By Paul Gardner
Commissioner Don Garber's SuperAddress just before the MLS SuperDraft was appropriately full of SuperLatives, a SuperCharged bravura performance that featured an impressive list of MLS SuperDeeds and a look into the league's glowing SuperFuture.
And why not? As its 15th season begins to take shape, the league has plenty to boast about. One of the themes that Garber inevitably emphasized was the SuperDraft itself, a gala occasion that was noisily livened up by the presence of a large number of fans -- from New York, from D.C. United and, of course, from the neonate Philadelphia Union.
Plenty of chanting, singing, yelling, cheering and booing then, all of it quite remarkably discordant. Plus the inevitable ugly scarves being enthusiastically held aloft.
Now this crowded and colorful soccer occasion -- one that undoubtedly tells us something about how far the involvement of fans has come in this country -- was not taking place at a game, or at a stadium, or even in the streets ... but rather in a hotel ballroom.
Does that sound real? No, it does not. Nor is it. Because this gaudy event cannot be seen as a true soccer happening. It is rather a totally factitious occasion whose soccer worth is highly questionable.
The importance of the draft is not based on soccer considerations. It is based on what football and basketball do. For those sports the player draft has massive importance as a way of distributing a large number of the world's best young players among the NFL and NBA clubs. Top players who can go straight into the starting lineups and have immediate impact.
That's what happens in basketball and football -- so of course those sports make a big deal of their drafts, of course they turn them into television extravaganzas, of course they exploit the huge interest and the tension involved as the choices are made.
Is that the situation in soccer? Not even close. For a start, the U.S. colleges do not possess a large number of top-level players capable of playing at the pro level. I'll put it more bluntly -- the colleges can offer hardly any such players. Now this is quite extraordinary when you consider that the colleges have for decades now had the first choice of all the talent available in this country.
The colleges shouldbe producing a steady stream of top young players, but such are the failings of the college game, its limitations and its drawbacks, that it has singularly failed to do this.
A look at the history of the MLS draft is all that is necessary to prove the point. Top draft picks do not sail into starting lineups. They neverfeature as immediate impact players. And not a few of them simply disappear very quickly.
Hence the unreality of the MLS SuperDraft. For all of its theater and pageantry it is a largely empty event. The MLS clubs themselves are well aware of its hollowness. MLS scouting of college games is not exactly a widespread activity -- and often comes down to nothing more elaborate than attendance at the combine held shortly before the draft. As one Division I coach told me, "The MLS people never call me to ask me about my players."
None of this would matter greatly if it were simply a matter of MLS staging a promotional event that gets them plenty of media coverage. But this goes much further. We are being asked to believe that the growth of MLS into a sturdy competitive league on the world scene can be based on college talent.
This is patently absurd, but more importantly, it is dangerously misleading. MLS -- like any other pro league anywhere else in the world -- needs a steady supply of young talent. At the moment it is taking the easy way out by relying far too heavily on the colleges, when it should be devoting more thought and action to creating its own network of youth development programs.
One of Garber's positive points was that within a couple of years, MLS will have 18 clubs. That is a solid achievement, but it is one that will be seriously undermined if the league thinks that the extra players needed can be supplied by the already thin college pipeline. If it comes to that, the only result will be a noticeable drop in the caliber of the soccer played in MLS.
The irritating thing, of course, is that the inadequacy of college soccer is no secret. Slowly, alternative routes to the pro game are being explored, either by players spending only one or two years in college, or by avoiding it altogether.
Reality is already taking hold. But not in the SuperDraft ballroom. There, fantasy soccer reigns as college soccer is dressed up as something of vital importance to MLS. A SuperIllusion, I'm afraid, and a dangerous one.