

Freeman said that could help his draft position but it’s uncertain how quickly that process will take and it could actually make things more complicated. Regardless, the international status isn’t necessarily a deterrent from any of the players.

“The negative is we know we’re limited in this league on international spots, so that’s really a team by team theory, if you will, on how they look at it,” Freeman said. “… There’s always avenues. We have ways of obviously loaning him to continue his development, monitor him, buy the time for him to become a domestic player. Many clubs have second teams, and there you can put a player with the second team who’s international, who maybe isn’t quite yet ready to contribute, or worthy of occupying one international spot. So there’s multiple ways to do it, but for us, I think we certainly have a plan if we are to take an international guy, where again, we have some open international spots, first of all, so we can always add him to the roster if he’s staying and playing with the first team, but of course, the player has to show up and prove themselves to earn that right. And if not, we can always loan him and continue his development that way and begin to work on a green card while we do.”

Draft preparation

Evaluating players was a little more difficult this year because college soccer championships were pushed to the spring, and only the ACC had a tournament. Freeman attended both semifinal games, featuring Clemson against Virginia at North Carolina and Pittsburgh against Notre Dame at N.C. State, and he and some scouts went to the combine Sporting Kansas City hosted this fall, as well.

Freeman said most clubs had representatives scouting at the combine, but because many players hadn’t played in six-plus months, it was difficult to evaluate them, knowing they might not be quite as fit or as sharp as they would be in-season. Still, Freeman said it’s important to see players live when you can, and some clubs used the combine as a chance to do some of their interviews.

FCC did all their interviews virtually. Some clubs in a normal year will interview 30 or more players. The Orange and Blue interview around 10-15 players and talk to numerous coaches, including the player’s coach and others who would have seen him play. Freeman also had notes on some players from his scouting experiences the last two years.

The scouting department always goes into player evaluations knowing the profiles general manager Gerard Nijkamp and coach Jaap Stam are looking for at each position. Once Freeman and his team has compiled all the information, Freeman presents it to Nijkamp and Stam.

“The scouts are pulling all the information, subjectively,” Freeman said. “Then of course, we’re getting the data run on these players, as well to see how they’re fitting with the criteria that we deem of utmost importance. And then that’s presented to Jaap and Gerard along with video, and from there it becomes a discussion really between myself, Gerard and Jaap.”

Freeman and his scouting department recently got on a call with Nijkamp and Stam to give them a chance to ask them more questions about the players to make sure they weren’t missing any information. Last week, they had several conversations that continued into this week to come to a conclusion on who they want to pick.

Those discussions wrapped up for the most part Wednesday but Freeman said a trade could still be a possibility. In 2019, FCC used a timeout before making the first pick, taking the added time to weigh an offer from LAFC. 

“It’s an extremely thorough, thorough process that every single part of the club is really playing a part in, from the scouting department all the way up through the head coach and general manager,” Freeman said. “Some clubs put more emphasis on it than others. I think even though, you know, maybe the talent is dwindling in a way, I think every year, you can look at examples of guys who have done well, that came from the draft. It doesn’t mean it was the first or second pick or a first-round pick, but there’s even guys that were second-round picks that were playing a lot of minutes. So again, it’s still valuable in a sense of, it’s free, it’s players you don’t have to pay for and for the clubs, that’s always a good thing. And I think it’s just valuable in the sense that there’s still players that are producing in the league. I think some clubs that overlook it, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the way to go.”

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