by Scotty Smith
UC Davis defender Roy Boateng had his moment. He got to smile and get his picture with Denis Hamlett and Chris Armas at the 2019 MLS #SuperDraft. It was a wonderful day for Roy and his family, and a moment he will surely never forget. There were 75 other soccer players drafted, and 75 other moments for mom and them to text their friends.
Sadly, however, very few of the players drafted will ever suit up for the first team. Roy Boateng is far more likely to face Memphis in a Red Bull II USL match than he is to line up next to Aaron Long. Such is the reality of the #SuperDraft in the year 2019.
(photo credit: MLSsoccer.com)
This was the 20th edition of the #SuperDraft, and probably the least relevant. Twenty years ago, the draft was the primary method of player acquisition for MLS teams. While it is still possible to catch lightning in a bottle through the draft, the majority of players taken never log first team minutes for the team who drafted them. Naturally, the theories/thoughts/opinions are pouring in, and the entire chorus is singing the same song. That song is a funeral dirge titled, “The MLS SuperDraft is Dead.”
Deadspin published an article called, “The MLS SuperDraft is an Embarrassing Relic.” Though Deadspin often aims for shock-and-awe-type headlines, there are many within the MLS community who would echo those sentiments. Ernst Tanner, the recently appointed sporting director of Philly Union, traded his entire draft to expansion side FC Cincinnati. His reason was this: the level in college is so far below MLS that none of the players available at the Union’s picks would be able to help the team more than their current youth system could.
Cincy, for their part, traded two of the five picks away, including the pick that sent Roy Boateng to New Jersey. Those moves proved that the trade was not just about FCC filling out their roster. They acquired some pieces to help in the future, but it remains to be seen whether those picks will help right away. The general thought on draft day was that even top pick Frankie Amaya will need time to develop.
Perhaps the greatest sign that the draft has become irrelevant happened in the form of draft slot passes. There were supposed to be 96 players drafted, but teams chose to pass on picks 20 times. That’s 20 times the team on the clock said, “Nah. We’re good. Move on to the next team. See if they want anybody.”
Why is this happening?
Peter Vermes did an incredible job of explaining the gap between the college system and MLS on the MLS Extra Time podcast. Vermes has been in the league for a very long time (since the beginning if you count his playing days), and he has seen things change in the area of player acquisition. Simply put, MLS teams don’t NEED the draft. The academies are providing teams with more and more players, and those players are being trained by MLS teams from about the age of 14. For Vermes, that means he has been keeping an eye on kids in the SKC system during their most important years of development.
So what should be done?
Going forward, the kids who really impress in MLS academies will be signing homegrown deals. The draft will be for players who fell through the cracks in their youth, then took college scholarships in a second chance to impress. For that reason, the draft has value. Americans love a second chance story.
The question is: why does it need to be an MLS draft?
If the #SuperDraft is going to continue to be a thing going forward, it makes much more sense in USL.
Here are the reasons why:
1. USL is the natural next step in the development of the NCAA player.
It is no secret that NCAA soccer has different rules than the rest of the soccer world. Teams are not limited to three substitutions, and the entire season takes place in just a few short months. Most teams play in a relatively small geographic footprint, playing games within a conference system that cuts the nation into smaller sections. As such, many NCAA players are not physically and mentally prepared for the demands of MLS.
Sure, there are still several NCAA players in MLS. However, the past several years have seen a sharp increase in players who have never played in the NCAA. That number is bound to go up, as MLS teams continue to pull in players from South America, Europe, and all parts of the planet. David Beckham’s signing meant that the designated player rule is here to stay, and most teams take advantage by using those slots on players who make a difference. TAM and GAM are weird, but they are used to improve the “middle” portion of the roster. Overall, the level of the league has increased in the twenty years since the first draft, while the level of the NCAA player has stayed about the same.
USL, on the other hand, has tons of former NCAA players. MLS teams add to this number every year by sending their draft picks straight to USL teams. Modern USL matches look like college all-star games. It makes FAR more sense for the NCAA player to START in USL, then perform at a high level and sign with an MLS team. In this scenario, MLS scouts would spend more time scouting USL than NCAA. Right now, most USL players are guys who “couldn’t cut it in MLS.” We can flip that narrative by giving USL the draft, allowing players to develop in that league first and earn their spot in MLS.
2. It would help independent USL clubs fill rosters.
Memphis 901FC coach Tim Mulqueen has worked the Western hemisphere this offseason. That’s the way it has to be for independent USL teams. Since there is no homegrown rule or #SuperDraft, USL coaches have to scout the country or travel the globe looking for players who are willing to sign. Coach Mulch visited the Caribbean and was successfully in signing a number of players from CONCACAF international rosters*. Aside from that, he has signed players from other USL teams. As a rule, he is on his own in terms of signing players.
Coach Mulch was in Orlando for the combine, scouting players who might fall through the cracks. Is it possible that he was wasting his time in sunny Orlando? Is it possible that he developed a strong list of players who could help 901FC, only to see those players drafted to a team who has no real interest in playing them?
