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MLS draft history: examining the value of a pick

Joao Moutinho speaks at the podium after being selected No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles FC in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

The MLS Draft is an enigma to many fans.

It’s a trait of all American sports leagues and represents a glimmer of hope for poor teams the year prior.  It can turn a lottery ticket that is a draft pick into elite-level talent like Ike Opara (2010 draft) or Justin Meram (2011 draft).

On the other hand, it feels like it’s losing relevance year after year. Unlike other sports, MLS has access to an endless global talent pool. Instead of relying on the draft to build your squad, you can splurge in the transfer market or pluck from your own academy. Case in point: the best two drafted rookies from 2017, Julian Gressel and Abu Danladi, are solid assets (I have them as top-75) but hardly franchise-changing players.

In 2018, we’ve seen the No.3 and No.4 picks traded for $200,000 in allocation money, so there is obviously value in the eyes of MLS general managers.  But in the same draft, we had Colorado’s first pick already leave for a USL team.

To gauge the value of the MLS draft pick over time, I’ve developed a system to review the quality of players selected from each draft this decade.  The evaluation is based on a 5-star system as follows:

  • 1 STAR — Starter:  Played at least 2,000 minutes once in a season.
  • 2 STAR — Consistent starter:  Played 2,000 minutes per season for three or more seasons.
  • 3 STAR — Star: In consideration for All-Star teams and would fetch $350,000 to $500,000 of allocation money in today’s market
  • 4 STAR — All-Star:  Consistent high-level output, All-Star or Best XI nominations and would be sold between $500,000 and $1 million allocation.
  • 5 STAR — Franchise:  Transcendent player, can draw $1 million-plus if sold within MLS or internationally.

Using this rating system, the first thing we see is there’s a good reason top draft picks still have top value.  Ever since 2008, there’s been at least one 5- or 4-star player among the draft’s top-five picks.  See below for a chart that shows the average level of draft picks per year.

As you can see, there have been good years and some less so — but not necessarily a major trend.  The average top-5 draft pick becomes a consistent starter in the league with some becoming bonafide stars. This certainly looks like it’s worth the $200,000 bet teams are making.

The real difference-maker is players in the lower half of the first round.  Below is a chart showing the average star level of a player drafted between picks No. 11-20.

From 2008 to 2012, the average pick between No. 11 and No. 20 turned out to be a starter at some point in their careers, and teams may get lucky with a Tim Ream (#18, 2010 draft).  Since then, the rate has dropped to only a starter every five picks (with the exception of 2015 draft, which was loaded in that region).

We can see that drop in overall level of talent each draft as well.  (Warning: analysis for the 2015 or 2016 drafts may change in the future as it sometimes takes a few years for draftees to reach their potential. More on this later.)

The draft does seem like it’s producing less talent overall, but it still has quality in the very top picks. In other words, the MLS draft may start to feel like the NBA, where the value lies in the top-10 picks and then drops considerably.

To explore the reasons for this, let’s take a closer look at each of the drafts in the last decade.

2008 DRAFT – 33 Star

  • 5-Star PlayersBrek Shea (drafted at No. 2 by FC Dallas), Geoff Cameron (No. 42, Houston Dynamo)
  • 4-StarRoger Espinoza (No. 11, Sporting Kansas City)
  • 3-StarTony Beltran (No. 3, Real Salt Lake)
  • 2-Star: Chance Myers (No. 1, Sporting Kansas City), Sean Franklin (No. 4, Los Angeles Galaxy), Patrick Nyarko (No. 7, Chicago Fire), David Horst (No. 14, Real Salt Lake)
  • 1-Star: Andy Iro (No. 6, Columbus Crew), Julius James (No. 9, Toronto FC), Pat Phelan (No. 10, Toronto FC), Shea Salinas (No. 15, San Jose Earthquakes), Eric Brunner (No. 16, New York Red Bulls), Eric Avila (No. 19, FC Dallas), Andrew Jacobson (No. 24, DC United), Brandon McDonald (No. 45, Los Angeles Galaxy)

I started with the 2008 draft as it was the first MLS 2.0 draft, after David Beckham and the Designated Rule began in 2007. Overall, it’s a fairly decent draft with three players eventually making it to Europe (two of which came back) and a handful of players who became consistent starters in the league.

