Is the MLS SuperDraft Still Relevant?

Image: Joe Craven

Some people may have just been introduced to it, and others may be skeptical, so we feel the question should be asked. Should FC Cincinnati fans really pay attention to the MLS SuperDraft?

Experts generally agree that the MLS SuperDraft is less important to overall talent acquisition than drafts in other American sports. So why is that the case?

The first reason for the SuperDraft’s waning importance is the MLS Homegrown Player Rule. Instituted in 2008, the rule encourages MLS teams to develop talent through their own academy. It then allows teams to retain rights to the players as they develop, even if they go to college. To encourage MLS clubs to participate, homegrowns have roster rule benefits versus standard players that help with an MLS team’s overall roster build.

Now that the Homegrown rule has been in place for over ten years, clubs are more likely to identify top local players early, then sign them to Homegrown contracts at or before college age. Even if the club doesn’t, they retain rights to academy players throughout college and gets first dibs to offer them a contract, as long as they do it prior to the SuperDraft following the player’s senior year. The end result is that a lot of American talent goes through the academy pipeline. Ultimately, that’s probably a good thing.

Second, many youth players continue to opt for overseas development, rather than follow a U.S. based path that includes college. They draw on the examples set by notable U.S. players like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Timothy Weah. Many believe that players receive better coaching outside of the U.S and play against better competition. There’s a whole business behind the talent placement too. Rob Moore, who runs the U.K.-based On Target soccer agency, placed Pulisic at Dortmund and actively looks for U.S. based players to place with European clubs. This outflux of talent obviously weakens the pool of U.S. players that attend college and get to MLS via the draft. It’s worth noting that many of the big-name players above started their development at U.S. academies before moving to Europe, so the development approach is really a hybrid.

Finally, MLS teams are spending more money on their rosters as the salary cap increases and mechanisms like Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) are used to build rosters. As the overall roster values increase, the talent that finds its way the senior roster is less likely to come through the collegiate ranks. MLS provides incentives and allocates roster spots designed to keep lower-paid, developing players with the team. However, it is increasingly less likely that SuperDraft procured players will be able to earn these spots, or advance the first team as more money comes into the league.

In search of some numbers to back this up? Research by Soccer America revealed that in 2018, fewer than 25 percent of the players selected in the previous three drafts were currently with an MLS team.

The Verdict

The draft is clearly less important than it used to be for a variety of reason and its value is diminishing annually. Additional, the likelihood of a SuperDraft player impacting an MLS team right away is low.

In a recent conversation with Orange & Blue Press, college soccer expert Travis Clark of Top Drawer Soccer said the following about the upcoming draft.

This year’s draft class is like many others. Diluted due to the elite players skipping school or already (being) tied to MLS teams via the Homegrown mechanism. There aren’t a lot of players available at the top pick worthy of selection.

The highest draft picks really are the ones to watch and, since FC Cincinnati has the first overall pick, that’s something to pay attention to. However, most of the draftees will slug it out in training camps for a limited number of MLS spots, and often will look to the USL to continue their career, and eventually get a shot at the American first division.

While the SuperDraft is becoming progressively less important, it undeniably still produces quality MLS players. Look no further than Atlanta United’s Julian Gressell for proof of that. However, SuperDraft success stories are becoming the exception rather than the rule as America’s first division evolves.

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