When you look up things that American sports fans love, I’m pretty sure the list is: Championships, playoffs, and then drafts right after that.
Standing apart from all the excitement and hullabaloo that surrounds the NFL, NBA, and even the NHL draft we find Major League Soccer’s draft that will be happening on Friday. The MLS draft is particularly odd amongst all the other sports drafts in American sports for more than a couple of reasons. The question many have asked for some time is whether or not this very American mechanism for player selection is the right way for young players to be selected by MLS teams or if there might be some other tried and tested way to go about it.
Why a draft?
Drafts are interesting in their own right and add a level of difficulty to running a team if that is the only way for you to acquire young players. In the NBA and NFL for instance players are, with almost zero exceptions, first introduced to the leagues through the draft. This mechanism places a greater emphasis on players in the college game as most of the players entering the respective drafts are collegiate athletes looking to move to the professional ranks. With nearly no other way of entering the leagues the draft is a hallowed and almost worshipped “right of passage” for these players. It’s a day that is seen as the biggest day of the players careers up to that point and for fans it is a day that is highly anticipated each calendar year.
Major League Soccer, I believe, wants to create the same pomp and circumstance around not only the college game but the ceremony and “right of passage” the draft has in other professional sports. In it’s desire to make the game more easily consumable for American sports fans it adopted a draft as it has also done with playoffs, and a championship game — and like it tried to do years ago with hockey style shoot outs, golden goals, and no ties.
Is the draft effective or relevant?
The guys here on the blog have been doing a great job of running down the drafts that RSL has been a part of. I’m going to speak specifically to those drafts and base my opinion as to whether or not they are effective solely on that. Now, that said, there is a human element involved in drafting that should not be ignored. The people selecting players definitely impacts the effectiveness of any teams ability to draft well. In MLS, and more and more so we see this, the real question should be around the level of talent coming out of the draft.
RSL has not had a lot of success in the draft. Tony Beltran is the out and out best pick we’ve made. I would argue that Omar Holness has potential to be the second best pick we’ve made. Other players who have come to RSL through the draft that have had an impact...
There’s probably a fair shout for those three being solid pick ups through the draft. However, this year will be the 13th draft we’ll have taken part in. Each draft is 3-4 rounds plus supplemental picks. That means that RSL alone have drafted somewhere close to 40 players in it’s history with probably 4 successful selections.
Not great success rates.
Let’s just be honest and say that college isn’t that path that the very best soccer players in youth systems across the country tend to take. The path that was once club - HS - College - Pro is quickly morphing to Academy (USDA clubs) - Pro. This is the system that exists everywhere else in the world and has produced most of the top talent in the game.
RSL and MLS teams generally take advantage of other countries academy systems by purchasing players rather than drafting them. Albert Rusnák is a great example of this. A product of the Manchester City academy he is the same age as the majority of the players entering the draft this year. Kind of an interesting comparison, but it’s something to think of as the league grows and places more emphasis on youth development and trying to keep the players developed in the youth ranks here and playing in MLS.
We’ve seen over time that the route most teams take to add talent to their squads is through player purchases or loans for foreign or domestic players. Real Salt Lake is working to develop a youth pipeline to, almost specifically, replace the draft as the main play acquisition mechanism. What we have seen with players coming out of that system is that they may spend a year or two in college to spread their wings a bit and do the college thing, but quickly they find themselves looking to turn pro and join the club.
The biggest thing for me is comparing the talent coming out of the academy to the talent that we have been able to draft. Jordan Allen, Justen Glad, Bofo Saucedo, Carlos Salcedo, Christian Herrera, Andrew Brody, Lalo Fernandez, Ricardo Velazco, Danilo Acosta, and the rumored Brooks Lennon. THOSE are the types of players that will make a difference for this club in the future. Adding Jose Hernandez was a pleasant surprise this offseason and has been described as “RSL’s #1 draft pick”. That is how it should be and that is the direction RSL and other clubs should be moving.