In the current system, if Mulch falls in love with a forward and really thinks he could help the 901FC attack, he has to wait and see whether or not that player is taken. If he is taken, he will likely be stashed on a USL roster. Now, all of a sudden, Coach is seeing that forward twice a year instead of everyday. It would be better for Mulch – and all of the independent coaches – to get a shot at some guaranteed players who could actually help.
*Note: even those players played in the NCAA at one point.
3. MLS teams can still get the players they want.
Point 2 (or any of this) is not likely to be taken seriously by MLS, as they have about zero interest in what happens to independent USL teams. I would argue that raising the level of all teams helps raise the level of the league in which their reserves play, but MLS tends to care only about MLS, not American soccer as a whole. It is important to note, however, that the whole system can still help MLS. They can still get the players they want.
Julian Gressel was a fantastic pick, and there is no question that he was a major contributor in Atlanta United’s championship season. At the time he was drafted, Atlanta did not have a reserve team in USL. Now, they do. All future Julian Gressels could still end up with Atlanta’s first team in this arrangement. If the Five Stripes love a college player, ATLUTD2 (or whatever they call the reserve team) can draft him. Gressel was drafted 8th overall, and, with their record being what it was, ATLUTD2 would have drafted in the first eight picks. Future Julian Gressel, welcome to the ATL! If he proves himself to be worthy of the first team, he moves up to the first team. It really is this simple, so efforts to complicate it should fall on deaf ears.
But what about the Columbus Crew? They don’t have a reserve team. How can they get a Julian Gressel to help them immediately? Again, let’s not reinvent the wheel. Europe and South America have already set a simple precedent – the loan.
Let’s say Memphis has the fourth overall pick, and Columbus really wants a winger out of Stanford. Tim Bezbatchenko calls Andrew Bell and offers two choices: (1) Memphis can draft the player and loan him to Columbus, or (2) Columbus can buy the player outright. If they discover he is not MLS-ready, they will loan him back to Memphis for the season and re-assess after the season. It is a win-win for both sides.
4. It would actually help the player.
Here’s another area where MLS could not possibly care less (I know, I know – I’m being ugly). But it is important to note that USL contracts do not last more than one year. If a USL rookie really impresses, he may have multiple MLS teams knocking on his door. There may even be a small bidding war for his services. The player would then have a say in where he signs, much like players in the rest of the world. We hear rumors all the time about elite players choosing Real Madrid over Bayern Munich or Manchester City over Chelsea (or insert any two Champions League teams here). It would be great to see that happen here, too. It might even add to rivalries between MLS teams.
Plus, it just seems more fair. Kids are coming out of school thinking they are going to be signing a pro contract with an MLS team (for MLS money) only to find out that they are really on trial with the MLS club’s USL affiliate. I know this for a fact, as I have spoken to at least two players who experienced that exact set of circumstances. Why not just be honest with the kid? If he gets drafted by a USL team, he fights for his spot and a chance at playing in MLS. Drafting him and sending him for a trial at OKC is a bait-and-switch.
5. USL supporters might actually be a better audience for the #SuperDraft.
USL supporters might care about this more than MLS supporters. MLS supporters already know that their draft picks, particularly past the top ten, do not have much of a chance to make the first team. USL supporters can get behind the idea that our team is drafting a potential starter. I would have loved to hear J.J. Williams shouting, “Let’s hear it, Memphis!” He gets to have his moment, and we add another big center forward who could help the team now.
Plus, the media side of things would be more exciting. Instead of a TV broadcast full of debates about whether or not the draft is still relevant, the draft coverage could be all about how this guy fits within the formation. It would focus on actual soccer.
(photo credit: MSU Athletics)
Naturally, now that I have spent all this time typing, there is no way it will ever happen. But even if MLS is not willing to just hand the draft over to USL, perhaps there is a way they could include USL. Maybe the best scenario is to give MLS the first round of the #SuperDraft. If the team in question wants a player, they can find a way to get that player. If not, they can pick up more TAM and GAM and SAM and RAM, or whatever Garber Bucks are available for future use.
Now, at the conclusion of the first round, USL jumps on the scene. USL Championship teams could draft for the next two (or three) rounds, followed by a League One draft for the players who have not yet been selected. If any of the MLS teams want to stick around and swing a deal like I mentioned in Point 3, they are more than free to do so. In this scenario, every pro team comes out with players, and more players have a future home.
Another option would be to just blow the draft to smithereens, and it’s every man for himself. If we have a couple of more years like 2019, that could be the future. But if it is going to remain a thing, changes have to made.
The best option would be to give the #SuperDraft over to USL. The next best option would be to include USL. Either option would help the player and the American soccer landscape as a whole. However, in order for either of those things to happen, MLS is going to have to recognize the #SuperDraft for what it currently is – a meaningless leftover from MLS 1.0.
It’s time to move forward. It’s time to move the #SuperDraft to USL.