The 2019 edition of the MLS SuperDraft took place on Friday (rounds one and two, in Chicago) and Monday (rounds three and four, on a conference call), and it was another illustration of why it is ridiculous that the league even has a draft at all.
In most American sports leagues, the draft isn’t just a distribution of players; it’s the way for shitty teams to get less shitty, and an additional talent pipeline for the teams with good scouting to get so-called steals. MLS followed its more successful league cousins and adopted a draft in 2000, combining the Supplemental Draft with the College Draft. Back then, it’d have been fair to have called MLS a curiosity, and the amount of talent coming from outside of colleges was nowhere near what it is today.
That’s changed, mostly because of the youth academies that are now a staple of how the league’s talent pipeline works. Alongside targeted allocation money—which helps bring in new players to MLS—the academies have become the main way that MLS-level talent gets to the professional level. As is the case with other soccer leagues around the world, clubs now make investments in players at much earlier ages, in hopes of finding gems that will produce for the senior club like the Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, Andy Najar (now plying his craft at Belgium’s Anderlecht), and New England’s Diego Fagúndez.
Giving MLS clubs the ability to develop players from an early age while also letting them have team control, even if they go play in college, makes the SuperDraft nearly worthless. Sure, there might be a handful of players every year that slipped through the cracks only to shine in college, and the draft is a decent enough way to fill in squad positions and reserve sides, if not necessarily star players.
But the debacle that was the second day of the 2019 SuperDraft shows that its current iteration is just a waste of time. There are 48 picks in the third and fourth rounds of the draft; 21 of those picks were passed, as teams looked at the player pool and said, pretty emphatically, “no thanks.” Chief among these teams is the L.A. Galaxy, who passed a whopping four times in two rounds.
The Galaxy are a team that, in theory, should be helped by the draft; they finished one point off of the Western Conference Playoffs last season, and perhaps a well-run draft could help them push back into the top six. However, the lack of talent found in the SuperDraft means that the Galaxy would rather punt on four picks than actually take on any more salary for subpar players.
That’s nothing compared to what the Philadelphia Union did before the draft, though. For the measly sum of $200,000 in targeted allocation money, Philly traded away every pick it had in the draft to expansion team FC Cincinnati. The Union’s sporting director could not have roasted the draft harder if was trying to (emphasis mine):
We would not have benefited very well from the 13th pick. I think it was a good decision we took in order to get a little bit more money for other players, and increase our flexibility in the future. The level of MLS has increased a lot, and I think that the level of university (soccer) has been more or less the same. There is quite a big gap. … There are lots of players who are quite okay for the USL level, but it doesn’t necessarily make us better in the MLS level, and that is something a lot of clubs are realizing.”
As more talented players get funneled into the academies, and as MLS’s global appeal continues to increase, there is less need for players who go the traditional college route. And so, though the league has decided to cling to the draft, more teams will likely explore the Union’s strategy, and there’s not much MLS can do to combat this. One change that was floated around after the pass-fest on Monday was to simply shrink the draft to its two live rounds. That would solve some of the problems, though there are still likely not 48 college players each year worthy of a big league roster spot.
There needs to be a path for players who missed out on academies to enter the league, so it’s likely the draft will not go away. MLS also invests a lot of resources every year to make it seem like an important event in the dead of winter, right as the off-season is hitting its halfway point. In its current form, though, the SuperDraft little more than a waste of time and a joke for a league that’s trying its hardest to be taken seriously.