Does the MLS SuperDraft still have any relevance in today’s game? While many fans say it does, the numbers tend to suggest a different idea.
Throughout the last 100 years, collegiate and amateur recruitment have become synonymous with professionals across North America. With basketball, football, baseball and hockey making up the top four professional leagues in the USA, they have all relied on a similar player acquisition tool: the amateur draft.
The draft is simple. Amateur athletes have their rights selected by professional clubs in hopes of making it big time one day. Although drafts are important, sports are a global phenomenon and not are all set up to work within the draft’s formats.
Enter Major League Soccer.
Established in 1995, MLS was the newest attempt at bringing the most global game to North America. And again, it established itself with the idea of using the draft to develop players. However, as the league grew at an exponential rate, the value of the draft has diminished, so much so, that at present, the SuperDraft, while still a player recruitment asset, has lost most of its value.
Although the MLS draft may be falling behind in relevancy, gems remain to be found within the NCAA ranks. That being said, the 49 is going to take a look back at the last few MLS drafts to see where value is being found, or if there is any future for the SuperDraft in MLS.
Looking back on the last three drafts, we can see a few common trends. These include the consistent struggle of forwards, the quick adaptions of many defenders, and, most intriguingly, the unsuccessfulness of the top pick.
While the first two observations are based strictly on positional adjustments from the collegiate level to the professional ranks, the first overall question is something in and of itself. Ahead of the draft every year, MLS experts do their best to predict which player will shine the brightest in their careers and if that player is indeed worthy of the top selection in that year’s draft class. Of course, many pundits get this wrong, and the real confirmation does not come until the end of the player’s rookie season, where they either won or did not win the MLS rookie of the year.
From the inaugural MLS draft in 1996, and up until 2016, only one player not selected in the draft won the rookie award. However, in the three complete rookie classes since 2016, only one winner has come through the draft. Why the sudden change?
In 2016 English forward Jack Harrison was selected first overall. 2017 was Abu Danladi and 2018 was captained byJoao Moutinho. These players all had something in common. None of them were bred through the game in America. Harrison learned his football in England, Danladi only arrived in the USA for high school, and Moutinho came over from Portgual for college. The three picks also share another common factor. They are all without a rookie of the year trophy.
The devaluation and unsuccessfulness of the high MLS picks can be purely accredited to the growth of the sport in the United States. While it may appear that the game is getting worse, and no homegrown talent is being made due to the lack of successful draft picks, the opposite is actually true.
As mentioned previously, the draft used to be the ideal tool to bring young players into professional programs, however, this all began to change when MLS required all of its member clubs to open up their own youth academies, allowing organizations to develop elite talent at ages much younger than found post-college. Since this strategy came into action, key young contributors have started to become the homegrown player, not those from through the SuperDraft.
According to MLS, a homegrown player is any player to be either involved with the club’s academy for one year or to be part of a pre-named “Generation Adidas” from their respective draft class. Given the greater potential of self-defined input and coaching, every club opts for the former of the two options, meaning the opportunities given to draft picks are diminishing with every season.
The other benefit of academy graduate homegrown players versus having any old draft pick is the salary cap accommodation. Like star designated players, homegrown players do not count against the league salary cap. This allows teams to find value in their own players, which they can then surround with complimentary superstars.
Going back to the last three first picks. All of them have found a level of success in the league, but none of them have become true superstars. Forward Jack Harrison has done the best with his career so far, leaving NYCFC for the English Championship after two MLS seasons. Danladi made himself a spot in the 18 for Minnesota united, while Moutinho is already on his second MLS side with Orlando City.
As for the winners of the rookie of the year, their history is flashier and their trajectory much more promising. Jordan Morris, the Seattle Sounders forward out of Stanford University, began to make a name for himself while still in the NCAA, earning callups to the senior USA Men’s side. Julian Gressel, a German-born defender, ingrained himself as a key cog of Atlanta United’s defence, part of the side that lifted their first MLS Cup in 2018.
But Morris and Greseel both followed untraditional paths to the trophy, with neither player the cut and dry American draft pick. On the other hand, the 2018 winner was a true American. Corey Baird developed through the Real Salt Lake City Academy program and has become a poster-child for the booming MLS academy movement.
After looking at the rookie of the year winners and comparing them to the first overall SuperDraft selections, it becomes clear that MLS is evolving. The SuperDraft will not be around much longer if this trend continues, which in the end, is the best option for American success in the world’s game.
Every other country above the USA in the FIFA World Ranking does not have a draft and has developed world-class soccer players. The USA has a draft and develops world-average soccer players. With the change in attitude and strategy towards young player development, the best of American soccer is beginning to show its head just beyond the horizon. And that does include the MLS SuperDraft.
Ben Steiner: MLS Multiplex and 49 Sport