If MLS had a theme for the first few weeks of 2018, it would have been: What is the SuperDraft and why does it matter? A considerable portion of that theme would, ironically, be devoted to convincing fans that it actually does matter, while also trying to hide the slightly anxious tone in which the argument is conveyed. Fortunately, the SuperDraft “SHOULD” have a long and immensely important future in shaping the US soccer landscape --- but only if changes are made.
Let’s first look at the SuperDraft as it currently exists. Like most any other American draft, the SuperDraft is composed of the best NCAA soccer players who are either leaving school early to pursue professional contracts, or are graduating and wish to continue their careers as professionals. The best 60 or so are invited to participate in a “Combine” to be evaluated further and then MLS clubs, ranked from last to first based on the prior MLS season, select who they have evaluated to be the player with the most potential over four rounds. Pretty familiar, but there are a few quirks.
First, there are a handful of seniors who have pre-signed contracts, meaning whichever team selects them must sign them to a roster spot. Our very own Atlanta United selected one such individual, John Gallagher, with their first pick this year. There are also a certain select few young players choosing to leave college early who are viewed as having a higher level of potential and talent if fostered in a professional environment. These players are named as Generation Adidas (GA) players and come with roster perks, such as not being counted against a team’s cap for as long as they hold the GA designation. Miles Robinson was one such pick last year, as was Gordon Wild this year.
While unique and certainly interesting, the SuperDraft has a problem. The talent produced by NCAA soccer programs is consistently below the level necessary to play substantial minutes in MLS league play. Often, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks don’t perform well enough to even earn a roster spot on the MLS team that selected them. The consequence is that MLS teams draft some 70 player, but only maybe 25 of those are talented enough to earn contracts for a first team roster spot, and only 5 of those 25 are skilled enough to earn significant minutes. The rest either get signed to their MLS affiliates that play in the United Soccer League (USL) second division, or go unsigned completely. At which point they have to either move on from soccer or attempt to sign with some other USL team. It’s tedious, it’s time consuming, and it is inefficient. Ultimately, with the increased focus on Homegrown players and academy development (and rightfully so), along with the increase in talent that is coming to MLS from abroad, the number of college players signed to MLS contracts will continue to dwindle. In 10 years, it is possible that not a single college player will see decent first team minutes in the year they are drafted. The draft needs to change and here is how.
The SuperDraft can still play a huge role in American soccer, just not with MLS. Instead, the draft needs to become a key form of player acquisition for the USL.
Here is how it should proceed in the future:
MLS teams will no longer participate in the draft. Instead, independent teams within USL Division 2 will select players in the first 2 rounds based on each team’s performance from the previous season; the last place team picks first, and so on. Given USL’s current slate of teams, there would be 25 picks per round. USL Division 3 would then pick in the same fashion, for rounds 3 and 4.
The SuperDraft should be held in the May/June. This will allow drafted players to leave college immediately after graduation or immediately after what is presumably a full year of college. Contracts for drafted players with their USL teams will not begin until the following preseason in January.
In the six months between the draft and the preseason, the players drafted by USL D2 or D3 teams will be permitted to join MLS teams on trial basis so that they can be evaluated at length and in a professional environment. This may create some concern that players on trial could become injured before signing their USL contract, therein a high round draft pick is wasted. A decent solution for this would be for MLS teams to take out insurance policies for trial players – the benefits of which would go the USL squad, were a significant injury to occur.
If an MLS team finds that the player they have invited on trial is worth having on the team, then they have to negotiate the transfer of his rights directly with the USL team that drafted the player and pay whatever transfer fee is agreed upon.
I imagine fees being in the $100,000 - $200,000 range for draftees taken in the first 10 picks or so. The transfer value of the drafted player would ultimately be left to the USL team to decide, but they would need to negotiate in good faith, or risk alienating their new draftee.
There could be a mechanism put in place that a USL team could not demand a transfer fee greater than a certain percentage of the player’s USL salary.
In order to incentivize MLS teams to actually spend transfer fees on unproven college players, perks will be provided:
A drafted college player that is transferred to an MLS club will be exempt from the salary cap, the international roster cap, and the roster size cap for the duration of their career with THAT team (an MLS roster may have no more than 3 of these type signings). If the player is traded or signed to another team – the perks are forfeited.
College draftees will be eligible for free agency after three years
College draftees transferred for profit oversees are exempt from MLS league percentages.
This system likely negates the Generation Adidas system, but under this arrangement, I doubt it would be needed anymore.
Without question, the USL has grown considerable in nearly every facet. The league is financially stable, growing immensely, and the level of play on the field has improved considerably. Giving the USL a direct path to signing quality talent will see the league grow even further. Also, it may not seem like it, but USL clubs receiving $100,000 or more for a draftee would be a huge boon to the club, and to the league as a whole. This is especially so when you consider that there may be 5 to 6 players each year that are transferred out of USL in this manner. This system could push USL into even greater heights and into even greater profitability.
The incentive for MLS clubs will be substantial as well. Players like Gressel, Harrison, Danladi, etc could be acquired for relatively modest transfer fees, but would be completely cap proof. With the right training and development, you could have superstar players that are completely outside of the cap. However, free agency will be key, as it would prevent MLS teams from holding their signed draftees hostage for salaries that are less than their market worth. It is also possible that within this construct, “homegrown” players would need to be given free agency status after their first contract as well.
There are plenty of other tweaks or ideas that could be applied to this format, but ultimately I think it could be the key to bolstering division 2 and division 3 soccer in the US and would ensure that the SuperDraft remains an important mechanism for developing professional soccer players. It places players in leagues that they are best suited, gives the USL a substantial system for additional profits, and prevents quality college players from slipping through the cracks by being turned down in MLS and going unnoticed by USL.
Someone call Don and get this in the works.