Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Is MLS SuperDraft losing relevance?

It all takes place in a glorified conference room complete with the obligatory assigned seating, and performed to the soundtrack of running commentary from a pair of soccer buffs. It typically starts at noon sharp before a viewing audience that a cable access show would kill for. In essence, it's the unpopular kid's birthday day party, the mid-week staff meeting, and the wait at the dentist's office, all wrapped up into one big, MLS-produced package. Welcome to the MLS SuperDraft.

With its latest highly-anticipated release overshadowed by a flick featuring a yet-to-be-determined monster/sea creature/(insert latest Cloverfield rumor here) on 1-18-08, the annual event seems to unwittingly remind many of the league's spotty structure of developing the very draftees celebrated every season.

Spotty, you retort? Well, when you consider that many draftees fail to stick with their clubs beyond their rookie seasons each and every year, you've got wonder aloud whether something�s amiss.

The world standard for developing players is the club-operated training academy, much like the ones in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, and quite possibly, Antarctica. The concept is quite simple: a club recruits promising teenaged prospects to its academies in order to develop them to the point where they someday grace the pitch with the first team. It seems to work quite well, as many clubs develop these young footballers residing at its academies for its own on-field performance and/or future financial benefit via transfer fees. This approach to developing future world-class footballers is where MLS begins to fall short of its global counterparts.

(Full disclosure: I am not a Eurosnob in any shape or form. While I enjoy football abroad, my heart belongs to the footballers who play in this wonderful country. There, I said it.)

To its credit, MLS has been emphasizing the urgency for clubs to develop and form its own such training academies to mimic the same football factories that have produced such talents as Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonel Messi, and even David Beckham. Most of the world's greatest talents rose from these academies sponsored or run by local and/or major clubs, where they ate, drank, and dreamt football 'round the clock.

In the meantime, the league has relied on the U.S. Developmental Academy and NCAA soccer as its breeding ground in search of the next Landon Donovan or Tim Howard. This is fine when such players come through and dazzle crowds, but for the large part, the league is brimming with one or two-year wonders manning a roster spot that will soon be filled by next season's one or two-year wonder.

This isn't to criticize the quality of play. By no means am I bashing the players who've made MLS the burgeoning league it's become since its 1996 inception. The league has unquestionably improved in just about every facet, and the overall quality of play is probably the greatest indication of this improvement. What I am stating is that the current system hinders the development of players who may be better off refining their game elsewhere, such as the USL or perhaps even abroad.

The counterpoint to the argument is that the draft allows for an expansion club to make an immediate splash in recruiting the best prospects available. Last January, the expansion Toronto FC landed Maurice Edu, and the skilled midfielder shined on an otherwise lackluster squad. Without SuperDraft, Edu's services would have simply put on the auction block with the big market teams (i.e. Los Angeles, New York and Chicago) stepping over each other for the recently-capped winger. Sure, SuperDraft is a valid argument for a league that preaches parity like a passionate Puritan, but at some point, MLS must throw away the parity crutch and begin to jog on its own.

Don't get me wrong - the idea of the draft is noble, and gives MLS the common thread of glitzy off-field presentations that may someday mirror the NFL and NBA drafts. No doubt there is an appeal toward these types of made-for-TV dramas, but the league would be much better served in the long run by having each individual club make its own concerted efforts to sign new talent rather than forcing the issue upon its general managers and coaches. I mean really - do you think Mike Burns or Steve Nicol salivated at the prospect of drafting - no offense - Matt Wieland, Adam Williamson, or Phil Marfuggi?

While the idea of promoting the in-house academies for each club is still in its infancy, perhaps the best approach toward bringing new players in the interim is to simply open a timeframe (preferably in the offseason) to which each club has 60-day window to sign any free agent it wishes to sign on the amateur, college or pro level. Sure, it won't have the sexiness of a Deal or No Deal game show, or come complete with the same ilk of intriguing storylines and subplots featured during the NFL or NBA Drafts, but it's a much more practical method for selecting soccer players. It allows the front office, scouts, and coaches adequate time to scout, evaluate, and come to terms with players they actually want to sign, rather than making selections out of mere obligation (check the results of last year's supplemental draft - a handful of clubs, including the Revs, actually bypassed or traded away picks, as if to say no mas). Thus, every signing is meaningful, rather than the current system of stocking talent via the theatrical SuperDraft and the bizarre supplemental draft.

Again, this isn't to diminish the status of players who've risen from the NCAA and US Developmental ranks to star in MLS via the Draft. Players like Edu, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey are all fine specimens of how the draft works. But think of other high-profile players, and you think of names like Juan Pablo Angel, Jimmy Conrad, Luciano Emilio and Juan Toja, all of whom never stepped foot on an NCAA pitch nor upon on the MLS SuperDraft stage.

The SuperDraft serves an admirable purpose - it opens the door to many college kids' pro soccer dreams while harvesting the country's brightest college stars. Yet, its time may be drawing to a close with once the proliferation of MLS youth academies and the designated player allocation comes to pass.

No comments: