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Why the often-derided MLS SuperDraft isn’t going anywhere

Joao Moutinho (left) poses with MLS Commissioner Don Barber after being taken No. 1 overall by Los Angeles FC in the 2018 MLS Super Draft. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA – Every January, the technical staffs of MLS clubs start the new year by gathering for the league’s combine and SuperDraft process. And every January, the process is accompanied by a chorus of news articles and columns documenting the draft’s decline, its diminishing relevance as it’s squeezed on both sides by the growth of the academy system and the steady increase in spending on signings from overseas.

There is truth in this. The rise of the “Homegrown” pipeline has redirected young prospects who in past years would’ve moved through the SuperDraft. MLS’ pronounced bump in spending via its complicated system of “allocation money” has fueled an incoming wave of showcase talent that makes domestic players less pivotal.

But the draft stubbornly endures, as the 2018 edition showed at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Friday. In fact, based on conversations with MLS coaches and executives on the draft floor, it’s unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.

“It’s an opportunity to add players and depth in your squad and, in some cases, guys who are ready to play,” New York City FC sporting director Claudio Reyna said. “All you have to [do] is look back at the history of the league – there’s guys that come in and produce right away. There are always surprises. There’s going to be guys that are picked eight through 15 that come in and play and fit a need for a specific club. Some clubs may say that it’s not so serious, but I know when all the clubs are together – the way that they’re watching games, all the conversations that are going on – it’s still an important pathway in our country.

“It’s surprising how long this draft [took]. The amount of trades I think surprised everybody. There was a lot of interest in players from various teams, and guys were trading up. It’s still relevant in this country and it will continue to be.”

College soccer’s shortcomings are well documented, from its truncated, grinding season to the NCAA’s restrictive regulations and beyond. Yet it remains a useful proving ground for prospects, particularly those who are missed by the professional game’s talent identification networks.

Even after MLS’ dramatic expansion of – and millions of dollars’ worth of investment in – its youth development infrastructure, millions of players still go overlooked or simply live in areas far from pro clubs. And when talented players fall through the cracks, they often land in college ball.

“I still think that there’s really good talent,” Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin told Pro Soccer USA. “Our club’s philosophy, we have kind of shifted away from [the draft] and we want to focus more on our academy, but there’s still eight kids out there that are going to have great, 10-year MLS careers. 

“You do want to get a hold of the kids a little earlier, so it’s not a perfect system but it’s one that, in our country, it’s the reality of what we do: We have a draft, we have excitement around it. It’s still part of our culture. … I guarantee there’s eight guys out there that will have 10-year careers in MLS. Not everybody knows exactly who the hell they are right now. But they’re going to do it.”

Another wrinkle: A steady stream of international talent has filtered into NCAA soccer in recent years, and a striking number of those players move on to MLS via the draft. Three of this year’s top-five selections and seven of the top 14, including LAFC’s No. 1 overall pick Joao Moutinho, hail from overseas. Last year, it was five of the top-10 picks.

Some of these players – like Moutinho, a product of Sporting Lisbon’s vaunted academy – are gifted prospects who couldn’t quite cut it in the systems of elite European and South American pro clubs. Others are Cinderella stories like first-rounders Francis Atuahene and Ema Twumasi, graduates of the Right To Dream program, which plucks promising kids from humble circumstances in Ghana and helps them find educational and professional opportunities in Western nations.

All of them elevate the level of NCAA soccer, and over the years, many have become valuable contributors in MLS. Beyond their soccer abilities, they also tend to also bring a keen hunger and commitment to the next level. Atuahene turned heads with a particularly moving speech about his unlikely journey when FC Dallas took him with the fourth overall pick.

“With all the negativity that typically is written these days, one of the nicest thing about the draft is seeing young players who are getting a chance to turn pro,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “And when they get up there and they’re now thanking people and they’re emotional, and they’re thinking about this next moment.

“And when Atuahene speaks today – come on! That’s as good as it gets. The journey of those Right to Dream kids is incredible. I’ve worked in Africa, I know what it’s like. And to think that they got selected from how many kids? From the age of 10 they’re in the Right to Dream academy, and as part of the process they’re here in private school and don’t know the language. Then a couple of years later they’re standing in front of all these people. … Come on, man. Look, that’s still a pretty great thing.”

It’s true MLS applies a level of hype and glossy packaging to the draft that probably exaggerates its place in the league’s overall player acquisition system. Atlanta United drove this point home by upstaging this year’s edition with the official announcement of league-transfer-record signing Ezequiel Barco. Yet MLS needs a tentpole event around which to gather its teams ahead of preseason’s onset, and the draft’s long-running tie-in to the enormous United Soccer Coaches Convention connects the league to the wider soccer community.

Most important, it provides the pro game with one last chance to grab overlooked talent from a domestic youth landscape that remains stubbornly inefficient. As long as good players blossom off the beaten path, the draft will provide an imperfect but necessary safety net.

“The draft shouldn’t die, ever,” said FC Dallas’ Colombian head coach Oscar Pareja, who moved aggressively to pick up Atuahene and Twumasi despite his club’s well-known reliance on its prolific youth system. “We have opportunity to sign younger players that go through the academy process, that’s fantastic, but there are some other players that want to go and do the college path.

“It’s good because in my country, in my experience I see many, many players who get lost on the journey because they didn’t have the opportunity for someone to see them at the age of 22 or 23 because they decided to go and get their academics. So I don’t see it as a deficiency, I see it as something that the USA has to keep supporting.”

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