The MLS SuperDraft of Change

Tuesday, December 28, 2010 | View Comments

The MLS SuperDraft is the target of more than its fair share of derision. An oddity in the game of soccer, the draft is one of the few MLS quirks that most fans would be happy to see die a quiet death. Euro-focused soccer aficionados don't like it because it's not the way of the rest of the world. Die-hard MLS fans would prefer to see their clubs develop talent in-house, making the draft irrelevant to their rosters. No one seems to think too highly of the institution from where most of the draftees come, college soccer.

Nevertheless, college soccer does "produce" a few quality players every year. In some cases, these new professionals really did learn a thing or two playing the funky NCAA version of the game. In others, they merely popped out on the other side of a growing period, bigger and stronger than they were when they started. The fact that the 2010 MLS SuperDraft boasts a collection of very talented players (many of them from this year's champion, Akron) appears to bode well for the draft continuing as an important part of MLS in the future.

But the strength of the draft, particularly in one year, has little to do with its relevancy moving forward. MLS clubs will always jump at the chance to obtain an obviously gifted player, especially one signed to a non-cap-space-eating Generation Adidas contract; eventually, however, the top handful of plaeyers will be the only ones in which MLS clubs have any interest. The growing importance of the academies makes it inevitable that clubs will sign players they know and have molded to take up roster spots previously reserved for incoming draftees. The size of the attractive player pool coming out of college will continue to shrink, not because the quality of college soccer will significantly dip, but because MLS clubs will have less reason to use the draft to find young talent.  This will bring up the natural question of whether the draft should continue, and if so, what form it should take.

Perhaps we're already getting some answers on the latter. The draft has been cut by a round according to reliable reports (though the League itself hasn't confirmed it as fare as I know), and foreign players are included in the draftable pool. The foreign player issue is a current talking point because it was revealed in an interview with John Rooney, younger brother of Wayne. John will take part in the combine and be available in the SuperDraft in Baltimore.

Sudden, late changes to the process give the impression that the League doesn't know what to do with its draft. The rules are arbitrary, or appear to be, and the opaque way changes are made doesn't help. When the criteria for draft-eligible players slides so dramatically in the final days, without a clear statement as to why or in what measure, even the most ardent observers are left to scratch their heads and wonder what the hell is going on. The practical matter of pulling talented young players into the League through equitable means (a hallmark of that unique-in-soccer MLS trait, parity) makes the Draft important. Mucking up the process and appearing to "make it up as you go along" sucks away much of the event's sheen leading up to that bottom line.

In that way, "relevancy" is not just tied to the players in the Draft, it's also a function of the appearance of legitimacy. If fans and teams weren't already discounting the Draft as a critical part of the roster-building process, they might be more apt to do so when the rules are indecipherable. Not necessarily because there aren't good players to be found, but because the League is making it difficult to pin down just what the Draft is going to be.

Is MLS attempting to inject a bit of new life into the Draft with foreign players (with professional experience, mind you) being available?  Is the reduction of its length an indication they know the importance has waned?  Is the Draft important enough as a showcase/event to merit MLS tweaking the rules for reasons clear to no one but themselves?

The SuperDraft serves a purpose, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. We can assume that college players without ties to MLS academies will always be its most prominent and important stock. I cannot imagine a time when MLS teams won't find room for one or two players a year from that pool. The country is too large to scout adequately. Talented players and late bloomers will certainly slip through the rather large academy cracks.

The relevancy of the draft is waning, but that's just about all we can say. If MLS is intent on spicing things up a bit, that pace might be slowed. I'm not sure even that will matter in the end. The mechanism itself means much less than the importance of the players available. By shifting developmental responsibility onto its clubs, MLS minimized the Draft immediately, at least in the eyes of the fans. A few tweaks and an Englishman with a famous last name won't do much to change that..

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