Nashville SC NCAA

Fever Dreams: Let’s fix the MLS Draft

Welcome to Fever Dreams, my perhaps-insensitively-titled series during the current coronavirus pandemic where I get back to this site’s big-picture roots and try to solve some problems in American Soccer. In the first edition, I tackle the MLS Draft.

The MLS SuperDraft is never again going to be the primary producer of talent for teams in the United States’s top flight. There are too many other mechanisms – academy signings, scouting of internationals, free agency, etc. etc. – for talent out of college to be a major fount of the player pool for MLS.

However, there’s still a role for the rookie SuperDraft pick in this league, which means there’s still a role for a college draft. With a shift in format, it could be even more significant, if a slower burn.

Draft-and-follow

This is going to be a major change, going from a traditional NBA/NFL Draft format to an NHL-style draft-and-follow system (largely inspired by mgoblog’s Brian Cook advocating that the NBA do the same). So what’s the format?

Timing: The MLS Draft takes place in January of each calendar year, before MLS teams begin camp. It will also be during the semester break in the revamped NCAA soccer season, assuming that legislation passes – as it should. That means around half the college soccer season would have elapsed at the time of the Draft.

Eligible players: Every player in the United States who will be 18 or older in the calendar year of the Draft and does not have an MLS affiliation yet – whether through a previous year’s Draft, Homegrown rights, etc. etc. – is eligible. That means if your 18th birthday is Dec. 31, 2020, you’d have been eligible to be drafted this past January, even with a year of high school still remaining. This is not an opt-in draft, meaning the players who are drafted retain their NCAA eligibility* and even after being drafted, can compete for their college teams.

How big is it: The first couple years of this draft structure would likely have to have a greater number of rounds, given the sudden expansion of the player pool. However, after that two-year adjustment period, we’re likely looking at a draft that isn’t much longer than the current structure. A five- or six-round draft each offseason deals with only players who are turning 18 in the calendar year, or who have emerged as prospects after being passed over in previous classes.

On draft day: Simply put, MLS teams have the entire player pool available to them, and they pick in the same order as they would under the current structure (reverse order of table finish, reverse order of playoffs finish). Unlike the current draft, teams cannot pass on a pick. Trades are allowed, but every draft position must see a player selected.

Thereafter: Players currently in college remain with their teams through the spring season. At the conclusion of their NCAA season (whether the regular season, or for the better teams, players stick with them all the way through the Tournament), they are free to sign any time before the next NCAA soccer season begins. If they begin the following season with their college team, players may not leave NCAA for an MLS team while that season is ongoing.

MLS teams retain their drafted players’ MLS rights until that player signs his first professional contract, or until the conclusion of the MLS season that follows his final year of NCAA eligibility (e.g., a senior is drafted in January 2020 and finishes his NCAA career that Spring. The MLS team that holds his rights retains them until the end of the 2020 MLS season). Those rights can only be traded or forfeited by mutual agreement of player and team.

If a team drafts a player midway through his freshman year and he opts for another season of college ball, the MLS side can attempt to sign him at the conclusion of his sophomore, junior, or senior years. If he chooses not to sign in any of those windows, the team will no longer hold his rights. That team does, however, follow him through his whole NCAA career with those rights.

*From the NCAA rulebook’s Amateurism legislation (12.2.4.2): “After initial full-time collegiate enrollment, an individual loses amateur status in a particular sport when the individual asks to be placed on the draft list or supplemental draft list of a professional league in that sport” – drafts that are automatic-entry, rather than opt-in, do not terminate amateur eligibility.

Why it works for the parties

Many teams – the Philadelphia Union most notably, but other teams with strong academies as well – have essentially given up on the Draft as a potential source of talent. Allowing them to identify talent earlier and follow the players through their college careers wouldn’t necessarily give them newfound faith in the system, but it certainly provides more latitude to strategize than a pool of only graduating seniors and 5-7 Generation Adidas players. They still have the opportunity to trade their picks, or the rights of the players that they have picked, should they choose not to use the Draft as a source of talent.

NCAA Soccer is a massive beneficiary here. It’s no mystery that the college soccer TV property is not a hot commodity. Giving MLS fans a rooting interest – particularly in the spring NCAA season in the run-up to the NCAA Tournament, when newly-drafted players are going to get more exposure – improves the television ratings and the overall exposure of college soccer. That’s a massive benefit for the profile (and potentially the ability to recruit against lower-level pro leagues) of college soccer.

For the players, they can have an early idea about whether they’ll have a professional career, and where that professional career might be. Not drafted? You have a better idea that you should maybe try harder in class and go pro in something other than sports. Drafted by a team you don’t want to play for? Stay in college for a few more years, or negotiate with the team to trade your future rights to another team.

The American soccer system as a whole also benefits, because MLS teams are incentivized to amp up their talent identification and scouting. More scouting is better for the system as a whole (and the trickle-up effects ultimately improve the national team, as well).

Hang-ups

If the proposal to change the college soccer season goes through as-is (and who even knows if it’ll be voted upon in April, which was the original plan), the best college soccer players would still be in NCAA play until late May – nearly three months into the Major League Soccer season. To a certain extent… that’s the price (and the benefit?) of drafting a high-end player. You don’t get him immediately, but an in-season boost of talent can be worth that for an elite player. There’s a bit of strategizing that can go into the front-office decisions. It might be tedious for some technical staffs, but others will relish that opportunity.

Generation Adidas’s use in the new system would be up to league discretion – as it currently is – but some sort of revamp to the system would likely be necessary with more opportunity for underclassman players to head to the professional ranks. There’s a risk that the league draws criticism for seeming to favor certain clubs in those decisions (not that they are free of those criticisms right now) if GA remains mostly unchanged.

Lastly, this proposal largely hinges upon both MLS and NCAA mostly continuing to exist in their current structures and formats, aside from the split season in NCAA men’s soccer that seems inevitable. There are… many characteristics of each that are not ideal, and reformatting the draft may not be the biggest fish to fry. Other entries in this series will introduce ideas with more comprehensive changes that would either eliminate the need for the draft or at the very least some restructuring of the ideas herein.

Nevertheless, the overarching theme here – a draft-and-follow system for top-flight soccer in the United States, rather than the current SuperDraft structure – would be a major step toward keeping a draft relevant on its merits, rather than pumping it up through artificial means.

Header image Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country. Also it’s from the Expansion Draft, not the SuperDraft, but the war room vibe was important, IMO.

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