MLS will hold its annual SuperDraft on Thursday.
Its distribution of college talent has been an important player mechanism since MLS's launch in 1996 though the draft's importance has waned.
MLS clubs have begun mass-producing academy players whose Homegrown rights they hold for their first teams -- six teams enter 2021 with 10 or more Homegrown players on their rosters -- and they have increased their annual spending on imported players. (While teams are only allowed eight international players, many quickly obtain green cards, so they no longer count against the limit.)
MLS scrapped the league combine at which teams used to evaluate college players in 2020 and also for the first time the league conducted the entire draft via conference call after many years as an on-site event at the United Soccer Coaches Convention. On Thursday, fans will again be able to follow the SuperDraft, which begins at 2 p.m. ET, on the league's digital channels.
The process of evaluating talent has been made harder this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only two men's conferences played in the fall. The summer amateur leagues -- USL League Two and NPSL -- were shut down.
Most college conferences will play in the spring, but top players will have to make a decision about their immediate futures -- do they immediately turn pro and try to make an MLS roster for the 2021 season or do they delay their entry into the pro ranks in order to play for their colleges in the spring? (Seniors are also eligible, under NCAA rules, to return for an extra season in the fall.)
But it is too soon for MLS teams to write off the SuperDraft and the college game more generally.
Eight of the 12 players in the U.S. national team's January camp attended college. And of the eight, all but Jordan Morris, a Homegrown signing by the Seattle Sounders after three seasons at Stanford, were picked in the SuperDraft.
(In the bigger picture, college soccer's relevance fades. Only a handful of European-based players, who form the nucleus of the U.S. national team, spent any time in college: Zack Steffen, Tim Ream and Reggie Cannon.)
Of the 27 MLS players who have been called into the U.S. U-23 camp over the course of the month, 15 played at least one year of college soccer, eight signing as Homegrown players and seven entering the league via the SuperDraft.
Two 2020 SuperDraft picks, both Virginia products, are in the U-23 camp: Daryl Dike (Orlando City) and Henry Kessler (New England Revolution). A third 2020 pick, Wake Forest's Alistair Johnston, parlayed a strong rookie season with Nashville SC into a call-up to the Canadian national team, which has also been training in Florida.
Two 2019 picks -- Maryland goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair (Minnesota United) and Syracuse forward Tajon Buchanan (New England Revolution) -- had big 2020 postseasons and were invited into the Canadian camp. The No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 6 picks in 2017 all are with the U.S. U-23s: Miles Robinson (Syracuse), Jonathan Lewis (Akron), Jeremy Ebobisse (Duke) and Jackson Yueill (UCLA).
Besides Canadians, other foreigners, many first drawn to United States to attend boarding school, have gone on to have successful pro careers after playing college soccer: Jamaican Andre Blake (2020 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Philadelphia) and Englishman Jack Harrison (Leeds United via NYCFC) and Brazilian Andre Shinyashiki (2019 MLS Rookie of the Year with Colorado).
Philip Mayaka (top photo), SBI Soccer's No. 1 pick in its 2021 mock draft, fits that profile. The Kenyan-born graduate of Florida's Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy attended Clemson, and is considered one of the best midfielders the Tigers have ever produced.