Opinion: The MLS SuperDraft Is No Longer An Important Roster-Building Tool

The 2019 MLS SuperDraft is underway in Chicago, but we won't be able to assess the results for months. By looking at previous drafts, though, we can start to see where the draft is truly going. Just last year, for example, fourth-overall pick Ema Twumasi of FC Dallas managed not a single MLS minute.

One thing we know is true: The SuperDraft is aging out of its importance as a roster-building method. No longer does having the top pick constitute some big advantage. First-round selections, particularly those below the top five, are flyers on players that may or may not have MLS potential, much less professional sports potential. It tends to be a bit of a crapshoot and a trade hotspot.

Nine of last year’s first-round picks had been traded prior to the draft at least once. Twenty-six of the other 69 picks also switched hands. Fourth-round picks are used as bait when other teams want to get rid of an asset for nothing; they’re basically worth pennies. 

The reasons for the draft’s diminishing importance aren’t all that hard to see. The gap between the college system and MLS is drastically widening in on-field quality. Academy systems produce Homegrown players who are younger, developed in house and can be had at a much more consistent level than college players. Teams like Real Salt Lake count on their academy instead of the draft.

Last year, seven teams ended up passing on third or fourth round selections. RSL passed early in the third round and thus missed out on two additional picks later in the draft. The trend of passing on picks should raise the possibility of cutting a round or two and letting the players that go undrafted earn shots in the USL or elsewhere.

But, somehow, those late-round picks seem to win just enough MLS jobs to prevent any such changes. Jack Elliott, a starting center-back for the Philadelphia Union and former fourth-rounder out of West Virginia, finished third in the 2017 Rookie of the Year race. Dotted throughout the 2018 draft are productive players from the last two rounds. Elliot Collier, Ken Krolicki, Luis Argudo and Niki Jackson carved out meaningful minutes as rookies. Some were taken after others had passed on their pick altogether.

That Collier and Krolicki slipped so far into the depths of the draft proves how hard it is to evaluate college players. Some are good and some are bad, playing in a convoluted college system. The rules are weird and there are a lot of bad teams. It’s well-known how badly the NCAA has set up college soccer, and yet nothing is done about it, because it’s the NCAA. 

Two days before Friday’s draft, new Union sporting director Ernst Tanner traded his entire draft class to FC Cincinnati for a relatively meager haul of allocation money. Tanner, a former Red Bull Salzburg academy director, provided an illuminating quote to Philly.com in explaining the decision.

“The level of MLS has increased a lot, and I think that the level of university [soccer] has been more or less the same,” Tanner said. “There is quite a big gap ... There are lots of players who are quite okay for the USL level, but it doesn’t necessarily make us better in the MLS level, and that is something a lot of clubs are realizing.” 

In other words: College soccer isn’t great and we’d be better off rolling with our academy guys. He has a point. The Union have a flourishing academy and finally figured out how to use it in 2018, riding a squadron of young players (particularly defenders) to a playoff spot and some entertaining soccer. Take the cash, always valuable for a small-market team like Philly.

Additionally, Tanner mentioned the age as another factor in his complete punting on the SuperDraft.

That fact is pretty revealing. Players at 22 and older are barely “young” anymore. They don’t have the time and opportunity to develop and mold into the players their teams hope they can be; the exact opposite can be said for academy graduates, if approached effectively.

Drafting well in MLS is a myth due to the inherent randomness of it. Producing academy talents, however, is far from random. More teams are figuring out how to do that. Soon they’ll leave others behind. The draft feels especially meaningless when looked at from the academy perspective, especially considering the prevalence of top college products signing as Homegrowns rather than entering the draft. DeAndre Yedlin, Jordan Morris and Wil Trapp, among others, chose this route.

And yet: Academy and SuperDraft successes are not mutually exclusive. There is talent to be had in the draft. Cheap talent. Generation adidas prospects don’t count against a team’s salary cap, and many top-end college players become GAs. This kind of cheap prospective talent isn’t exactly a dime a dozen. 

Look back at the 2017 draft and you’ll find a whole cast of players who can stick at the MLS level. Jeremy Ebobisse started MLS Cup up top for the Timbers. Lalas Abubakar and Jake Nerwinski have emerged as legitimate young defenders. Jackson Yueill has loads of potential as a ball-moving midfielder. You can read more on Jonathan Lewis here.

Julian Gressel, the eighth pick in that loaded 2017 class, is oft-cited as SuperDraft validation. Gressel, of course, was the most trusted member of that dominant 2018 Atlanta United team and earned a nice big second contract for his efforts. Atlanta may not have won anything without his contributions.

Go back further, and you remember Cyle Larin and Jack Harrison were SuperDraft picks. Both were ultimately sold to Europe and fetched hefty transfer fees. The possibility of acquiring another Larin or Harrison is still there. A larger possibility exists of finding a quality depth piece on the cheap, or a USL-caliber player who eventually develops into an MLS player, a la Defender of the Year and former second-round pick Aaron Long. 

