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Jan 162014

index1 Know Your MLS: SuperDraft Edition

Although being a soccer writer is the job I enjoy, my day job is working as a Security Coordinator for a major language firm. It is about as technical and as exciting as it sounds. I basically spend 8 hours a day working with people who speak English as a second, third, or possibly twelfth language and help them understand various government rules and regulations. There are very few things that are as complex and frustrating as a government application. The MLS SuperDraft is one such thing. In a league that tries to satisfy both the American sports fan and the football supporter, MLS has a youth development system that is both unique and frustrating at the same time. But as this league continues to grow and events like the SuperDraft become relevant, it is important that it be explained and examined.

So without further ado, here are some of the important questions for this year’s SuperDraft:

So just what is the MLS SuperDraft?

Major League Soccer created the SuperDraft back in 2000 by combining two separate drafts: the College Draft and the Supplemental Draft, which was for players who are not college players but not professional players. The Supplemental Draft would primarily players from the Generation Adidas Academy, which is a private academy to help develop young American and CONCACAF talent.

The order of the draft is determined by record, with the team with the poorest record picking first. So for example in this year’s draft D.C. United will have the first selection because they had the worst record in the MLS regular season last year. The team that wins MLS Cup will have the last pick in the first round.

One of the important things to understand is that not all college players are eligible to be drafted. Because many college players are part of a particular team’s youth academy, the team that holds the player’s rights may negotiate what is called a Homegrown player contract. Because college athletes are considered to be amateur players and cannot receive payment for their services, a player can only train with their professional team. For example, Notre Dame Forward Harrison Shipp is a Chicago Fire Academy product who was allowed to play with Notre Dame provided that he did not play in any matches for the Fire. After his college career was up he signed a Homegrown Player contract with the Fire and is thus not in the MLS Superdraft.

How did the MLS come up with such a complicated system?

In order to understand how such a system has come to pass, we have to first get some background on the subject. When Major League Soccer was first announced back in 1994, soccer in the United States was in the dark ages. Although the United States Men’s National Team did make the 1990 World Cup, and the 1994 World Cup would be a huge success, MLS was only in its infant stages. There were no club youth academies because there was no top flight league. Semi-pro and professional teams in both indoor and outdoor soccer had difficulty enough fielding squads and paying players. So if you were a player interested in improving your skills and trying to make a career out of soccer the only real option was to play soccer for a college. Colleges like the University of Virginia, Duke University, the University of Maryland, and Rutgers have been cornerstones for the development of the men’s game in the United States for decades and helped groom some of America’s greatest players.

Here we come to one of the fundamental differences between American soccer and soccer in the rest of the world. In other parts of the world, young footballers are developed through various clubs. But here in the United States, the common practice has traditionally been that amateur athletes first go to college and then are drafted into a professional league. This is what happens in the NFL, MLB, NBA, and in the NHL. Although the minor league system in MLB and NHL is similar to European Soccer in the sense that younger players are given time to develop against comparable talent, American sports teams traditionally do not youth teams. Most, if not all, of their players are 17 or older whereas on a youth team you can get players as young as 8.

Although MLS started out with a more traditional American style of youth development, it has slowly begun to move more towards a more traditional soccer youth development structure. Although the league has always had some form of a youth development academy, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s when young talent began to permeate through to the senior-level starting XI’s. With more teams investing heavily into their own academies, there has been some talk about the relevance of the college system. Despite the strides that the game has made in the United States, it is still very difficult to make a living as a professional soccer player in the United States.

Can a team get a quality player out of the SuperDraft? Are most of the player’s long-term projects?

As with any youth development strategy for any team, the team a person depends on the team’s position and what they are looking for. Teams that are drafting early in the first half are often looking for the finished product, players that are ready to start and immediately contribute. This is exactly what Andrew Farrell, last year’s number one pick, provided for the New England Revolution. The 21-year old defender, who was drafted out of Louisville, started 32 games for the Revolution last season and helped the team go from the worst record in the league to taking the team to their first playoff appearance in 5 years.

As for a team at the bottom of the draft, these teams are more polished and in a better position to win in the short-term. It is these picks and those that are made in the second round that really make or break a GM. It is finding the diamond in the rough, the player who might need a little polishing or to gain a few pounds of muscle, that makes drafts so exciting. For example, in last year’s draft the Los Angeles Galaxy selected Defender Kofi Opare in the second round. Although Opare did not start until August, he helped stabilize a Galaxy defense late in the season and helped lock down Real Salt Lake Forward Luis Gill in the first round of the MLS Playoffs.

When looking through previous drafts it reads like a “who’s, who” of U.S. National Team Players. Clint Dempsey, Nick Rimando, Michael Bradley, Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler, Eddie Johnson, Graham Zusi, Brad Davis, and Taylor Twellman have all played a considerable amount of minutes for the Red, White, and Blue.

