I will admit, I’m not a big fan of the MLS SuperDraft. I’m realizing though that it’s not so much the draft that sours me, it’s the hype.
Part of my dislike is that Major League Soccer tends to drive their draft process in a way that is reminiscent of National Football League. When you go about things like the NFL, you’re never quite going to live up to the billing, especially a draft. The NFL is the only professional league in the world that supports American football, so they get the pick of the litter when it comes to prospects coming out of college.
And while Major League Soccer tends to get most of the quality US college soccer players, the NCAA system is barely adequate to prepare aspiring professionals. Many college players have also featured for lower league semi-pro squads in order to get the requisite playing time to develop their skills.
There are plenty of drafts in American professional sports, and none of them are equal. The NFL and NBA drafts usually sees a quick transition for players from the college game to the pros. Major League Baseball has very few players move immediately to the major leagues. For one thing, many players are drafted out of high school (it also helps MLB having a 6-layer minor league system to develop their players, with most of those teams well-supported financially within their communities). The NHL is somewhat in between the two extremes – players tend to advance to the top level club more quickly than in MLB.
MLS would benefit from a minor league structure like MLB or NHL. Of course, world football doesn’t quite jive with that kind of a model. With independent clubs that can move freely up and down the pyramid internationally, MLS has the constant drone of that paradigm clouding the situation. The FIFA-endorsed “ideal” thrives mostly because of the widespread popularity of the sport in those countries. Of course some contend the open pyramid contributes to that popularity, and turns that cloudiness into a fog that sounds similar to a “chicken/egg” argument.
But let’s tie this back in to the SuperDraft. Without a proper development system in the US, the SuperDraft will be very “hit-or-miss” as far as the quality obtained. The MLS Reserve League lacks the quality in its current form. Teams played 10 games in 2012 – not nearly enough to constitute any development for 2-5 draftees and HomeGrown players per season. Developing players should be getting at least 25 competitive matches per season, and possibly closer to a full MLS schedule of 34 games.
To this end, reports have it that MLS may begin to make a move towards the MLB/NHL structure. Rumors indicate that MLS could align it’s Reserve League with Division 3 USL-Pro. This could begin the metamorphosis to a minor league system in the long term. While that could help player development, it also provides more fodder for the open system people who believe the only way to popularize the sport in America is independent football clubs with promotion and relegation. If NASL and USL-Pro moved into the realm of affiliated minor league clubs, that prospect is almost certainly gone.
And there is some precedent for this in the European league structure. Spain and Germany both allow “B” squads to play in the lower leagues. Barcelona’s B team plays in Spain’s Second Division, forbidden from ever promoting to La Liga. Having upwards of 15 MLS Reserve teams in the 3rd Division League structure wouldn’t be perfect, but it would help to sustain that level as well as provide youngsters a more rigorous league structure than what is currently provided in the Reserve League.
To demonstrate why some change is necessary, let’s take a look at the top pick in the last three MLS SuperDrafts (not counting 2013). In 2012, Andrew Wenger started 7 games for the Montreal Impact, a team which went an international route to bring in forward Marco DiVaio at the top of their 4-4-1-1 scheme. If you had to choose between a Serie A poacher and a college striker to start, who would you pick?
Omar Salgado and Danny Mwanga had similar quandaries in 2011 and 2010, respectively. Salgado had Eric Hassli, Atiba Harris, and Camilo ahead of him in Vancouver, while Mwanga had to share time with Sebastien LeToux, Alejandro Moreno, and Jack McInerney. Nobody can say Wenger, Salgado, and Mwanga have developed into star quality MLS players yet, and only time will tell if they ever meet the hype that the mainstream soccer media members foist on these prospects through NFL-style hype.
There are a number of courses of action that Major League Soccer could take to improve player development, but in my opinion some change is necessary (the sooner the better). An overhyped NFL-style SuperDraft sets an unrealistic expectation of what the draftees will bring to teams. The HomeGrown process has its flaws as well – just see the most recent USMNT “Camp Cupcake” call-ups. Aside from Bill Hamid, the only other “HomeGrown Player” in the mix is Connor Lade, and his selection for the camp was dubious among pundits and fans alike.
What it all ties to is finding a more robust system to take players from either the draft or the HomeGrown designation to the first team. 10-20 games a season for budding prospects isn’t enough. One way or the other, Major League Soccer needs to find a way to give these players a hearty challenge to prepare them for the big-time. Maybe it’s buying in fewer international players and running out the younger talent. Maybe it’s developing a quality Reserve League. Maybe it’s aligning with the lower divisions. Whatever the course of action, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.