MLS Superdraft: An interesting quirk of the American game

Every year there is an event in American sport that the fans of every club or franchise look forward to and yet there is no actual sporting action to watch. The draft process is perhaps alien to those from the UK but across the Atlantic it is a huge part of many sports. The concept is, that once a year the best players of a given sport that have graduated college, are signed up to professional teams for their shot at the big time. Although the draft is usually huge news, when it comes to football, or soccer as the US would say, it does not have the same stature compared to the other American sports.


In American Football for example, the majority of players in the NFL have been drafted straight out of college. Fans are fully aware that Tom Brady was drafted out of the University of Michigan and that Aaron Rodgers came from the University of California and in turn they also understand that the next big names will be coming out of college too. The fact that these household names come from the college game means that college football also has a huge following and so too does the yearly draft. Fans can tune in once a year armed with the knowledge of who are the best college players and hopeful of whom they might draft.

 

American football is of course different to European football. It is much more physical and many of the positions require fantastic strength and tenacity. Due to the nature of the sport, a 16 or 17 year old would struggle in the NFL as they would just not be able to compete physically with the 22 or 23 year old players who have played years of college football and spent many more hours in the gym. European football is a different kettle of fish and attending college could actually be detrimental to a player's career rather than act as the launchpad that it is in the NFL.

 

The MLS Superdraft is perhaps not as large a spectacle because the best players in MLS just do not usually come into the sport via this route. Most of the top talent in the league is brought in from overseas where the players were raised in youth academies and were playing professional football whilst many of their American counterparts were still playing in college. One must question whether a player graduating at 21 or 22 years old would ever be as skilled or as prepared as a player raised at the youth academy of say Manchester United or AC Milan. That is not to say however that the MLS Superdraft has not provided the world of football with some very talented players.  

Geoff Cameron is perhaps one of the more well known players to come through the Superdraft that is currently playing in England. The Stoke City man has made more than 135 English Premier League appearances since making the move in 2012 and has been, without a doubt, one of the more successful products of the system. He was drafted in 2008 by Houston Dynamo from the University of Rhode Island, but the shocking part is that he was the 42nd overall pick. This means that 41 college graduates were seen as better prospects than Cameron that year, something which has proved to be a huge miscalculation. That 41 included ex-Wigan Athletic player Roger Espinoza and Stoke City reject Brek Shea as well as various other players who have since given up on pursuing a professional career.


The dream for many college sport stars is to be chosen first and have the accolade of being the best college player, the one that everyone wanted. The film buffs among you will be familiar with Jerry Maguire and his golden client Frank Cushman. Although the film was fictional, the hype that it portrayed surrounding such a young player at draft time was totally true. Although draft night is where a future star is thrust into the limelight, being the number one overall pick may actually prove to be more of a curse than a helping hand when it comes to turning professional. Freddy Adu, Nikolas Besagno and Danny Mwanga will go down in MLS history as three of the least successful number one draft picks. Adu has played his club football in eight different countries with very little success, Besagno is now a software developer and Mwanga is playing in the NASL, the second tier of US football. Just because a player has a fantastic college record, that doesn't mean he will be able to perform against the likes of Sebastian Giovinco or Andrea Pirlo.

 

Adu and Besagno are different from most other draft picks however, as they never actually had a college football career. Both players were signed to the Generation Adidas program, another quirk of the American system which aims to raise the level of talent among young footballers in the US. The key points of this program are that it allows players to be drafted at a younger age and they do not count towards a team's salary cap, thus saving money in a club's budget. Interestingly the player is also guaranteed a college scholarship to allow them to study for a degree once their career in football is over. For a young American this can and should seem like a very attractive proposal. For the clubs, they can sign a player who is endorsed by MLS and US Soccer as having a bright future and it will cost them nothing against their salary cap. Players such as Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Brad Guzan were all part of this initiative.

The first pick is almost always a Generation Adidas player and that is no surprise. To become part of the program you have to be identified as the best of the eligible players and with the salary cap incentive for clubs, it is a win-win situation. The clubs also have the incentive of receiving the players earlier in their career as these players are usually younger than their graduate counterparts. In 2016 the first pick of the MLS Superdraft was Jack Harrison, who had spent just one year at Wake Forest University before being picked up by Chicago Fire. He was traded to New York City FC for the fourth pick and allocation money.  


Fast forward to January 2017 and the MLS Superdraft is just around the corner. Minnesota United and Atlanta United are two expansion clubs joining MLS for the 2017 season and as such they are awarded the first and second draft picks. Jeremy Ebobisse of Duke University and Abu Danladi of UCLA are expected to be the first and second picks but which one is chosen first remains to be seen. The interesting or perhaps rather dull aspect of the draft process is that it can often be years until you find out whether a top pick was justified. For every moderately successful top pick such as Maurice Edu, there is a more successful later pick such as Geoff Cameron. Tim Ream of Fulham was the 18th pick in 2010 and Graham Zusi, who has 42 caps for the US national team, was the 23rd pick in 2009 and so the real gems are not always those who make the headlines on draft night.

 

For any footballer who is not being picked up by youth academies, the American college system is a great place to go and know that scouts are watching. If you still don't get picked up then at least you received an education. Not every footballer will be a world beater at 11 or 12 years old and so it is easy to understand why the MLS Superdraft has provided some very talented players over the years. I have debated the US college system and it's value for young tennis stars but football is a different animal. In football so much of a persons success comes down to being scouted, performing well at trials, fitting in with a club and their style of football and also getting along with your teammates. A successful college career can lead to a successful professional career, but for footballers like Ebobisse and Danladi, there will be a big change in environment, quality and expectation when they move from college to their MLS club and their mental strength will be challenged just as much as their footballing skills.

 

 

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