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Why the MLS Draft is increasingly irrelevant in American soccer

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Real Salt Lake would be well-served to pass in later rounds of the draft today.

SOCCER: JAN 13 2017 MLS SuperDraft Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Year after year, we’ve been enjoying the spectacle of the MLS Draft, but as Real Salt Lake supporters, it’s seemed a little like it may not actually matter anymore.

Maybe there’s good reason for that, but we should take the time to inspect the claim. Is the draft still providing value for teams generally, and is it still providing value for Real Salt Lake?

Let’s make a series of observations about some data I’ve compiled for MLS draft picks over the last six years. It’s not wholly comprehensive, but it can provide us with some insight.

At Real Salt Lake

  • Of every Real Salt Lake player who has been drafted since 2012, only two have played more than 500 minutes for the club in the year they were drafted: Devon Sandoval (2013, 885) and Justin Schmidt (2017, 633). Andy Rose (2012) played 1,156 minutes the year we drafted him, but we also traded him to Seattle Sounders of draft day, so that’s a bit of a technicality.
  • Only two RSL draft picks have ended up playing more in their second year: Sebastian Velasquez (2012) and John Stertzer (2013).

In MLS

  • On average, players picked in the first five draft spots play 1,131 minutes in their first year, then 1,170 minutes in their second year.
  • Only two top-five players have earned no MLS minutes in their first year: Miles Robinson (2017, Atlanta) and Nick Besler (2015, Portland). Romario Williams (2015, Montreal) played only nine minutes his first year.
  • Second-round picks have averaged 239 minutes in their first year. If they continue in MLS, they play 379 in their second year, 700 in their third year, 989 in their fourth, 826 in their fifth, and 718 in their sixth. Again, on average.
  • 2017 marked itself as a year of second-year players dropping out of MLS — sophomores simply don’t stick with the league. Of 20 second-round drafted players from 2016, 16 weren’t listed as having an MLS club in 2017. That leaves only four — four! I know the second round is starting to pick at the depth in collegiate soccer somewhat, but that’s something we need to think about.
  • No 2015 third-round pick played MLS minutes in 2016. Only three played 2015 minutes.
  • In 2014, only one third-round pick played in MLS in their third professional year: Richie Marquez of Philadelphia Union, one of the few hidden gems of the third round in recent years. Only Adam Jahn (2013) and R. J. Allen come close.

Implications

Alright, so now that I’ve picked out some data that works toward my point — and I admit I’m probably missing quite a bit, so please, check my work (also, my code) — it’s become clear that second- and third-round picks are simply not landing in MLS. This brings me around to several questions.

First, are teams doing enough to develop the players they’re drafting? Now that second-division teams are commonplace among MLS sides, can we say that they’re doing enough to make sure that MLS prospects are being given a chance to develop?

Second, are teams doing enough to scout their draft picks beforehand, or are they relying on incomplete information? If players aren’t latching on to teams, is it because they were never good fits to begin with? Is it that they’re not good enough?

Third, is the draft worth its length simply to support the potential discovery of hidden gems, or would another mechanism be appropriate? Would a USL-centric draft for players not picked in the first two rounds allow for that same discovery mechanism?

Why RSL should pass in round three — or draft only goalkeepers from there out

I know passing in the draft can be a somewhat controversial decision. Folks don’t especially like it when that’s what happens. I get it. But I also am of the opinion that if a player isn’t going to have a chance on your team, there’s no reason to draft them. Perhaps this is a little different with goalkeepers, who take considerably longer to develop into capable professionals as a rule.

At this point, any player we draft in the third round is almost a lock to not make the team unless, by some miracle of circumstance, we’ve discovered a hidden gem. It’s nice when that happens, but it’s very rare — it happened with Chris Schuler and Sebastian Velasquez, but that’s really it in the last decade.

Instead, we should pass on bringing a player in unless we’re wholly convinced they’ll be potential contributors. Otherwise, we should look toward bringing them in at Real Monarchs, where we have greater leverage to develop players and, indeed, we’ve done so.

After all, look at the players the Monarchs have signed and have since come to RSL in the last year: Connor Sparrow, Nick Besler and Taylor Peay. Besler and Peay were both potential MLS players but had to go the USL route to find minutes. Sparrow was always going to start with a USL team in this landscape.

As we develop the academy structure further and continue to sign players who would otherwise have gone through the draft system (or the college system), the draft becomes more irrelevant. This is a consequence of the development path MLS has moved toward. It does raise some interesting questions for players who did not go through an MLS academy in their high school years, and absolutely, there need to be opportunities for outsiders to bring a different perspective to the system.

Let’s not do away with the possibility of players joining MLS after their college careers. Instead, let’s start steering more of them toward realistic options in their careers and toward saner development strategies that could, if utilized properly, bring them more success, while also giving teams a greater opportunity to develop players without the pressure of an MLS roster.