When it comes to conditions for developing soccer talent, New England cannot come close to matching other areas of the country in terms of climate, facilities, or population.
But the region’s players appear able to overcome disadvantages and remain highly regarded, judging by the MLS SuperDraft. New England-connected players have been selected either No. 1 or 2 in six of the last seven years.
Siad Haji continued the trend, being chosen No. 2 by the San Jose Earthquakes last week. Haji, born to Somali parents in a Kenya refugee camp, attended Manchester (N.H.) Central High School and played for Lawrence Academy, New England FC, Seacoast United SC, the Revolution Academy, and US junior national teams.
Haji scored nine goals in 14 games as a freshman at New England College in 2016 as the Pilgrims went 11-10-1 and captured the North Atlantic Conference title. He then transferred to Virginia Commonwealth and was named to MLS’s Generation Adidas program after his junior season.
University of Connecticut players began the streak of New Englanders becoming early picks: Carlos Alvarez was No. 2 in 2013, and goalkeeper Andre Blake and striker Cyle Larin were No. 1 the next two years. Former Berkshire School star Jack Harrison became the top selection in 2016; Syracuse defender Miles Robinson (Arlington) was No. 2 in 2017; and Francis Atuahene (the Hotchkiss School) was No. 4 in 2018.
Other New Englanders selected in the first round this year included Logan Gdula (East Lyme, Conn./Oakwood SC) by FC Cincinnati and midfielder Sam Brown, who became the first Harvard first-rounder after being taken by Real Salt Lake with the 17th pick.
Other players with New England roots selected after the first round could be late bloomers/sleepers.
The Vancouver Whitecaps’ second-round pick was Georgetown defender Brendan McDonough, son of Arizona Cardinals player personnel director Terry McDonough and grandson of former Globe columnist Will McDonough.
Jamaican Rashawn Dally (Watkinson School, Quinnipiac) went to FC Cincinnati, Geo Alves (Dean JC, Vermont) to D.C. United, and Dartmouth’s Eduvie Ikoba to FC Dallas and Justin Donawa to Columbus.
Dally, who grew up in Bloomfield, Conn., offers size (6 feet 2 inches) and athleticism. Dally has participated in Jamaica national team training camps, but has a green card and will not be counted as a foreign player.
Donawa, who has played for Bermuda’s national team, would likely have been a higher draft choice but struggled with injuries. He was considered an Ivy League Player of the Year candidate (he was Ivy League indoor triple jump champion), and had been expected to combine with Ikoba in the Dartmouth attack. But Donawa sustained a knee injury, then sprained an ankle after returning late in the season.
Alves moved to Pawtucket, R.I., (Shea HS) from Cape Verde and played for Brockton United and the Revolution Academy.
The MLS draft is flawed, though, as many of the country’s best players bypass it to play overseas or are considered ineligible because of their status as “Homegrown” players.
The Revolution made two first-round picks: Canadian midfielder Tajon Buchanan (Syracuse) and midfielder DeJuan Jones (Michigan State). But no Revolution draft choice has been an Opening Day starter since 2013.
Among those attempting to move directly to the professional ranks is Amos Shapiro-Thompson, who performed briefly for the Revolution Academy and turned down an offer from Harvard. Shapiro-Thompson, 19, from Worthington, is playing for Legia Warsaw’s B team in Poland after deferring a commitment to the University of Virginia. Ricardo Sa Pinto, Legia’s Portuguese coach, called Shapiro-Thompson into the first team but did not keep him on the roster, partly because of foreign player limits.
Players outside the collegiate system are often good bets to make an impact. Diego Fagundez, who found a place in the Revolution lineup while a high school student, provides a local example. The Revolution roster includes four “Homegrown” players: Fagundez, Isaac Angking, and Zach Herivaux bypassed college, and Scott Caldwell played at Akron.
This year’s draft included a non-collegiate player: Peter-Lee Vassell, 19, selected by Los Angeles FC in the second round. Vassell, who has scored five goals in eight games for Jamaica, has been performing for Harbour View FC, which has produced star MLS attackers such as Damani Ralph and Andy Williams, plus MLS Best XI defender Kemar Lawrence.
New high-tech tool
Victoire Cogevina has developed a system for processing videos that could aid in the efficiency of scouting. Cogevina is also hoping the setup, which uses artificial intelligence, will reduce corruption and exploitation of players.
“This is a very simple technology that players all around the world, from any background, any age, will be able to use to upload their achievements,” Cogevina said. “You and I have a résumé; players have their video.”
Cogevina’s software product, called Gloria, intends to provide a centralized platform for players’ videos to be accessed by clubs, federations, and leagues. She said the Argentina SuperLiga, DFB, and Spain’s La Liga women’s division have signed on.
“It’s completely unorganized, and it shouldn’t be, with all the technology we have today,” Cogevina said. “Over and over, kids who are extremely talented don’t make it because they don’t have the right contacts or enough money in their bank account.
“The whole idea is to give power to kids to go directly to clubs, regardless of who they know or how much money they have; they don’t need a broker. We will have a database with millions of videos. Not even FIFA has this.”
Cogevina, 27, was born in Boston while her mother, Shalimar Reynal, was studying international affairs at Boston University and her father, Alexios, was serving as Greek consul.
In 2015, Shalimar and Victoire established SR All Stars, a FIFA-licensed player representation agency. They have worked with MLS players such as Miguel Almiron, Osvaldo Alonso, and Nicolas Lodeiro, plus former Chilean national team forward Mauricio Pinilla.
“My mother and I were one of the first to open an agency run by women in the soccer world, and I’m very proud of that,” Cogevina said. “It is a special achievement. You don’t see many women doing this, and I think it gives us an edge.
“Players trust us more. The way we run the business, it’s like a family, and we don’t care only about commission. That can be disruptive in the agency world.”
Cogevina believes soccer development needs shaking up. She has been motivated by the problems of third-party ownership, the pay-to-play youth setup, and a prostitution ring involving young players in Argentina.
“That gives us extra incentive, but incentive is not the right word — responsibility — to build the software to provide a safe place for players, clubs, and leagues,” Cogevina said. “I worked in my mother’s agency and I’m not going to take her job away from her. Agents are still needed. Like a lawyer, you cannot represent yourself. A player cannot do it. We’re not going to replace humans.
“By automatizing, we make it easier and faster. And for kids, no matter where they are or how much money their parents have, they are just being judged by talent.”