The SuperDraft, as such, won’t be going away any time soon, even as teams capitalize on the academy system. College players will emerge throughout as competent, occasionally as star young prospects. Some will see the benefits, some won’t. This season’s beneficiaries are as yet inconclusive, just as we’d expect.

Harrison Hamm is a sportswriter who covers American soccer and MLS for FloFC. He also covers sports for FanSided and The Comeback, and has freelanced for the Washington Post.

DCU's Chris Durkin Looking For A Chance To Showcase At U-20 World Cup


A year and a half ago, Chris Durkin went with the USA U-17 team to the World Cup in India and appeared in all five games. Durkin had signed with D.C. United in June 2016 but had spent most of his time away from the club, either with the U.S. team or playing games in USL with the Richmond Kickers. It was part of United's plan for the defensive midfielder from the Richmond, Virginia, area. Now, with just a couple of months before this year's U-20 World Cup, Durkin is headed to Spain for the U-20 camp with friendlies against Japan and France.

Curacao All Over The Best XI Of Concacaf Nations League Players In Europe

While many of the players in 2019-20 Concacaf Nations League hail from countries that do not have a professional league or from clubs that still compete in the amateur ranks, there are a select few who compete at the highest level in Europe.

Rooney Opens 2019 Account With Hat Trick, Rodriguez Wows With Stunning Goal

Rooney On RSL Game: 'We Were Clinical'

After Saturday night's romp over Real Salt Lake, D.C. United is off to their best start to a league season in a decade. Seven goals scored and zero goals conceded has yielded seven points against Atlanta United, New York City FC, and RSL — all playoff teams from 2018. Wayne Rooney opened his account for the season from the penalty spot, and then didn't stop shooting — and scoring — until he secured his first MLS hat trick in the 5-0 win. 

Lunch Links: Rodriguez Over Morris, Davies Scores For Bayern Munich

Rooney On RSL Game: 'We Were Clinical'

D.C. United dismantled a pretty decent Real Salt Lake team on Saturday night behind Wayne Rooney's first hat trick since moving stateside. Lots of other stuff happened in the MLS over the weekend, but nothing was better than Lucas "Titi" Rodriguez's volley. I promise you that. 

FC Cincinnati Hands Portland FC A Stunning 3-0 Loss In MLS Home Debut

A beautiful sun-splashed afternoon along with 32,500 fans greeted FC Cincinnati when they stepped out of the locker room and onto the home pitch for the first time as a Major League Soccer club.

'Crazy Inter' Win Thrilling Milan Derby In Dramatic 3-2 Victory After PK

Serie A fans were treated to an enthralling Milan Derby on Sunday, as the unfancied Inter pulled off a frenetic 3-2 victory over cross-city rivals AC Milan. The Nerazzurri had been heavily criticized following an awful performance just three days earlier as they crashed out of the Europa League, and reports were rife that coach Luciano Spalletti was close to losing his job.

Make AC Milan Great Again: The Derby Della Madonnina Stakes Are High

Milan’s path to return to greatness is difficult to navigate. With a Juventus’ dynasty not going away, any misstep can knock them off the track. Elliott Management Corp. has installed a stable upper management team with experience. They now have to decide who are the fundamental piece they can build the future on. Both coaches and players are under scrutiny. 

Ruthless D.C. United Make Man Advantage Count Against Real Salt Lake

Rooney On RSL Game: 'We Were Clinical'

Washington, D.C. — Real Salt Lake ended Saturday night's contest against D.C. United with significantly fewer players than they began the game with. Jefferson Savarino was shown a red card for raking Luciano Acosta's face in the first half, and then Marcelo Silva picked up a second yellow for hauling down Lucas Rodriguez in the second half. That made the night easier for the Black-and-Red, as the hosts ran away with a 5-0 victory thanks to a Wayne Rooney hat trick.

Behind Wayne Rooney's Hat Trick, D.C. United Smash Real Salt Lake 5-0

Washington, D.C. — Wayne Rooney netted his first MLS hat trick on Saturday evening, as D.C. United strolled past nine-man Real Salt Lake 5-0. Wayne Rooney scored three times for his first MLS hat trick and added an assist in the second half for Lucas Rodriguez. In front of 17,190 on a cold night at Audi Field, the Black-and-Red took advantage of two red cards to RSL to grab their second win in three tries to start the 2019 season.

D.C. United Must Continue To Succeed At Defending The Box vs Real Salt Lake

Brillant: Defense Is Confident

Last week, D.C. United went to Yankee Stadium, looking to win for the first time ever on the road against New York City FC. United were confident after their opening day win against Atlanta United and could have taken a first-half lead on two occasions, if not for the stellar play of keeper Sean Johnson. The game ended 0-0, which was probably the fairest result, even if both teams felt like they could have walked away with a win.