Clement Simonin's long, surprising journey to Toronto
For most players selected at Thursday's MLS SuperDraft, the day follows a familiar script. You pick out your best suit, your name is called, there's the photo op with MLS commissioner Don Garber, and then it's time to celebrate with family and friends.
Clement Simonin's experience was a bit different.
Rather than Philadelphia, Simonin was in Macon, Georgia, where he was a mere two days into the MBA program at Mercer University. To make ends meet, he was working for Mercer's athletic department as a graduate assistant for operations. His task on this day was to clean up and prepare the school's baseball stadium. He hadn't even attended his first class at Mercer's Stetson School of Business and Economics.
It was while attending to these duties that he received a Twitter notification that MLS was following him.
"I was surprised," he said with a nonchalance that oozed over the telephone line.
But that was nothing compared to what took place a minute later. He saw tweets from MLS and Toronto FC stating he had been selected with the No. 9 overall pick at the MLS SuperDraft.
"I was like, 'All right, just take advantage,'" he said. "It's always been my dream to be a professional, and it was surreal because I wasn't expecting anything, maybe [to get picked] in the last few rounds. To be a first-round pick is just crazy. It's a strange feeling, but it feels good."
That sentiment was shared by those in attendance at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Simonin was such an unknown quantity that he sent the assembled press scrambling for his bio in the predraft media guide, only for them to find he wasn't listed.
But Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko had engaged in a little covert scouting to make his French connection. Along with 50 other players, Simonin had been invited to a combine held in Las Vegas back in December that was run by both Toronto and the Seattle Sounders. The players played three games over three days, and Simonin impressed.
"[Simonin] is a left-footed center-back, and he's really good with the ball, and he can pass out of the back," Bezbatchenko said after the draft. "He's athletic and has really good positioning."
As for why Simonin was taken so high, Bezbatchenko was worried Seattle might trade up and grab the Frenchman first. After all, Simonin had played for the Sounders' U-23 team last summer, all while interning for the club's marketing department as well as helping out the Sounders' women's team.
"Clement is one of those players where he fills a need, and if you feel he's one of the best in the position, you take him," Bezbatchenko said. "You can't let him slip. Could we have waited and traded and moved down? We were considering whether he would still be available, but there were two things. Not a lot of people were coming [to the combine], but the team that did come was Seattle."
And so Simonin's soccer odyssey has taken another unexpected turn. A native of Lorient, France, Simonin was on the books of FC Lorient from the time he was 12 until he was 19. He progressed to the club's reserve side, at which point he was cut.
With his pro prospects dwindling, Simonin decided to attend school in the U.S., first spending two seasons at Division II Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina. After earning second-team All-America honors after his sophomore season, he transferred to North Carolina State, where he excelled as a junior.
"What happens with some of these guys overseas is their soccer and their school become divergent. You can't do both well," NC State head coach Kelly Findley said. "Then they find out about the opportunity to come to the States. They can work on their English, and they go back with a university degree that's paid for."
But Simonin then suffered through an injury-hit senior season, after sustaining a sports hernia early in the campaign.
"I carried on for seven games and then decided to get surgery," he said. "I wanted to get ready for the potential draft so decided to have surgery in September."
Findley called the injury "devastating" and chalked up the Wolfpack's struggles this season in part to Simonin's absence.
That left Simonin at something of a crossroads, but like any good businessman, he hedged his bets. He applied to graduate school after earning his Bachelor of Science degree in sports management from NC State in December.
Now it's clear Simonin has other plans.
"When you're picked No. 9, you have to take it," he said. "I didn't know if Toronto was going to take me. I was thinking maybe, but I really wasn't sure about it. There was a very small possibility, I would say. That's what made the whole surprise bigger."
With his professional career in front of him, Simonin hopes even bigger surprises await.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.