Houston arguably won the draft with the best player picked at No. 42, but Kansas City comes in a close second getting two long-time starters.  Kansas City also has a habit of extracting value out of their top picks versus letting them go. 

A few things to note here that will pop up throughout this analysis:

1. Since we know the future, the analysis may be biased.  For example, we know the player that Brek Shea is today and it might be difficult to call him a 5-star player. But when someone is an MLS MVP nominee, Best XI and a seven-figure transfer fee to the Premier League — that person is a 5-star draft pick.

2. You’ll see players drafted by one team and not really find success until much later with a different team.  For example, look at David Horst’s career so far by minutes played:

  • 2008-10:  Averaged 1 game played, 59 minutes per season with Real Salt Lake.
  • 2011-13: Averaged 13 games played, 1041 minutes per season with Portland.
  • 2014-16: Averaged 30 games played, 2489 minutes per season with Houston.

It took six years for Horst to become a full-time starter in MLS! It is not uncommon to see players taking three or four years to reach their potential, and often after their first team has given up on them.  This makes judging drafts a few years after the fact so difficult, and is why the analysis for the 2015 and 2016 drafts come with heavy caveats.

3. Lastly, we can argue the merits of players like Eric Brunner, Andrew Jacobson or Brandon McDonald, but these players all had at least one season of starter-level minutes. This means something, especially for low first-round or later picks.

2008 Draft Best Player:  Geoff Cameron.   Best Draft:  Houston Dynamo.  Worst Pick: Ciaran O’Brien at No. 4 by Colorado Rapids.

2009 DRAFT – 38 Star

  • 5-Star PlayersOmar Gonzalez (No. 3, Los Angeles Galaxy), Matt Besler (No. 8, Sporting Kansas City), Graham Zusi (No. 23, Sporting Kansas City)
  • 4-StarChris Pontius (No. 7, DC United)
  • 3-StarStefan Frei (No. 13, Toronto), George John (No. 14, FC Dallas)
  • 2-Star: Sam Cronin (No. 2, Toronto FC), Kevin Alston (No. 10, New England Revolution), AJ DeLaGarza (No. 19, Los Angeles Galaxy)
  • 1-Star: Steve Zakuani (No. 1, Seattle Sounders), Rodney Wallace (No. 6, DC United) Michael Lahoud (No. 9, Chivas USA), Baggio Hušidić (No. 20, Chicago Fire), Quincy Amarikwa (No. 32, San Jose Earthquakes), Mike Grella (No. 33, Toronto FC), Danny Cruz (No. 41, Houston Dynamo),

The 2009 Draft, in my opinion, turned out to be the best draft class in this analysis. It had three franchise-level players, all who had major roles with the U.S. national team. It’s unfortunate two of those will be forever linked as the centerback pairing during the greatest catastrophe in modern American soccer.

As much vitriol that Gonzalez gets today, he was Rookie of the Year, four-time Best XI, three-time MLS champion, won Liga MX and CONCACAF Champions League and warranted a seven-figure transfer fee. His repertoire is as good as any MLS draft pick and he is the best player from the draft.

Besler and Zusi became the faces of Kansas City’s franchise and 2014 World Cup heroes. Along with Espinoza and Myers in the draft a year earlier, they were the core of a squad that won MLS trophies. It’s easy to say Kansas City had the best draft in 2009 and possibly of any team in the past decade.

If it weren’t for injuries, George John and Steve Zakuani may have been even higher up on the list.  And on this list, there are contributors and starters still today after being drafted nine years ago.  If every draft was like 2009, then picks would command even more value.

2009 Draft Best Player:  Omar Gonzalez.   Best Draft:  Sporting Kansas City.  Worst Pick: Peri Marošević at #5 by FC Dallas.

