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Do the SuperDraft and college systems still offer value to MLS and Real Salt Lake?

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MLS's SuperDraft is a system based on bringing college players into the league, but is that what MLS needs for the future? We think we'd be crazy to drop it out now.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Since its inception, Major League Soccer has been competing with the 'big four' sports leagues in North America. Like them, MLS has relied on college players to fill the ranks of their affiliated clubs. In an attempt to prove that it belongs up there as an important professional sports league - an important American pro league, that is - MLS, at its outset, introduced an event that is unheard of anywhere else in the worldwide game of soccer but adheres to American traditions: the annual college draft.

Oh, so they are just like the NBA and the NFL, you say? Well, yes, but also a resounding "no." Basketball and football have a wealth of talent to choose from that have been developed in similar systems to the professional leagues. While there are minor differences between the college game and the professionals in both basketball and football, soccer is very different at these levels.

Still, American colleges continue to produce the bulk of players on MLS rosters and the core of almost every U.S. national team roster - including the 2014 World Cup - despite constant criticisms for being to "helter-skelter," having a lack of conditioning, and having a season that is too short. With the college game shouldering more than its fair share of blame for American soccer's shortcomings, it is easy to assume that college players and the MLS SuperDraft is becoming obsolete.

Moreover, college soccer has to face additional threats to its development status. First, MLS has been making great strides in the developmental sphere of the game with the institution of MLS academies and incorporating club reserves into the lower divisions of the American soccer pyramid. Second, prominent figures in American soccer like U.S. national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann and youth technical director Tab Ramos actively call for top youth players to either skip college soccer or leave early. But while the U.S. soccer community sees shortcomings in the college game it continues to have its place in the developmental structure of America.

For all the progress Major League Soccer and the national teams have made over the past quarter century in regards to development, they continue to be heavily reliant on college soccer. Consider that there is somewhere around 500 players on the rosters of MLS clubs at a single time. Currently, according to MLSsoccer.com, of those 500-ish players, about 57 percent played at least one season of college soccer and around 36 percent of them committed to four years of the college game before turning pro. Of the 70 or so players to see time in the national kit under Klinsmann, over half are former college players.

Furthermore, there are still only 20 MLS clubs - 24 by 2020 - all eventually with their own academy systems. Despite some clubs recruiting from neighboring states, it's difficult to presume that every state will be tied into this system, let alone those systems covering the entire map. College soccer can fill in the gaps that MLS leaves open.

College soccer, for all its criticisms, is not necessarily a bad thing. It still has many things to offer. College soccer programs provide facilities that are the envy of plenty of MLS pro soccer clubs and can be staffed and coached by top-notch professionals. The conclusion, then, is simple: college soccer, and by extension the MLS SuperDraft, remains an unavoidable step for many young American players in their developmental process.

As a provider of youth talent, college soccer has to be measured not against college basketball and football, but against the quality of talent that is produced there. The college game continues to produce the backbone for many MLS clubs. Take for instance the 2009 SuperDraft, when the Los Angeles Galaxy and the then Kanas City Wizards secured the rights to Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, respectively. These two defenders would not only become MLS All-Stars, but also the star defensive pairing for the US men's national team on their journey to the 2014 World Cup.

For the Claret-and-Cobalt, the college game continues to produce talent. RSL has continually been able to select talent with their MLS SuperDraft picks that go on to contribute at the first team level. Tony Beltran and Chris Schuler, for example, were selected in the MLS SuperDraft by RSL in 2008 and 2009. Since then, both players have become an integral part of the Real Salt Lake lineup. Other members of RSL like Devon Sandoval and recently traded Sebastian Velasquez were selected in the MLS SuperDraft and have put in valuable minutes for the club. Also worth noting, veteran Nick Rimando was also a SuperDraft pick back in the inaugural 2000 edition.

As Major League Soccer strives to become one of the top-flight soccer leagues in the world, it is important to realize the benefit MLS brings to the table. It is true that the academy system incorporated with a lower-division reserve team developmental structure will provide players better fit and conditioned for professional life, but the SuperDraft continues to provide value.

With changes to the college soccer game announced at the end of last year as part of the U.S. soccer community's revitalization of the American developmental structure, college can and will continue to provide different avenues for professional growth.

If the U.S. soccer community continues to hold the college game accountable for the slow flow of talent, it will disregard all the talent that has been produced on college pitches. The sooner U.S. soccer fans realize that the MLS SuperDraft provides a steady trickle, if not a flow, of tangible youth talent, the sooner the league will have a legitimate player development boon to promote.

As for RSL, the SuperDraft has been good to the club in the past - a trend that will hopefully continue. With reports of RSL being interested in securing the services of Fatai Alashe of Michigan State, the 2015 MLS SuperDraft seemingly has raw talent that can be molded to fit the MLS style of play.