ST. PAUL -- Minnesota United’s front office held a concern about how they should handle their secret crush during the MLS SuperDraft in January.
When the Loons traded with the Chicago Fire to get back into the first round, they were targeting Chase Gasper with the newly acquired 15th pick. But they thought D.C. United also would be interested in the defender from nearby University of Maryland. If D.C. took Gasper at No. 14, Minnesota debated using the next pick on what it thought was a hidden gem, Hassani Dotson, a midfielder from Oregon State.
But the counterarguments were: Should the Loons trade down to a lower spot in the first round, obtain more assets and still select Dotson? Or do they nervously wait 16 more picks until No. 31, the seventh selection of the second round, and hope Dotson is still available?
The worry was: “Maybe someone else sees what we saw in him.”
D.C. ended up taking Akeem Ward at No. 14, and Minnesota took Gasper at 15 and played with fire before Dotson was still on the board at 31.
Now as the 2019 MLS season has entered its final month, a reordering of the best draft picks to date would show a much different pecking order.
First off, D.C. waived Ward in July and nine of the opening 14 picks have barely seen the field in 2019, while the Loons have been very satisfied with Dotson, Gasper and goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, who was taken with the seventh pick and has spent the year developing as a backup to new, veteran Italian ‘keeper Vito Mannone.
Dotson and Gasper are among a handful of rookie draft picks who have played more than 1,000 MLS minutes this season. Those young Loons find themselves in contention for MLS rookie of the year honors.
Colorado forward Andre Shinyashiki appears to be the front-runner. The University of Denver product, who was taken with the fifth pick, has seven goals and two assists in nearly 1,400 minutes. He was named MLS player of the week on Monday, something a rookie hadn’t done since 2016.
While Colorado has been toward the bottom of the Western Conference, Dotson has been a cog for a playoff contender, and started in Minnesota’s U.S. Open Cup final loss to Atlanta on Aug. 27. He has shown a precocious flexibility to play both right and left fullback and the defensive midfield spot the club sees as his future position. He also has posted three wonder goals, with coach Adrian Heath calling him one of the best finishers on the team.
And last week, the 22-year-old Washington state native was included in a call-up to the U.S. men’s national Under-23 team camp. Along with second-year Loons forward Mason Toye, Dotson played the first half of the Americans’ 2-0 win over Japan in Chula Vista, Calif., on Monday.
Dotson’s sudden rise came as a surprise to U23 coach Jason Kreis. “Hassani Dotson, I knew nothing about,” he admitted in a video posted by U.S. Soccer. “He really jumped off the page in the last month or so with Minnesota.”
Before the draft, Dotson was only a second-team all-Pac 12 Conference selection as a senior. He didn’t know what to expect when he went to the draft combine but told himself he would give himself two years to try to become a pro.
“I wasn’t going to quit on my dream,” Dotson said.
If things didn’t pan out with Minnesota, Dotson said he had a backup option on the table with New Mexico United of the USL Championship, a tier down from MLS. But within the first week of preseason, Dotson had earned a contract with Minnesota.
Dotson was carrying on after his father, Charles Stephenson, died in December. Dotson said his dad was diabetic and had complicating issues with his kidneys and pancreas. “There was a list,” Dotson said of his dad’s heath issues.
Charles didn’t see much of Hassani during his teenage years but reconnected with his son during his senior year at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way, Wash. Hassani said “we looked identical.”
“It was pretty sad … it was really tough,” Dotson said. “One thing that I was thankful for was we got to reconnect.”
Dotson started his MLS career as blip on the radar, but his late substitution in the first game this season made him a non-first round United draft pick to play for the first team. Yet Dotson played only 15 minutes across the first 12 games. He then started eight of the next nine games, playing 740 out of 810 minutes in that stretch.
During that run, he had two ridiculous goals against Philadelphia and Cincinnati. He was out of the lineup for a couple of games but returned to face a defensive challenge in Michael Barrios and Reggie Cannon in Dallas on Aug. 10. Things went poorly in the first half, with Dotson saying it was the worst half he’s had as a pro.
Then he produced his third stunning goal of the season. He did a stepover, cut to the middle and unleashed a rocket from 20 yards out.
“This third one was my favorite,” Dotson said, citing how he created for himself beforehand. “Also happy because it was the least I could do for my teammates after the first half.”
In preseason, Dotson was asked by the coaching staff to put together video clips of some of the best defensive midfielders in MLS: Chicago’s Dax McCarty, D.C.’s Russell Canouse, Los Angeles Galaxy’s Jonathon Dos Santos and LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta.
Dotson also has solicited advice from teammate Ozzie Alonso, another top-tier holding mid in MLS over the past decade.
When Dotson has played right or left back, he has felt the need to worry only about 180 degrees of the field with a sideline nearby. But as a defensive midfielder, it grows to 360 degrees, and Alonso taught him to adjust his positioning to be more open to the opposing team’s attack when he’s receiving the ball.
“I’m very happy for him,” Alonso said. “He’s young and he’s got good talent. He’s got a good future.”