Nashville SC and the MLS SuperDraft

The MLS’s annual draft took place over the weekend, and it’s looking increasingly likely that the entire concept of a draft for the league is on its way out, at least as a functional piece for most MLS teams.

Jacobs and Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre

The Philadelphia Union traded all of its picks to expansion side FC Cincinnati, indicating that the front office for the former team simply doesn’t see a lot of value in the draft. While it’s unlikely we see the draft completely disappear any time soon, such a move could expedite the demise of the Combine, which took place a week earlier in Orlando.

Nashville SC will obviously take place in the draft in its expansion season next year, and I would expect that, while they won’t rely so heavily on USL/Draft talent like it appears Cincy is set to do, nor with NSC completely ignore the draft (or the potential to add some key piece through its mechanisms). Club GM Mike Jacobs spoke with the official website about some of the idiosyncrasies of the draft, as well as his vision of its usefulness.

First and foremost, it’s unlikely that you’re going to see a ton of game-changing or long-term MLS players come out of the college ranks to be drafted:

“Since 2015, only 30% of selections of from the MLS SuperDraft actually step foot onto an MLS field. The gap between the college game and the pro game in USL or MLS has gotten vast in the last five years…

“Just looking at the 2017 U.S. SuperDraft the No. 3 and No. 4 picks have been called in to the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January training camp, Jonathan Lewis and Jeremy Ebobisse. Then, there is the No. 8 pick Julian Gressel, who played a key role in Atlanta United’s in MLS Cup victory. The top 5-10 picks have the highest success rate in MLS.”

Let’s take a look at the 2018 draft (which included LAFC as an expansion team, obviously the closest analogue to where Nashville SC will be next year), and see what the first year held for the players selected:

  • First overall: João Moutinho, LAFC (872 minutes in 14 appearances, traded to Orlando City this offseason).
  • First round total: 23 players, averaged 411 MLS minutes and 716 USL minutes. Nine players did not appear in MLS. Six total goals (three from Orlando City forward Chris Mueller, drafted No. 6 overall).

As you can see… not a ton of immediate-impact success (which isn’t a surprise), and if you’re expecting to build a team primarily through the draft, you’re probably not going to have a Real Good Time. The returns from rounds 2-4 didn’t turn out to be a whole lot more promising.

Attending the draft – as Jacobs did – helps NSC learn a bit about what previous expansion teams (including FCC) thought before and after the process. The former Assistant Technical Director of Sporting Kansas City was no stranger to the process, but getting a new perspective with an eye toward what he needs to do over the course of the next year remains enlightening.

“For us, we are one year away from being on that stage ourselves. To get a chance to pick the brain of expansion teams previously, LAFC, Atlanta United, Minnesota United, helps us get perspective of what this process is like. The hope is to arm our staff with as much info as possible heading into our picks a year from now. We know there is the potential of landing a key building block for this club’s future in the MLS SuperDraft. Nashville soccer fans will want to pay close attention to college soccer next year as we get ready for our first SuperDraft.”

Nashville SC is in an interesting position when it comes to next year’s draft, and indeed when it comes to the long-term plans for how to build the franchise. There’s certainly no huge talent pool in the state from which to build out of an academy (so strike out the Union’s philosophy there), and the draft will have to play some sort of role. Will the club be a big-spending Atlanta United-type, willing to shell out for Designated Players from abroad? Will the first couple years end up being pretty meager as the focus is on simply getting a product onto the field, getting a stadium complete, and looking toward the future? (We call that the “Minnesota United technique” and that’s what Cincinnati seems resigned to in year one, as well).

I’ve obviously been a huge proponent of college soccer in terms of how it helps build a culture for the sport in our country. In terms of producing professional talent at the MLS level, though… it’s unlikely that it will return to the pipeline it was 10 or 15 years ago without major changes to the structure of the NCAA (a modest suggestion: burn it down and start over).

Still, a GM with a keen eye for talent – and there’s no denying Jacobs is just that – can still extract some value from the SuperDraft, and I’d expect we see just that in a year.

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