Who is going to be chosen first in the MLS draft? The consensus is Darren Mattocks, a Jamaican forward who scored 39 goals in 47 matches over two seasons at the University of Akron. UCLA forward Chandler Hoffman and Duke defender-midfielder Andrew Wenger are also in the mix.
The festivities begin Thursday at noon ET (ESPN2, ESPN3.com) when the expansion Montreal Impact makes its selection at the Kansas City Convention Center. The No. 1 choice will harvest the boldest headlines. He will be celebrated by the league, toasted by supporters and analyzed on the message boards.
Will he then fulfill the promise fastened to his nascent career? Based on the trajectory of top overall picks since 2000, when MLS re-branded its rookie auction the “SuperDraft,” the answer is: No.
That doesn’t mean he won’t become a productive player. More often than not, however, someone else taken in the first round has, over time, blossomed into a better player. It happens in other sports too. But because college soccer lacks the exposure afforded those other sports, the MLS draft lacks certitude.
Before looking at the past dozen drafts, we should examine why MLS No. 1 picks aren’t sure things: How many times will an MLS coach or his assistants see a top player perform in college or with a youth national team before claiming him in the draft?
The league is still in its infancy, and clubs lack the network of scouts to track every prospect nationwide over the course of an academy or college career. This isn’t baseball, where every pitch is timed and every home run measured -- high school through college.
The scarcity of NCAA soccer on TV makes it difficult for MLS teams to assess players. (Imagine the NBA’s player evaluation process without access to hundreds of televised college basketball games every winter.)
Fox Soccer Channel presents one game per week, regional networks pick up matches on occasion and universities stream games online for a fee. The NCAA tournament is played in darkness, so to speak, until the College Cup semifinals and final pop up on ESPNU.
MLS assistants keep tabs on local players. They attend major conference tournaments and the College Cup. They see players in national team camps. At the scouting combine leading to the draft, they monitor three days of matches involving players thrown together for the first time. For additional insight, they must also rely on NCAA and academy coaches — and agents as well.
Consequently, the draft often lacks clarity and creates unfair expectations for that illustrious No. 1 pick. Fortunately for MLS teams, the draft is not the most vital tool in roster-building efforts; international acquisitions promise to bolster a team’s outlook much quicker than a newly minted professional. So there is room for error in the draft. And with the rise of MLS youth academies, clubs now have prospects under consistent supervision and are able to make better-educated decisions.
Let’s look at the top draft selections since 2000, as well as the players chosen later in the first round who ultimately enjoyed finer careers:
First pick: Steve Shak (New York). Lasted 1 ½ seasons with the MetroStars before moving to the Rapids. Played in the U.S. lower tiers, went to Sweden, returned to the States and retired in 2009. Now coaching in North Carolina.
Best career: Carlos Bocanegra, picked fourth by Chicago. Played for Fulham, Rennes, Saint-Etienne and now Rangers. 100 U.S. caps, two World Cups.
First pick: Chris Carreiri (San Jose). Played five games before being dealt to Colorado, where he scored 19 goals in three seasons. Except for one game with Chicago, spent rest of career in lower leagues. Now coaching in North Carolina.
Best career: Ryan Nelsen, picked fourth by D.C. United. MLS Best XI twice, seven seasons with Blackburn in England. Captain of New Zealand’s World Cup squad.
First pick: Chris Gbandi (Dallas). Missed rookie season with torn ACL. Played in MLS for five years, then moved to Norway before returning to U.S. lower tier.
Best careers: Taylor Twellman, picked second by New England, and Brad Davis, picked third by New York. Twellman became one of MLS’s most prolific scorers before concussions cut short his career. Davis has won two MLS Cups with Houston and was MVP finalist last season.
First pick: Alecko Eskandrian (DCU). 2004 MLS Cup MVP. Concussion jeopardized career, and after four moves, another head injury shut him down for good. Returned to school to earn degree. Now works for Philadelphia Union.
Best career: Ricardo Clark, picked second by New York. Won two MLS titles with Houston before transferring to Eintracht Frankfurt, where career has stalled. 32 U.S. caps and World Cup assignment.
First pick: Freddy Adu (DCU). Signed at age 14, faced impossible expectations. Erratic playing time in Washington, one year at RSL, nomadic odyssey in Europe. Returned last year to join Philadelphia.
Best career: Clint Dempsey, picked eighth by New England. One of the most accomplished Americans ever with 39 Premier League goals at Fulham. Scored in 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
First pick: Nik Besagno (RSL). Eight first-team appearances in four years before settling in the lower leagues.
Best career: Brad Guzan, picked second by Chivas USA. 2007 MLS keeper of the year. Starting for Aston Villa this winter after struggling to earn regular time.
First pick: Marvell Wynne (New York). Athletic back found a home in Colorado in 2010 – his third club -- and won an MLS title.
Best career: Sacha Kljestan, picked fifth by Chivas USA. Excelling at Belgian power Anderlecht. 34 U.S. caps.
First pick: Maurice Edu (Toronto FC). Two MLS seasons before transferring to Rangers, where he has been a regular for four campaigns.
Best career: Edu. Three Scottish league titles, 2010 World Cup squad.
First pick: Chance Myers (Sporting Kansas City). 13 starts in first three seasons, 24 starts last year.
Best career: Brek Shea, picked second by FC Dallas. Breakthrough year in 2010, one of MLS’s best young talents in 2011. Bright U.S. national team future.
First pick: Steve Zakuani (Seattle Sounders). 14 goals and 10 assists in first two seasons. Suffered broken leg early last year.
Best career: Omar Gonzalez, picked third by Los Angeles. Two-time Best XI, 2011 MLS defender of year. Tore ACL in first training session of loan to Nuremberg this month.
First pick: Danny Mwanga (Philadelphia). 12 goals and eight assists in first two seasons.
Best career: Unfair to declare so soon, but Teal Bunbury, picked fourth by Kansas City, had nine league goals and a U.S. goal in 2011.
First pick: Omar Salgado (Vancouver Whitecaps). Teenager. Long-term expectations. 14 league appearances.
Best career: Again, too early to say, but C.J. Sapong, picked 10th by Kansas City, was rookie of year and received U.S. invite this month.