It's that time of year, where a few people get excited about the MLS SuperDraft, and then dozens more people drown those uber-nerds out with complaints about the futility of the draft, or the injustice of the system, or what have you.
You've heard it before if you've been following the league. And based on how I describe it, you probably gather that I don't hate the SuperDraft.
Is it the secret to a team's turnaround? No. A team cannot draft one player and find their prospects have been completely altered for the better. This isn't basketball -- you can have two very good players and still be miles away from the MLS playoff picture, right Chivas USA fans?
Still, just because one player won't make or break your fortunes doesn't mean the draft is worthless. Let me count the ways the MLS SuperDraft is still relevant:
The Homegrown system does not account for every player in the United States: There are technically 20 MLS academies in operation right now (actually, 19, because Chivas USA's doesn't have a first team and NYCFC doesn't have its own academy set up just yet that I'm aware of) scattered around the United States and Canada. But there are tons of kids who play academy soccer that isn't affiliated with MLS teams directly. So while some prospects are being signed as Homegrowns and bypassing the draft altogether, that't not necessarily the case for all of the promising players out there, even on a purely logistical basis.
You can still find quality in the draft: While it may be true that the sheer number of quality players coming out of the draft may be dropping as the years pass, that doesn't mean that there are no good players to be found coming out of the college ranks.
All three defenders in the 2014 MLS Best XI were drafted, as were four players overall in the 2013 Best XI, and four in the 2012 list. That's not a majority, of course, but it's not the occasional guy squirming his way in, either. Again, the influence of the draft may be declining, but it won't disappear anytime soon.
A handful of players from the 2014 SuperDraft ended up being regular contributors in their first season: Steve Birnbaum (No. 2, D.C. United), Tesho Akindele (No. 6, FC Dallas, 2014 Rookie of the Year), Nick Hagglund (No. 10, Toronto FC), Patrick Mullins (No. 11, New England Revolution), Marlon Hairston (No. 12, Colorado Rapids), Chris Duvall (No. 22, New York Red Bulls), Daniel Lovitz (No. 24, TFC). John Berner (No. 35, Rapids) got some starts in goal his rookie year, and Thomas McNamara (No. 20, Chivas USA) and Mark Sherrod (No. 32, Houston Dynamo) probably would have played throughout the season but for suffering torn ACLs. Through one season, that's 10 players out of 38, not a brilliant return but not completely inconsequential. And some players will fall away in seasons to come, while others from the 2014 draft class will emerge.
Good MLS teams use drafted players, too: Two players drafted by the LA Galaxy started in the 2014 MLS Cup final; all seven of their bench players in the game were drafted into the league (albeit not all by the Galaxy). Four of the New England Revolution's starting XI in MLS Cup were SuperDrafted, with another player (Chris Tierney) being picked up in the Supplemental Draft; three on the bench were drafted into MLS.
The point is, even though good teams are turning more and more to big-name Designated Players to help push them over the top and win trophies, drafted players still have a role to play. Especially given the salary cap limitations and restrictions on numbers of international players and DPs, MLS teams still need players coming through the college system. Some of those guys will become stars and some will remain role players or mere depth, but they'll still play a part.
The big caveat to all of this is that of course MLS teams screw up draft picks and entire drafts. Chivas USA had a terrible track record with retaining their draft picks over the second half of their 10-season history, as their only draft picks remaining on their roster by the end of the 2014 season were the three guys taken in 2014. They traded away, cut, failed to protect from the Expansion Draft or failed to sign all of their other picks by the very end.
While not all draft picks stick with the team that originally drafted them, it does seem rather wasteful to either blow draft picks outright or trade them away, usually in deals that were themselves poor (Chivas' No. 2 overall pick in 2014 SuperDraft for Gabriel Farfan, Ben Zemanski for Jonathan Bornstein's rights, Carlos Alvarez for Nathan Sturgis, etc.). More than anything, the terrible strategies involved in selecting MLS SuperDraft picks and retaining them reflected CUSA's instability as an organization, as every new regime sought to clean house by getting rid of most of the roster, including usually-cheap youngish American players with some MLS experience.
The bottom line is that the MLS SuperDraft is not a guarantee every team will find a star, but it's also not a lottery ticket to find a real contributor. Unlike the NFL, NBA, or NHL, MLS has various other ways to sign players, but that doesn't mean it's worthless. Anybody who argues that is not giving it a fair shake.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!