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Is the MLS Draft still worthwhile?

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The SuperDraft seems to have met its kryptonite

MLS: MLS SuperDraft-Clemson Draft Party Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Well, you may not have noticed, but the 2020 edition of the MLS SuperDraft has now come and gone. Thus it seems timely to take a look at how relevant the draft process in US soccer is to the modern game.

For a long time after MLS started in 1996, the SuperDraft held some considerable value. A number of notable MLS players emerged from the draft over the years. Not least of these is the first player ever taken, Brian McBride, who was picked by the Columbus Crew. And this list includes some impressive names, some of whom are still playing.

Clint Dempsey, who was selected by the New England Revolution with the 8th pick of the 2004 SuperDraft after playing for the Furman University Paladins, has noted that he believes having played the much shorter college season for 3 years extended his eventual professional career. For him that is undoubtedly true.

The more traditional route to a professional career is of course through a youth academy, either with a senior club or elsewhere (which gives rise to the “solidarity payments” made to youth clubs when players get transferred). More and more, those players who opt for the college-to-pro route common in other American sports are finding themselves at a serious disadvantage relative to their peers who have worked three or four years in the far more intense professional environment.

As far as MLS is concerned, the league is becoming far less reliant on the draft. The academy system in the US is getting stronger and stronger. The growth of lower level pro soccer in the US through the USL and the now defunct NASL has meant that teams either have the capacity to field “reserve” squads similar to those employed in other countries or establish relationships with independent teams in other leagues for the purpose of developing players.

Moreover, MLS is now an attractive destination for young foreign players looking to boost their careers, Miguel Almiron being the obvious example. MLS is not really a retirement league for fading superstars, the occasional Zlatan or (please no) Chicharito notwithstanding.

So, how then to gauge the importance of the draft in the current MLS 3.0 era? First, let’s take a look at the players Atlanta United has drafted (not including the 2020 SuperDraft). In its first 3 drafts (in which the team had 12 natural selections (that is, not including any draft picks acquired in trades). Atlanta ended up selecting just 7 players with those picks. They are, in order of draft pick and year:

  • Miles Robinson. 2nd overall pick in 2017. He played 6 games for the Charleston Battery in 2017 and 14 for Atlanta United 2 in 2018, and has 44 senior regular season appearances to date.
  • Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu. 46th pick (round 3) in 2017. He played 1 game for Atlanta and 10 for the 2s before being released at the end of 2018. He played 20 games for FC Tucson (USL League One, their second tier) and 6 on loan to Phoenix Rising in 2019. He is now with the Sacramento Republic.
  • Alex Kapp. 68th pick (round 4) in 2017. Never signed with Atlanta and went to Minnesota United, and played just 1 game on loan to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds before being released in 2018.
  • Jon Gallagher. 19th pick in 2018. Still on the Atlanta roster, but has never played with the senior team. He has 38 appearances with the 2s and 19 to date with Aberdeen in Scotland, where he remains on loan.
  • Gordon Wild. 37th pick (round 2) in 2018. He played 32 games in 2018 on loan to Charleston, and 9 for the 2s in 2019 before being waived in July 2019 and signed by DC United. He is on loan to Loudoun United where he has played 16 games.
  • Anderson Asiedu. 24th pick in 2019. Despite making a splash at the draft itself, Anderson never played for the senior team. He appeared 10 times for the 2s before being waived. After trialing with Toronto FC, he ended up signing with the Birmingham Legion for whom he has 14 appearances to date.
  • Amir Bashti. 48th pick (round 2) in 2019. Initially unsigned, he played 2 games for the San Franciso Glens (USL League Two) before signing with Atlanta United 2, where he has played 9 games.

So, of the 7, just Miles Robinson is currently an Atlanta first team regular. Of the rest, only Jon Gallagher and Amir Bashti are still with the club.

Atlanta has also selected 3 players with picks acquired in trades. They are Julian Gressel (8th overall pick in 2017), Oliver Shannon (36th pick in round 2 of 2018) and Paul Christensen (70th pick in round 4 in 2018). Gressel is obviously the draft standout over the past 3 years. The trade Atlanta made to get him was with Orlando City. And what did they get for the pick? Donny Toia (whom Atlanta had selected in the 2016 Expansion Draft and immediately flipped).

Yes, even before they ever played a game, Atlanta was owning Orlando.

Shannon played 27 games for the 2s and was released at the end of 2018. Christensen played once for the senior team (owing to a Brad Guzan red card) and 10 times for the 2s, and is now out of contract. To get his pick, Atlanta traded a 2018 international slot to LAFC.