2010 DRAFT – 33 Star

  • 5-StarIke Opara (No. 3, San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Ream (No. 18, New York Red Bulls)
  • 4-StarJustin Morrow (No. 28, San Jose Earthquakes)
  • 3-StarSteven Beitashour (No. 30, San Jose Earthquakes), Sean Johnson (No. 51, Chicago Fire)
  • 2-Star: Zach Loyd (No. 5, FC Dallas), Amobi Okugo (No. 6, Philadelphia Union), Seth Sinovic (No. 25, New England Revolution)
  • 1-Star: Tony Tchani (No. 2, New York Red Bulls), Teal Bunbury (No. 4, Sporting Kansas City), Jack McInerney (No. 7, Philadelphia Union), Collen Warner (No. 15, Montreal Impact), Chris Schuler (No. 39, Real Salt Lake), Eric Alexander (No. 44, FC Dallas), Ben Zemanski (No. 47, Chivas USA)

The San Jose Earthquakes drafted two MLS Best XI defenders, as well as a right back that turned out to be a national team player and key piece to an MLS title run. 

Unfortunately, none of those three players achieved those feats in San Jose. Ike Opara was famously hampered by injuries, playing only 35 games in 3 years with the Quakes. He was eventually traded to Sporting Kansas City for a 2nd-round draft pick. It’s a reminder that A. It’s difficult to assess players only after a few years in the league and B. Peter Vermes is a master of the MLS trade market.

Justin Morrow had a different story with the Earthquakes, breaking out in 2012 to help them win the Supporters Shield. He gained an All-Star selection for his play. He was then curiously sold to Toronto for an undisclosed amount of allocation money.

Steven Beitashour also helped San Jose win the Shield and was sold to Vancouver in 2014 for allocation money. As you know, Morrow and Beitashour reconnected in Toronto to help them win the double in 2017. 

Tim Ream is arguably the best player from the draft and the only one that was sold for millions to then-Premier League side Bolton.  It’s a testament to this draft class that he was picked at No. 18, as there was value very deep into this draft.  If No. 1 pick, Danny Mwanga lived up to his promise, this could’ve been up there with 2009 as the best draft.

2010 Draft Best Player:  Tim Ream.   Best Draft:  San Jose Earthquakes.  Worst Pick: Danny Mwanga at #1 by Philadelphia Union.

2011 DRAFT – 33 Star

  • 5-Star PlayersDarlington Nagbe (No. 2, Portland Timbers), Justin Meram (No. 15, Columbus Crew)
  • 4-Star:  none.
  • 3-Star: Perry Kitchen (No. 3, DC United), C.J. Sapong (No. 10, Sporting Kansas City), Joao Plata (No. 49, Toronto FC)
  • 2-Star: Zack McMath (No. 5, Philadelphia Union), A.J. Soares (No. 6, New England Revolution), Jalil Anibaba (No. 9, Chicago Fire),  Will Bruin (No. 11, Houston Dynamo)
  • 1-Star: Zarek Valentin (No. 4, Chivas USA), Kofi Sarkodie (No. 7, Houston Dynamo), Jeb Brovsky (No. 19, Vancouver Whitecaps), Michael Farfan (No. 23, Philadelphia Union), Servando Carrasco (No. 27, Seattle Sounders), Chris Korb (No. 31, DC United), 

Unlike some of our earlier drafts, we knew the quality of most of the top players in this draft right away. While Darlington Nagbe and Justin Meram joined the “Sold For A Million Dollars Of Allocation” club this year, they also played a significant part for their draft teams almost immediately.

The next tier of players — Kitchen, Sapong and Plata — still have time to improve their rankings. Kitchen has made his MLS return with the Galaxy (earning D.C. United $300,000 in allocation) after his adventures in Scotland. Sapong had a career year in 2017 and is set to be beneficiary of David Accam’s move to Philadelphia. Plata is part of a Real Salt Lake attack that figures to be even better in 2018.