In addition to American players, there have been a considerable number of international players who have been taken in the MLS Superdraft and have either represented their country or are playing on a prominent club team abroad. Players Yura Movsisyan (Armenia/Spartak Moscow,) Stebven Beitashour (Iran,) Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone/ Middlesborough,) and Roger Espinoza (Honduras/Wigan) were all at one point or another drafted by an MLS team and have gone on to ply their skills over in Europe.

Who are some of the top players in this draft?

When Commissioner Don Garber starts the MLS Draft tomorrow morning and puts D.C. United on the clock, United will find themselves with an array of high quality players. In the forward position, Maryland Forward Patrick Mullins seems to be the top choice for options at striker. The 2012 and 2013 Hermann Trophy winner (essentially the MVP or the Heismann Trophy winner for NCAA Men’s Soccer). Mullins is a striker in the mold of a Jozy Altidore, with a better dribbling skills. His 16 goals in 2013 led all scorers in the NCAA. His teammate, Schillo Tshuma, should also be at the top of United’s draftboard. As a winger he has tremendous pace and would work well with any team that likes to break the ball wide. The Zimbabwean is a bit small (5’10”) but he has blazing speed and tremendous ball handling abilities. He needs to improve on his accuracy though if he is looking to be more of an attacking threat.

In the midfield, there appears to be two particular standouts with very different skill sets. Coastal Carolina’s Pedro Ribeiro, the NSCAA All American and Soccer America First Team MVP, is by far one of the top prospects in this draft. As a midfielder, he has the ability to see the entire field and make snap decisions that can often take the defense off-guard. His combination of passing skills and scoring touch (11 goals in 2013) make him a very attractive option for any team looking for an attacking midfielder.

The other top option for teams in the first round is Georgetown’s Steve Neumann. Although he lacks Ribeiro’s flair, he is as technically of a midfielder that you are going to find in a draft. Having watched him closely during the Big East tournament and in the College Cup this year, he exudes confidence in the midfield and can dictate the pace of the game with just simple, innocuous passes. He is also a weapon on set pieces because his crosses are very smooth and can bend with relative ease.

While there are only a couple of options on the attacking front, on defense this draft is loaded. In all likelihood, United will probably select one of two players from the University of California: Christian Dean or Steven Birnbaum. Until the recent trade for Defender Jeff Parke, the assumption was that United was leaning towards Birnbaum because of his ability to play strong defense and his penchant for going on the attack (10 goals in 2013). However, given the recent addition of Parke, United might be more interested in Dean, who at 6’3” and 198lbs has the physical attributes to be a dominant center back in MLS. This draft is rich in talent from the defender position with the likes of Eric Miller (Creighton,) Kyle Venter (New Mexico,) Ryan Neill (California,) and A.J. Cochran (Colorado) all expected to go early in the draft.

In terms of goalkeepers, it is a very light draft for teams. Andre Blake (Connecticut/Generation Adidas) is by far the best option available. A three-time NSCAA All-American and three-time Big East First Goalkeeper, the Jamaican looks very much like his fellow countrymen Donovan Ricketts in his ability physically control play in the box. With 46 shutouts in his career at Connecticut, he has shown that his physical skills are matched by his ability to control the pace of the game.

So what is the future of the SuperDraft?

That is the real question. As MLS continues to generate more revenue and teams continue to improve their youth development systems, there is a strong possibility that the draft as it stands may be different or abolished altogether. As many have pointed out, a system where players are developed straight from their clubs program and placed onto the senior squads when they are ready makes them far more attractive to European buyers. There is also the problem of all the backwards rules and regulations that the NCAA enforces on college games. Things like a clock going backwards and unlimited substitutions sours many on the college game. And rightfully so.

But there is still value in this system. Giving poorer teams the opportunity to select one of the top players in the nation (or best young international players) affords them the opportunity to dramatically alter their fortunes. Even if the player does not want to play for the team, the team can sell the player’s rights for assets in the form of other players or allocation money. Nevertheless, this gives a team that has add an opportunity to rebuild.

The notion that Youth Academies represent the top players is also questionable. The United States operates under an Academy where the “best” players are often determined by who can afford the expensive academies and coaching. As mentioned earlier, players in youth academies are not on contracts because by law they could lose their amateur status. Players who come from poor, disadvantage families often cannot afford academies and thus rely on colleges to pursue their soccer aspirations.

The future of youth development in American soccer is as clouded as that of the MLS SuperDraft. But what is clear is that this a system that has clearly proven over time to be a valuable asset in the development of Major League Soccer and American soccer as a whole.


Sean Maslin

Writer for Global Football Today and Blatter's Blotter. Lifetime D.C. United, Newcastle United, and Washington Warthog fan. Can be reached at @SeanMaslin on twitter or at

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