The MLS SuperDraft has been cut from four rounds to three, the league is pushing teams to ramp up their academy programs, every signing of a homegrown player is accompanied by fanfare and balloons, and last year the league doubled the number of senior international slots for each roster.
So the question is appropriate: How much relevance does the SuperDraft have? For some teams, perhaps not much, but for the majority of teams, quite a bit. There may or may not be any budding superstars in the class of 2011, but there seems to be a broad tier of players who can not only make a roster but get into the lineup.
“Everybody’s pretty clear about the guys at the very top, the top five or so, and after that it gets pretty average, pretty quickly,” says Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey, who refused to speculate beyond consensus picks Darlington Nagbe and Perry Kitchen as the top two. “I think the one upside may be that this draft will stay 'average' for longer than some other drafts have.”
Of course, Lagerwey speaks from a minority perspective, one of a team with a solid starting 11 and a fairly deep bench. And when he says “average,” he’s referring to a player who can hold down a regular place sooner rather than later, or perhaps never. “Every year, it seems, this guy or that guy says there are '10 to 15 potential starters' in the draft, but that doesn’t mean there are 10 to 15 very good players.”
To borrow a brutally overworked cliche, the draft is what it is.
More than a dozen teams go into the draft with rather urgent needs, and that includes Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers Columbus and New York, which have lost Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Juan Pablo Angel, respectively.
Edson Buddle has left the Galaxy for German second division club FC Ingolstadt. He scored 17 goals last season, 15 goals in 2008, and 90 in his decade of play in MLS. There are some competent forwards in the SuperDraft, but how quickly can any of them approach Buddle’s alacrity in the goalmouth and nose for goal?
That may be an unfair benchmark, but with many more slots for international players available and rosters expanded to 30 players, some place on that roster has to be somebody who can do the job. Now. In the first round, especially, teams need a quick return if there’s a problem area.
“I go into the draft with the attitude that if a player can’t help the team right away or at least pretty quickly, he might never be able to, at least not to any great extent,” says Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid. “Most players coming out of college are pretty well developed. That doesn’t mean they can’t get better but by then they’ve established what they can do and what they can’t. That’s what you have to go by.”
It’s not likely Sporting Kansas City will find in the SuperDraft ready-made replacements for Josh Wolff and Jimmy Conrad, yet the team has already acquired Mexican attacker Omar Bravo. Before MLS Cup manager Peter Vermes scouted players in Europe; he also has some good contacts in South America, from which some players invited to the Combine may have performed well enough to be picked in the SuperDraft.
“I had to go and take advantage of not being in the playoffs and focus on a bunch of targets,” said Vermes of his trip in early November. “The scouting has changed; it’s so fluid that you’re constantly looking at players during the season. We’re trying to stay ahead: we’re looking at players for this upcoming [January] window but we’re already thinking about players for the summer window. We want to verify what we’ve seen on DVD or found out during the checking process.”
But the college game is still a vital element. Typical was the visit of FC Dallas to San Jose last September. FCD started and finished training at Buck Shaw Stadium early enough that head coach Schellas Hyndman and assistants John Ellinger and Marco Ferruzzi could zip off to scout three different college games.
“It makes for some long days and some long months,” laughed Ellinger, the former U.S. U-17 and Real Salt Lake head coach. “But it’s always good to take a look yourself.”
FCD’s penchant for stocking up on Generation adidas players – Peri Marosevic and Brek Shea are two of many the team has claimed the past few years – doesn’t limit its reach. In 2009, it drafted defensive midfielder George John out of the University of Washington; he played 16 games, mostly in the back, as a rookie, and when injuries hit FCD’s defense this year, John stepped in smartly to start all 25 of his appearances.
“We drafted him as a defender,” says Ellinger of the No. 14 selection, one of eight non-GAs taken in the first round. “He’s done great for us.”
Despite being taken in the first round, John's salary that year was the league minimum ($34,008).
Keeper Stefan Frei, taken by TFC just ahead of John, had signed a GA contract for $65,000 base salary and $120,000 total compensation. The value in the SuperDraft is not necessarily what you pay, but what you get.