While the ranking of this draft might still slightly shift, two things are for sure: Omar Salgado as the No. 1 pick by Vancouver was a dumb move and the 2011 draft was the last of its kind, with value deep into the draft.

2011 Draft Best Player:  Darlington Nagbe.   Best Draft:  Columbus Crew.  Worst Pick: Omar Salgado at #1 by Vancouver Whitecaps.

2012 DRAFT – 24 Star

  • 5-StarDom Dwyer (No. 16, Sporting Kansas City)
  • 4-Star:  Ethan Finlay (No. 10, Columbus Crew), Matt Hedges (No. 11, FC Dallas)
  • 3-Star: Kelyn Rowe (No. 3, New England Revolution)
  • 2-Star: Nick DeLeon (No. 7, DC United), Ray Gaddis (No. 35, Philadelphia Union)
  • 1-Star: Andrew Wenger (No. 1, Montreal Impact), Luis Silva (No. 4, Toronto FC), Andrew Jean-Batiste (No. 8, Portland Timbers), Austin Berry (No. 9, Chicago Fire)

2012 was a very odd draft in that the top three players were drafted between No. 10 and No. 16, versus in the top five. Dom Dwyer is MLS’s first intra-league million dollar deal after being prolific for Sporting Kansas City.  This was not without a fairly anonymous first year and a second year loan to Orlando City. As is a common story by now, Kansas City is very good at managing draft assets and has been ahead of the curve.

Ethan Finlay and Matt Hedges have been excellent throughout their MLS career, both getting MLS Best XI nods. Kelyn Rowe is the player most likely to still have the ability to move up a tier in the rankings if New England ever give up Lee Nguyen and hand the keys to Rowe. 

The one thing you might notice here is that there are simply a lot less players with 2,000 minutes in a season (only 10 out of  38).  By the 2012 draft, the Homegrown system had been in place for four years. By this point, you’ve had players like Diego Fagundez, Victor Ulloa and Kellyn Acosta sign as Homegrowns.  This means fewer active roster spots for draftees, especially ones that need time to reach their potential.

The result is that if a draftee doesn’t shine immediately, he better hope he gets a loan situation to prove his worth.  It’s pretty likely that there’s a homegrown player who’s younger and more cap friendly to take the senior roster spot.

2012 Draft Best Player:  Dom Dwyer.   Best Draft:  Sporting Kansas City.  Worst Pick: Casey Townsend at #5 by Chivas USA.

2013 DRAFT – 18 Star

  • 5-Star: None
  • 4-StarKekuta Manneh (No. 4, Vancouver Whitecaps), Walker Zimmerman (No. 7, FC Dallas)
  • 3-Star: None
  • 2-Star: Andrew Farrell (No. 1, New England Revolution), Deshorn Brown (No. 6, Colorado Rapids), Dillon Powers (No. 11, Colorado Rapids)
  • 1-Star: Eriq Zavaleta (No. 10, Seattle Sounders), Taylor Kemp (No. 17, DC United), Ryan Hollingshead (No. 20, FC Dallas), Kofi Opare (No. 24, Los Angeles Galaxy)

It starts to get fairly thin in talent at this point.  There were no true franchise players that came out of this draft, although Zimmerman still could and Manneh had the talent to do it before jetting to Liga MX. 

Despite this, FC Dallas did a fairly good job in getting two pieces for their Supporters Shield team in a single draft — Zimmerman and Hollingshead.

This is about the time where the 2013 Homegrown Class (Wil Trapp, Gyasi Zardes and Jesse Gonzalez) has outshined the Draft Class.  This is a trend that will continue forward and shape the draft the way it is today.

