New draft rules change teams' approach

In the view of most MLS coaches, player development is a numbers game, and by decreasing the number of players, the odds of success also drop.

Yet that's their fate in 2009, with the elimination of at least four roster spots, termination of the Reserve Division, and cessation of the Supplemental Draft.

According to the league office, the SuperDraft will not be expanded beyond four rounds to compensate for the loss of the Supplemental Draft, which consisted of four additional rounds by which teams could pick college players passed over in the SuperDraft as well as those in the USL and other domestic leagues.

"Without a supplemental draft this year it puts a little more pressure on teams to do a good job with their picks," said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena on Tuesday in an interview. "You've got to utilize those picks.

"I did that my one year in New York. I didn't have a pick in the first round. I picked Dane Richards and Sinisa Ubiparipovic and those guys worked out. I still like to believe we can get players in the third and fourth round who can help us."

Supplemental Draft picks didn't carry much weight in the transaction market yet did give teams a bit more capital to work in trade talks. And occasionally a team would snag a capable player out of a lower domestic league, as in 1998, when Chicago grabbed defender C.J. Brown from the USISL San Francisco Seals.

In the 2006 Supplemental Draft, New York picked up midfielder Joe Vide and D.C. United took defender Devon McTavish. Last year, Revs' forward Kheli Dube did well enough to be a Rookie of the Year finalist.

But a lot of draft picks ended up on the developmental rosters, playing for pitiful salaries in the range of $11,000 to $17,700, and using up a lot of time and resources. Quakes general manager John Doyle said those players and their issues of housing, finances, improvement, etc., took up "about 90 percent" of his time.

Arena and Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid agree a full-fledged reserve team of 16 to 18 players is really the only way to go, but the costs can be prohibitive.

"Having every team field a full reserve team would be ideal, but I don't know if it would be practical," says Schmid, pondering ways MLS teams can keep more players to increase the odds of churning out good ones. "It's a big issue and now you have more and more teams from more and more countries looking at U.S. players. There's a lot of clubs overseas with resources that can invest $100,000 on a player who's 17 or 18 or 19 and it's not a big investment for them. More teams are willing to do that, so MLS has a problem of how to get those players or not lose them.

"Sometimes a player goes somewhere and the competition isn't as good as MLS but the compensation's better."

Most MLS teams have yet to assemble the coaches and support staff needed to properly manage an 18-man first team, and the mandatory U15/16 and U17/18 Academy programs. In past seasons the regular roster and 10 developmental slots often stretched teams to the limit while failing to fulfill the Reserve Division's competitive objectives of accelerating player development.

Going all-in with enough players, coaches and support staff to maintain a full and separate reserve roster is a staggering financial and logistical commitment. MLS is headed the other way in a contracting economy, trimming expenses by cutting players by whatever means.

With fewer roster spots, the need for a Supplemental Draft is nearly nil, since teams have expanded opportunities - 10 as compared to six in past seasons - for discovery players.

The tighter purse strings will mean players who can't find jobs overseas or in the USL clamoring to attend MLS training sessions as freelance trialists.

Teams will have to be more creative, at least until the financial situation improves to the point MLS can set up a feeder system, by which academy products can compete for spots on the reserve team, and those players drive for first-team jobs.

"At the end of the day, it costs money," says Arena. "Player development is an expense. If you do it right, it eventually generates revenue. I had a kid in New York that we decided to use at 17 who brought a lot of money into the league, and that's Jozy Altidore. You don't want to lose those kinds of players.

"In math there's a thing called probability. When you reduce your roster, the probability of having success decreases. We need more players in our pool to be able to develop them and hit some home runs along the way."


3 comments about "New draft rules change teams' approach".
  1. Paul Bryant, December 19, 2008 at 2:28 p.m.

    If a population does not produce offspring, it will become extinct. This is the fate of MLS if it does not make a concerted effort to retain the talent that will leave the U.S. for Europe, or to develop marginally talented players into professionals. Is there a brain-drain among the owners that they cannot find a solution to this dilemma?

  2. Bruce Gowan, December 19, 2008 at 2:36 p.m.

    Here we go again with another move backward for MLS. Professional soccer is not going to reach it's potential until each MLS team has a second team (call it what you will) a semi-pro program like PDL and a youth program. There is much more soccer talent in the US than the MLS is looking at. The college teams D1-JC are turning out players every year and there are other players who did not go to college. The MLS combines are a joke because they mostly invite ACC plus other D1 college players. Does it not make you wonder when USL teams regularly beat MLS teams? The MLS does not have to look for players all they need to do is to create the minor league and youth teams and the players will find them.

  3. Kent James, December 23, 2008 at 11:21 a.m.

    It is good to hear quality coaches such as Bruce Arena state clearly that development is a numbers game. Too often our player development systems are set up in such a way that they are based on being able to discern which players will be the best years from now, limiting resources to those that will not so that extra resources can be lavished on the chosen ones. Sort of a soccer triage. Eliminating the reserve teams is a step in the wrong direction (unless they were not run properly, though if that were the case, a better solution would be to improve their management). Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in a recent New Yorker in which he argued that just as NFL scouts have a very difficult time picking which college players will make the best NFL quarterbacks, school systems don't know which teachers will be the best until they've had a few years in the classroom environment. The same is clearly true for soccer players. As the soccer environment changes, different player qualities become important for success, so success at one level does not necessarily mean the same will be achieved at the next. MLS teams would benefit from giving more players the opportunity to play in the MLS environment to allow the best players to prove themselves.

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