BY Stanley Holmes 06:46PM 01/06/2011

Sounders encouraged by draft prospects

As Sounders head to MLS player combine and SuperDraft, staff is looking to fill specific positions and find a marquee player who can fight for a starting spot.

Anthony Ampaipitakwong of Akron University is a player that intrigues the Sounders

Sounders FC technical director Chris Henderson says four to five roster spots are up for grabs as the coaching staff prepares for the Major League Soccer player combine and SuperDraft to begin this weekend.

As always, the Sounders will be looking for a player who can contribute to the first team, Henderson said. With the 11th overall pick, the Sounders will also pursue their time-honored philosophy of picking the best overall player. Henderson says he likes the foreign players that have been added to the draft, which includes Englishmen John Rooney, the brother of Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, who tried out with the Sounders.

“We look at every player with the intention of helping us win,” said Henderson, who alludes to a mix of domestic and foreign players who will be invited to pre-season training. “There will be serious competition for these spots.”

Henderson expects competition in certain areas.  The team is deep at centerback and fairly strong at the forward positions. Midfield and outside back are the two areas that could be bolstered and the coaching staff has been looking at young keepers — of which a couple attended the Sounders player combine recently in Las Vegas.

Still, the focus has to be on enhancing the senior squad. The draft could unearth that player, Henderson says, since the overall quality of the group is strong. “We could bring in a wide midfielder or a wide back,” he said.

One of three highly touted midfielders, all projected first-round picks, could be available by the time the Sounders select at 11th. The Sounders also hold the 21st, 27th and 29th overall picks. The quality of the foreign players means that some of these top college players could be later first-round selections, which favors the Sounders.

Of course, so many scenarios will be swirling and deals will be made during the player combine and leading up and into the SuperDraft, that anything is possible, Henderson cautions.

“I’m pretty happy with this group, especially with the foreign players,” Henderson says. “It could be 13 or 14 deep then some others in the later rounds. I was really happy to see improvement last year to this year in our combine.”

If several Mock Drafts are any barometer, then Henderson says to expect prevailing wisdom to change. Whatever Seattle’s final blueprint and player priority it likely will change during the SuperDraft. Call it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for the MLS coaching staffs.

Who is high on Henderson’s radar? Here are three prospective first-round draft prospects who could be available to the Sounders:

  • Michael Farfan, a midfielder from North Carolina.  He can make the jump to the pros, Henderson says. He’s got a strong engine, he’s superb under pressure and clever on the ball, and he’s a silky passer with good vision. “He could go high in the draft if he does well at the player combine,” Henderson said.
  • Anthony Ampaipitakwong, wide midfielder from National Champions Akron University, is a player that reminds Henderson of a young Claudio Renya, former U.S. National Team star who played various midfield positions for club and country. Henderson, who was a teammate of Renya’s, says Ampaipitakwong has an excellent first touch. He’s quick, has good vision and has plenty of experience and could make an immediate contribution from the bench.
  • Stephen McCarthy, a midfielder also from North Carolina, comes with size and strength and is a fantastic ball winner, according to Henderson, but is someone who probably needs a little seasoning. Still, he could push for playing time.

Other top prospects include: AJ Soares, a defender from University California — Berkeley, who has trained with the Sounders; North Carolina central defender Jalil Anibaba, who could be a top five pick; keeper Josh Ford of University of Connecticut, but likely a second-round selection; Andy Adlard, a midfielder from Indiana University; and forward Blake Brettschneider from University of South Carolina.

But no matter who the Sounders select in the four rounds of the SuperDraft, Henderson says it’s still a crap shoot. It’s hard to know how the college player will adjust to the rigors of pro soccer.

“It’s hard to tell how the player will make the jump to the pros,” Henderson said. “In August, some of the college players start to fade because they are not used to the long season. It’s also about mentality. Some of these players aren’t used to sitting on the bench — they’ve always been stars. Can they handle that adjustment and be ready to seize their opportunity? You just never know.”

As for the likely No. 1 pick? Henderson believes it will be Darlington Nagbe, a forward from Akron University. “He’s a top player,” Henderson says. Another forward, Omar Salgado, of the U-20 National team could be a top three pick along with Kofie Sarkodie, defender from Akron.

Akron University, the current Division 1 national champion, could deliver seven players to MLS teams — of which six have been projected to be first-round draft picks. Seattle’s Steve Zakuani, played two seasons for Akron.