On Friday morning, MLS will fill a ballroom in Philadelphia for the annual college draft. There will be pounding music and highlight videos on huge screens, general managers with stacks of data mined at the scouting combine, fans in team colors reacting to selections and emotional players on stage thanking coaches, parents, God.
U.S. sports leagues love drafts, and MLS is no different. But as the soccer league has matured, the importance of the draft has waned.
While the NFL and NBA rely heavily on the annual event for an infusion of workers, MLS is now 10 years into allowing teams to groom talent in their youth academies and maintain exclusive rights to those players, even if they do end up playing NCAA soccer. They are called homegrown players.
As the academies come of age, the number of quality players available in the draft has dropped.
“It’s still relevant, especially at number three on the list,” D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen said ahead of his team’s high pick this year. “But slowly, the talent pool [in the draft] is getting worse. It’s not college soccer’s fault. It’s the evolution of the game and the league. I don’t know where it’s headed.”
Another contributing factor, almost exclusive to MLS, is competition from abroad. The thought of playing in a country with deep soccer passion, a century of tradition and larger salaries has lured many college-aged Americans over the years. Conversely, in a sport featuring a global marketplace, MLS teams spread their talent search well beyond NCAA circles and have the freedom to sign established pros directly.
All of those elements have left the draft with only a handful of prospects projected to earn consistent playing time in their early years. Last season, of the 81 selected, only five appeared in more than half of the matches — and two of those, defenders Marcus Epps and Jack Elliott, were discovered by Philadelphia in the second and fourth rounds, respectively.
Two teams didn’t bother making a pick in the third round and three more passed in the fourth (and final) round. The last two rounds are conducted by conference call a few days after the live festivities.
Soccer America’s research uncovered that fewer than 25 percent of players selected in the past three drafts are with MLS teams.
The 2017 rookie class was better than it appeared because of players who were exempt from the draft and signed homegrown contracts. San Jose Earthquakes defender Nick Lima (California) and D.C. United midfielder Ian Harkes (Wake Forest) were fourth and fifth, respectively, in rookie of the year voting. The winner was Julian Gressel, a German midfielder from Providence College who was drafted No. 8 by Atlanta.
“If we get a homegrown signing every year,” Seattle General Manager Garth Lagerwey said, “that is more or less our first-round draft pick.”
Last week, as Lagerwey and the Sounders coaching staff were preparing to travel to Orlando for the scouting combine, the club signed University of Washington midfielder Handwalla Bwana to a homegrown contract. In the past six months, about 20 others, including several high school students, have done the same.
For the second consecutive year, Seattle will seek a diamond in the rough with the No. 22 draft pick. Identifying players is difficult because few NCAA matches are available on standard TV and the six-day combine offers few clues.
In recent years, the homegrown rule allowed highly regarded midfielders Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas) and Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls) to skip college altogether and bypass the draft. Adams is among 12 homegrowns in the MLS-heavy U.S. national team camp taking place this month. That gathering also includes 11 players who were drafted and five who came to MLS from clubs in Europe or Mexico without going through the draft first.
Last month, Eryk Williamson turned pro after three seasons at Maryland and, as a D.C. United academy graduate, is deciding whether to accept a homegrown offer or go abroad. Had he been available in the draft, the U.S. under-20 national team attacker probably would’ve been a top-five pick. Should Williamson move abroad, United would retain his MLS rights.
Terrapins teammate Jake Rozhansky, a senior midfielder, probably would’ve been a first-round pick but opted to sign with an Israeli club instead.
Some Americans have signed overseas from high school or college, and in subsequent years, have returned to continue their careers. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen left Maryland in late 2014 after two seasons to sign with Freiburg but played only for the German side’s B team. He was a member of Philadelphia’s academy, but because the Union failed to retain his rights, Steffen joined Columbus in summer 2016. This past season, he was one of MLS’s best keepers.
Some homegrowns begin their careers in MLS, then go abroad. DeAndre Yedlin played two years at Akron, joined the hometown Sounders and, after a notable performance for the U.S. national team at the 2014 World Cup, signed with England’s Tottenham Hotspur. He is now a regular starter for Newcastle in the Premier League.
This year’s homegrown class includes Georgetown goalkeeper J.T. Marcinkowski (San Jose) and Indiana defender Grant Lillard (Chicago), a finalist for the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player.
The winner of that award, Wake Forest forward Jon Bakero, is available in the draft. So too is finalist Tomas Hilliard-Arce, a Stanford defender. Other top prospects include Michigan forward Francis Atuahene, Akron defender Joao Moutinho and Indiana forward Mason Toye.
Many draftees will end up signing contracts with second-division teams in the United Soccer League for further development. Most, though, will never make it to the top flight. In that way, MLS is similar to Major League Baseball.
Another issue: As MLS has blossomed, the pay scale has risen, allowing teams to spend the necessary funds to acquire higher-caliber players from abroad.
“In the past, maybe you get a guy in the draft who could start in the first year,” Lagerwey said. “Now, with the competition not only for playing time but a roster spot, you are looking at longer timelines for these guys.”
With nascent MLS youth academies growing, more high-school- and college-age soccer players are expected to align themselves with MLS teams at earlier ages, further depleting the draft pool. Nonetheless, MLS’s winter party goes on.
The draft “continues to provide value for MLS clubs as dozens of players have made significant contributions during the past few years,” league spokesman Dan Courtemanche said. “We plan to continue [the draft] for the foreseeable future.”
Where: Philadelphia Convention Center.
When: Friday at 11 a.m. ET.
Live stream: MLSsoccer.com
Format: Two rounds Friday, two rounds via conference call Sunday.
Top 10 picks: 1. Los Angeles FC, 2. Los Angeles Galaxy, 3. D.C. United, 4. Montreal Impact, 5. Minnesota United, 6. Orlando City, 7. Montreal, 8. New England Revolution, 9. New England, 10. Real Salt Lake.
Stanford D Tomas Hilliard-Arce
Michigan F Francis Atuahene
Indiana F Mason Toye
Akron D Joao Moutinho
Wake Forest F Jon Bakero
Wisconsin F Chris Mueller
Syracuse MF Mo Adams
Wake Forest MF Ema Twumasi
Pacific D Tristan Blackmon
Louisville F Mohamed Thiaw
Top D.C. area prospects
Virginia MF Edward Opoku
Virginia GK Jeff Caldwell
Maryland F Gordon Wild
Georgetown MF Christopher Lema
VCU MF Rafael Andrade Santos