Why the MLS SuperDraft is Becoming More Important

SuperDraft pick Kipp Keller

When college athletes turn professional, most opt to enter drafts with hopes of playing for a professional team. In the United States, this is a huge deal. American football’s draft regularly has millions of viewers, while yesterday’s NBA Draft saw tons follow via social media. Even baseball and hockey drafts get a lot of interest, but the MLS SuperDraft hasn’t seemed to catch on in terms of popularity.

This is a result of several factors. For one, academies essentially replace the draft for many teams. If teams want to bring up young, talented players, they simply look to their academy. Heck, many SuperDraft picks played in an MLS academy at some point, anyway. Former academy players also make the draft more complicated for both teams and fans: the MLS has complicated player ownership rights, which makes following players a hassle.

However, the main reason the SuperDraft hasn’t attracted the same amount of notice as other drafts is that it just isn’t necessary. Unlike the NFL and other American leagues, MLS players often sign directly from other teams and academies, meaning the draft isn’t the number one source of new talent. This reduces draft picks to trade add-ons or simply being “passed,” with teams skipping the right to pick.

For reference, my local team, the Philadelphia Union, hasn’t picked a player in the SuperDraft since 2018.

However, this is starting to change. The SuperDraft is beginning to gain recognition, and it may well become a valuable part of the league. For some teams, it’s already doing that.

Increasing Global Appeal

The original MLS SuperDraft, held in 2000, was mostly full of American players. There were a few foreign-born players selected, but most came from Central America and the Caribbean. Now, however, players from all over the globe enter the draft, having gone to American colleges.

The latest SuperDraft, in 2022, shows how much more diverse the draft has become. Players were selected from four North American nations, nine from European ones, two South American countries, and seven African nations. The NCAA’s growing influence and valuable scholarship opportunities – and potentially earning money for playing – are causing more players to play college soccer in the US.

Take Thorleifur Úlfarsson, the fourth overall pick in the last SuperDraft. Úlfarsson left Breiðablik, a historic Icelandic team that has a name impossible to type, to join Duke University. In an interview with Duke (which you can find here), he cited the reason he joined as the combination of athletics and academics. For players who value academics but want to keep their sports careers alive, NCAA soccer is an intriguing opportunity.

MLS Next Pro

For those of you who don’t know, MLS Next Pro is a newly formed minor league for the MLS for younger players to develop. It’s a great addition: teams can test out younger players, potential signings, and others on a competitive reserve team. It also avoids taking up first-team finances, foreign player slots, and roster spots in general.

This is ultimately going to help the SuperDraft, as it should (in theory) make teams less reluctant to draft players. Before, teams had two basic options: either loan these prospects out to their USL affiliates – who were often neglected more than they should have been, hence the creation of the MLS Next – or commit to having them on their first team.

Perhaps the biggest example of wasted potential in MLS history is Freddy Adu. At age 14, he was drafted in the SuperDraft by DC United amid interest from abroad. With pressure to play Adu and no affiliated club to develop him, United put him on their first team. Adu flopped spectacularly, but his career might have been different with MLS Next. Now, teams can develop their draft picks and not worry about having to either play them or sell them.

Recent Success

In 2019, the New England Revolution drafted Syracuse forward Tajon Buchanan ninth overall in the MLS SuperDraft. Granted, he had talent, but he hadn’t played at an MLS academy. He wasn’t bought from some South American super club, and he hadn’t attracted interest from Barcelona or Chelsea. How good could a SuperDraft player be?

Three years later, Buchanan’s proven all doubters – personal and SuperDraft – that they’re wrong. Buchanan took the league by storm, and shortly thereafter earned a move to Belgium’s Club Brugge. He’s now a Canadian international and will travel with Canada to their first World Cup since 1986.

While Buchanan has been undoubtedly the success story of the SuperDraft in recent years, he’s not the only one. Daryl Dike was drafted by Orlando in 2020 and flipped to West Brom for a club-record fee. Miles Robinson, Andre Blake, Jeremy Ebobisse, and countless others have become valuable MLS players. Multiple players, particularly from Canada, have represented their country internationally.

With this much recent success, it’s hard to justify skipping players much longer.

The MLS SuperDraft is never going to have the appeal of its rival drafts in America, nor does it need to. It will never overtake signing players and academy players as the best ways to acquire new talent – but once again, it doesn’t need to. What it will do, however, is form an increasingly prominent role in the US and global soccer, for players who slipped through the nets of academy soccer.

The fact is, the SuperDraft already has arrived and is just getting bigger. Just ask Canada: if their players from Syracuse, Maryland, Wake Forest, and UConn didn’t get this chance, they might not be heading to Qatar.

Image Courtesy of TheSpaniard15, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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