Atlanta has also got a number of players in draft-related trades. They are:

  • Kévin Oliveira. Who? Oliveira (along with the equally anonymous Pasher below) was acquired in an unnecessarily complex trade with Sporting Kansas City, in which Atlanta got the two of them plus the 2018 pick for Shannon in return for Kenwyne Jones, Alex Tambakis and a 2021 4th round pick. Neither team got much out of that. Oilveira never signed with Atlanta, signing instead with the now defunct Ottawa Fury.
  • Tyler Pasher. Pasher also never signed and has since played 42 games with Indy Eleven.
  • Romario Williams. Acquired from the Montreal Impact in return for a 3rd round pick in 2018. Romario played 19 senior games, 12 for the 2s and 22 for Charleston before being traded to Columbus, where he played 7 games in 2019. He is now with Miami FC (the USL’s 2020 replacement for Ottawa, not the new MLS team).
  • Kyle Reynish. Giving the 2018 83rd pick (round 4) to the New York Red Bulls brought Reynish to Atlanta in 2017, where he played just twice (and got one red card). He played 27 games for the now defunct Fresno FC and is now retired.
  • Bobby Boswell. Atlanta got the immediate fan favorite from DC in August 2017 in return for a 2019 3rd round pick. Boswell played 7 official minutes in the final 2017 regular season game and nearly got the game-winner, retiring soon after.
  • Justin Meram. Acquired from Columbus in return for a 2020 2nd round pick and $100,000 in GAM. He played 20 games last season and was released.
  • Kevin Kratz. Atlanta got Kratz all the way back in December 2016 from the Philadelphia Union in return for a 2020 4th round pick. He played 48 first team games and 10 for the 2s before being released at the end of 2019.

In total, Atlanta has gotten 234 first team regular season games from the 17 players acquired in or via the draft. Of those, Julian has played 98, Miles 44, Justin 20 and Kevin 48, leaving just 24 from the other 13. So Atlanta is 4 for 17 in the draft, a lowly 23.5%. Not exactly a great return on the effort.

Now let’s examine the SuperDraft on a broader scale. What has happened with drafted players around the league? Well, here’s how the 22 first round picks from Atlanta’s first year in 2017 have fared so far:

  • Of the 22, only 2 have played exclusively in MLS. One is Gressel, clearly. The other is Niko Hansen, the 9th pick by Columbus, now with the Houston Dynamo. The first overall pick, Abu Danladi, comes close, but he has played 1 game for Forward Madison.
  • Only 7 players are still with their original team.
  • 4 other players are with MLS teams other than the drafting team, such that only 11 are in MLS currently.
  • 11 – half the entire first round – have never played in MLS.
  • 4 are currently out of soccer entirely, as far as I can tell.
  • As a group, the 22 have played 658 MLS regular season games, 455 in the USL Championship and 46 in other leagues. Therefore, of a possible 2,244 MLS games they have managed just 29.3%.

Gressel has 14.9% of the MLS games from the entire class. Only Abu Danladi (the 1st overall pick, originally with Minnesota and now with FC Nashville) comes close at 67. All but 98 of the MLS games were played by the top ten players drafted (and even the 10th player taken, Joe Holland, is currently out of contract). Outside the top ten, only Jacori Hayes of FC Dallas (the 18th pick) has any meaningful time at 38 games.

The 2018 first round class are doing no better. Chris Mueller of Orlando has 61 MLS games and Brandon Bye of New England has 54 games. That alone should tell you something. In aggregate they have 343 MLS games (21.9%), 472 in the USL Championship and 19 elsewhere.

In addition to leading all recent draftees in appearances, Gressel leads all Atlanta players in total appearances with 115. Basically, the team won the lottery with him. And possibly got a second jackpot in Miles Robinson. Other than that, the SuperDraft is pretty much just the MehDraft these days.

The teams seem to be thinking that more and more too. In 2017 they passed on just 7 picks (8.0%). In 2018 that increased to 11 (12.0%), and 2019 it jumped to 19 (19.8%). In 2020 fully 27 picks were skipped. That’s 26% of the total. MLS expansion is partly to blame. With more teams, there are more picks to be made each year, but the available player pool has not really grown to match. But since the percentage of passes is also growing, that suggests that teams are attaching less value to the draft year by year.

Overall, then, is a draft a meaningful exercise for MLS? Evidently, the occasional jewel can be found coming out of the college ranks, but does that justify the process? Increasingly, the answer seems to be probably not.