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.
As Ernst Tanner (half) pointed out in the call:— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) January 10, 2019
8: Number of players at the MLS combine younger than 22
8: Number of Union players under contract younger than 22
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.