2013 Draft Best Player:  Walker Zimmerman.   Best Draft:  FC Dallas.  

2014 DRAFT – 14 Star

  • 5-Star: Andre Blake (No. 1, Philadelphia Union)
  • 4-Star: None
  • 3-Star: Steve Birnbaum (No. 2, DC United)
  • 2-Star: None
  • 1-Star: Nick Hagglund (No. 10, Toronto FC), Marlon Hairston (No. 12, Colorado Rapids), Ben Sweat (No. 14, Columbus Crew), Tommy McNamara (No. 20, Chivas USA), Chris Duvall (No. 22, New York Red Bulls), Aaron Long (No. 36, Portland Timbers)

Did you know that Tesho Akindele hasn’t played 2,000 minutes in a season yet? Or Patrick Mullins?  I have a feeling both will be on the list soon, making this look draft look better over time.  Marlon Hairston should also climb this list as he’s a central — well, wide piece for the Colorado Rapids today. That being said, I don’t think it will change the overall trend of declining talent in drafts.

Andre Blake and Steve Birnbaum show that even in the lightest of drafts there’s top level talent available at the top. Blake is a good enough goalkeeper to play in a bigger league, as evident by his Gold Cup heroics for Jamaica.

The other trend to start watching for here is the “Aaron Long” trend.  Long, though drafted by Portland, came up through New York Red Bulls 2 in the United Soccer League before getting his break last year.  He’s become a central piece and equally important has shown a route to MLS starter-dom via the second-tier USL team.

2013 Draft Best Player:  Andre Blake

2015 DRAFT – 22 Star

  • 5-Star: Cyle Larin (No. 1, Orlando City)
  • 4-Star: Cristian Roldan (No. 16, Seattle Sounders)
  • 3-Star: Tim Parker (No. 13, Vancouver Whitecaps), Axel Sjoberg (No. 14, Colorado Rapids)
  • 2-Star: Fatai Alashe (No. 4, San Jose Earthquakes) Alex Bono (No. 5, Toronto FC), Matt Polster (No. 6, Chicago Fire)
  • 1-Star: Saad Abdul-Salaam (No. 12, Sporting Kansas City) 

From here on out, take everything with a grain of salt. I’ve had to start projecting if a player is likely to hit 2-star level, and I’m 99 percent confident that someone not on this list will be a starter in the future. Despite all of that, the 2015 draft can show how much value can still be there in a great draft class.

Cyle Larin, despite all of the recent drama, was probably the best rookie striker the league has ever seen and was well worth the seven-figure transfer fee. Christian Roldan is on a trajectory that might even surpass Larin as the best of his class in the future.  Tim Parker is rumored to be making a big move out of Vancouver (and was egregiously left out of my top-75 trade assets list this year) and Axel Sjoberg already has an MLS Best XI under his belt. 

The top 16 picks of this draft are about as good as any draft.  The difference might be to see if anyone picked later makes a difference in the future.

2015 Draft Best Player:  Cyle Larin

2016 DRAFT – 11 Star

  • 5-Star: Jack Harrison (No. 1, New York City FC)
  • 4-Star: None.
  • 3-Star: Brandon Vincent (No. 4, Chicago Fire)
  • 2-Star: None.
  • 1-Star: Keegan Rosenberry (No. 3, Philadelphia Union), Jonathan Campbell (No. 12, Chicago Fire), Kyle Fischer (No. 14, Montreal Impact)

The only reason I added analysis on the 2016 draft is to point out that a draft pick here became the second biggest transfer out of the league in MLS history. It’s the reason why teams still covet the top few spots today.

2016 Draft Best Player:  Jack Harrison

So if you’re a fan of MLS and completely writing off the draft as an old vestige of an older MLS, you’re most likely wrong.  If history is any lesson, Jackson Yueill or Jonathan Lewis or Jeremy Ebobisse (2017 draft class) may end up being a franchise-level player in a few years.  The same can be said for the top of the 2018 class, although it’s unlikely we’ll see it this year.

But the data does point to the value of an MLS Draft Pick in the lower first round or below starting to diminish. This is not unlike the NBA. So in the future, don’t be surprised to see teams start tanking at the end of season to secure a top pick.

 

*An earlier version of this story had Seth Sinovic incorrectly as 1-star player and omitted Rodney Wallace and misspelled Cristian Roldan’s name. It’s been updated to show Seth Sinovic with 2-stars, Rodney Wallace with 1-star and fixed the spelling error.

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