This offseason more so than any other demonstrates just how far MLS has come since its humble beginnings. At one time the MLS SuperDraft provided MLS teams with starters.
Now Paul Tenorio of the Athletic reports MLS is pondering eliminating the SuperDraft combine, saying, “the combine has become a massive expense for a SuperDraft that has declining value”
Times are changing, big name managers want in on a league they can leave an impact on. Clubs are now willing to splash money on young prospects in hopes of future financial returns. The introduction of targeted allocation money is helping clubs buy down salaries making impactful supporting pieces viable investments. With all these resources, mixed with a lack of others, the MLS SuperDraft has become a relatively obsolete model for roster building among a majority of MLS clubs.
While TAM is a blessing for MLS execs, it makes carving out an MLS career for SuperDraft picks difficult. As TAM plays an evermore important role in roster building, the need and want for middling American and collegiate talent is declining.
Let me be clear, the SuperDraft is not irrelevant due to a lack of talent, but because of current business models across MLS. A situation that is very specific to the climate of MLS in 2019. Yet, it’s one that the Red Bulls are unaffected by.
USL for Development
What could mitigate this dilemma? Investment in a USL club or a strong partnership with an affiliate.
Ask the New York Red Bulls and they will tell you it’s been a worthy investment, yet a majority of MLS clubs don’t utilize USL to develop their draft picks. Most clubs don’t own their own USL club, admittedly it is costly. At the same time, some clubs have affiliates, yet only few use them with intent. Then there are the Revolution’s of MLS with no team or affiliate at all.
Just take a look at NYCFC, a lack of a true USL affiliate and a need for star names has impeded the development of their draft picks. Talented forward Jonathan Lewis was picked 3rd in the 2017 MLS Superdraft, and in two years has played just 531 minutes for NYCFC. Last season, Lewis was loaned to USL winners, Louisville City who isn’t their “official” affiliate, and made just 5 appearances in all. Despite not being able to get playing time at NYCFC, Gregg Berhalter called Lewis in to the January USMNT camp.
On the other hand, there is the Chicago Fire. The Fire rely on the draft for cheap contracts, in-turn so they can spend on aging DP and TAM signings. While they give plenty of minutes to their draft picks, they do so with little preparation or development. A method that is very “sink-or-swim”, making matters worse is how inconsistent results have been for the Fire.
Homegrown signings too are hurting the MLS SuperDraft in terms of the diminished player pool. In 2008, MLS introduced the Homegrown player rule allowing teams to sign players from their academies circumventing the SuperDraft in most cases.
This roster tool is a positive for young players in America unlike TAM and the disjointed relationship between MLS and USL. Derrick Etienne Jr., Alex Muyl, and most recently Jean Christophe-Koffi, all left college early to sign Homegrown contracts.
Yet for some clubs who don’t play in talent rich areas of North America, players worthy of homegrown contracts are difficult to come by. The existence of homegrown territories and the inability to cross lines leaves some in the draft rummaging through the scraps.
Pay close attention to the draft
All that said, the Red Bulls’ dedication to Red Bulls II and use of homegrown contracts has given the Red Bulls a reason to value the antiquated MLS SuperDraft.
The 2018 MLS SuperDraft saw the Red Bulls select Brian White in the first-round. White flourished in USL and played a key role for the first team down the stretch. Tom Barlow remains a New York Red Bulls II asset, and a solid one at that. Jared Stroud is another possible candidate to make the leap to MLS someday. Picked deep in the last round with the 83rd pick, Stroud led Red Bulls II in assists in 2018.
Positions of dire need for Red Bulls II heading into 2019 include center back and full back. Luckily those are two positions the draft is best known for producing and 2019 is flooded with talented defenders. Looking at the past, Tim Parker was picked by the Whitecaps with the 13th pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. Tim Ream was picked with the 18th pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. The Red Bulls have four picks this year, 22nd, 70th, 78th, and 84th. Considering there is only 5 players on the Red Bulls II roster, expect those draft picks to play a major role next season. And who knows, maybe one or two gets into the first team down the line.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography