As draft cliches go, drafting the "best player available" is up there. Lots of teams in various sports insist this is what they intend to do prior to the draft. Magically, whoever they take almost always is squeezed into this label. Teams just don't like to admit that they left a better player on the board just so they could draft for need.
The reality, of course, is very different. Especially early in the draft, teams will almost always pick players they think have a chance to contribute sooner than later. The earlier the pick, the more likely this will be the case as those are the teams with more glaring needs. As drafts enter their middle picks, though, "drafting for need" becomes less and less appropriate as those teams have fewer holes to fill.
The middle is almost exactly where the Sounders find themselves as they'll pick 11th in the 18-pick MLS SuperDraft's first round. Some pundits, including our own Sidereal, believe the Sounders are likely to go with a goalkeeper if either Zac MacMath or David Bingham are available.
It's hard to argue with that logic as goalkeeper is easily the Sounders' most shallow position, especially from a longterm perspective. By just about all accounts, MacMath is as solid a goalkeeping prospect that is currently out there and there's no reason to believe Kasey Keller couldn't help him along immensely.
The only problem with this logic is it doesn't seem to fit the Sounders' modus operandi. Even if MacMath is a very good keeper for his age (19), there's just no reason to believe he'll be able to help this team significantly in the next few years. If there's one thing we know about the Sounders, they are a team that intends to compete for trophies immediately.
Last year, the youngest MLS goalkeeper to get significant playing time was DC United's Bill Hamid. The 20-year-old made eight starts and posted less-than-impressive numbers: a .645 save percentage and a 1.25 goals against average. In fact, the only keeper younger than 25 to look particularly strong on a regular basis was Toronto FC's Stefan Frei, and even his numbers (.704 and 1.32, respectively) were hurt by a poor finish.
Point being, young goalkeepers do not tend to anchor trophy-winning defenses anywhere in the world. Even if MacMath is as good as advertised, the chances of him being a frontline goalkeeper by 2012 are just about nil. Whether or not they take a goalkeeper in the SuperDraft, they are going to need to sign a veteran next year. The Sounders might, indeed, take MacMath, but it won't be because they are filling a need.
The other position crying for depth is fullback, where the Sounders are really just three players deep (Zach Scott has given no indication of being capable of starting on a regular basis). Unfortunately, the Sounders would probably have to take a fullback at the No. 11 spot. Kofie Sarkodie and Zarek Valentin are rated as the best options, but both are almost certainly going to be gone by the time the Sounders pick. The dropoff at fullback seems to be pretty steep after that as no other fullbacks are projected as solid first-rounders. If the Sounders pick a fullback, it's probably going to be because they moved up or took one later.
For me, this is all leading to the Sounders going the "best player available" route. The Sounders are absolutely stacked in the midfield, with as man as six players competing for starting minutes, but I wouldn't be at all shocked to see them go in this direction for a third straight year.
Anthony Ampaipitakwong, a creative holding midfielder, would seem to be a nice fit. He's probably going to be available and does fill a need in the sense that the other midfielders are more box-to-box (Brad Evans, Erik Friberg), pure attacking (Steve Zakuani, Alvaro Fernandez, Mike Fucito) or better suited as a CDM (Osvaldo Alonso). Of the other midfielders likely to make the roster (Miguel Montano, Mike Seamon, Roger Levesque and David Estrada), only Seamon seems to be destined to play in the middle and he seems more suited to be more of an attacking player.
So, in a sense, Ampaipitakwong would fill a need. With him, though, there's some appreciable upside as he's generally considered to be one of the more MLS-ready players in the draft.
A.J. Soares could be another strong fit, although it seems less likely that he'll fall as far as No. 11. Again, the Sounders don't really need a centerback, and arguably, they're as deep as anyone in MLS at that position. But you can never have enough depth in center defense, as the Sounders learned last year, and Soares might be the most MLS-ready defender in the draft.
What I'd really like to see, though, is for the Sounders to package some of these picks together and move up, preferably far enough to get someone like Omar Salgado. I haven't seen him enough to justify my infatuation, but on paper I just love this guy. He's just 17, is 6-foot-4 and has all the makings of a world-class target forward. Plus, he'd come on a Generation Adidas contract, so he wouldn't count against the salary budget. He's almost certainly a top-5 pick, so the Sounders would probably have to offer something significant. Maybe packaging one of their young midfielders with their first-round pick or sending their first and two of their three second-round picks (Nos. 21, 27 and 29 overall) to either DC United or Chivas USA could do the trick.
Such a move would be bold and involve some level of risk, but those are things the Sounders seem perfectly comfortable with.