Wednesday, March 24, 2010

There is no such thing as a collegiate forward prospect

For the past week or so, I've become absolutely enamored with a pair of books dealing with sports, conventional wisdom, hard data, and how data chooses scissors when wisdom chooses paper nearly every time.

The first book - Baseball Between the Numbers - is, unsurprisingly, about baseball.

The second book - Soccernomics - is, you guessed it, about soccer.

Two entirely different sports, sure. But the common thread is the contrarian approach the authors take toward each sport's conventional thinking. In fact, each use hard data to obliterate many of the "truths" that many of us have been conditioned to believe as gospel. The result: The sacrifice bunt is a wasted out. High profile transfers are almost always huge wastes of money. And owning a football/soccer club is a great way to lose lots of money.

This had me thinking: what other myths exists within soccer - specifically, MLS - that could be debunked?

Lucky for you, I've thought of one, completely free of charge.


Goalscorers don't grow on trees. Or college campuses for that matter. It's a fact of life. Hot models end up with ugly men, and Danny Ocean always gets the best of Terry Benedict.

What's that you say? You can't find a good forward from academia in the first round? Surely, I jest. Alas, I jest not.

Rather than bore you with how much free time I had on my hands to devise this theory, I'll take you straight to the data. First, let's look at the strikers taken in the past five first rounds (along with their overall selection number) of MLS SuperDraft (2010 draft not included) for reference.

Steve Zakuani (1st overall)
O'Brien White (3rd)
Peri Marisevic (4th)

Patrick Nyarko (7th)

John Cunliffe (7th)
Jerson Monteiro (8th)

Jason Garey (3rd)
Yura Movsisyan (4th)
Sacha Kljestan (5th)
Kei Kamara (9th)
Calen Carr (10th)

Scott Sealy (11th)

It's ironic that first round striker taken the latest of the bunch - Sealy at the 11th position - is the only one to rack up a double-digit goal totals in a season (10 for KC in 2006) after netting nine during his rookie season. But injuries caught up with him quickly, and his goal totals dropped precipitously after the ten-goal season. In 2009, he took his services abroad and was forgotten faster than the Eric Bana Hulk movie.

Movsisyan was a tremendous player for a surprising Salt Lake squad last season before being transferred out to Randers in the Danish League. There was no question the man had talent. Yet, he never exceeded more than eight goals a season in his four-year MLS career.

The only other notable name is Kljestan, who went on to become the Best XI attacking midfielder we've all come to know and love. Nyarko is an interesting player who seems to have settled on the cusp of stardom going on three years. There's little doubt he possesses the tools required (speed, toughness and touch) to become a poor man's Jozy Altidore. Whether or not it was Hamlet's propensity to use Brian McBride and Cuahtemoc Blanco as his main men, Nyarko hasn’t managed to rake in either of his two seasons. Meanwhile, Garey is a withdrawn forward on a club that’s collected bushels of goals in the past two seasons.

The rest? The verdicts are still out on Zakuani, White, and Marisevic. Carr and Kamara are certified super subs, while Cunliffe and Monteiro are out of the league completely.

Now, let's look at the Top 10 goalscorers of the same seasons.

Jeff Cunningham-17
Conor Casey-16
Fredy Montero-12
Landon Donovan -12
Robbie Findley -12
Guillermo Barros Schelotto -12
Juan Pablo Angel -12
Dwayne De Rosario -11
Ryan Johnson -11
Josh Wolff - 11

Landon Donovan-20
Kenny Cooper-18
Edson Buddle-15
Juan Pablo Angel-14
Brian Ching-13
Conor Casey-11
Luciano Emilio-11
Jaime Moreno-10
Chad Barrett-9
Alejandro Moreno-9
Chris Rolfe-9

Luciano Emilio-20
Juan Pablo Angel-19
Taylor Twellman -16
Eddie Johnson-15
Maykel Galindo-12
Ante Razov-11
Christian Gomez-10
Jozy Altidore-9
Landon Donovan-8
Robbie Findley-8

Jeff Cunningham-16
Christian Gomez-14
Ante Razov-14
Carlos Ruiz-13
Landon Donovan-12
Brian Ching-11
Kenny Cooper-11
Dwayne De Rosario-11
Jaime Moreno-11
Taylor Twellman-11

Taylor Twellman-17
Jaime Moreno-16
Jeff Cunningham-12
Landon Donovan-12
Christian Gomez-11
Herculez Gomez-11
Amado Guevara-11
Carlos Ruiz-11
Clint Dempsey-10
Youri Djorkaeff-10
Josh Wolff-10

Wow, look at all those first round strikers. Who knew that college soccer was such a hotbed of goalscoring talent? The only striker taken in the first round to win the Golden Boot Award was Taylor Twellman in 2005. And even that in itself is suspicious because Twellman wasn't drafted directly out of college. He was a bench player in the Bundesliga before his arrival in 2002.

From the pool of first round strikers noted above, the average return on such high selections is 3.1 goals per season. That is hardly the output deserving of a certified super-sub, nevermind a highly-touted striker. Clearly, the league's general managers haven't been doing their homework.

But I have. And I'm going to be blunt: there is no such thing as a collegiate forward prospect. I'll type it again, this time in CAPS, for emphasis: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A COLLEGIATE FORWARD PROSPECT.

I suspect that the thought process of drafting goalscorers high is relative to American thinking: an offensive player is the sexy pick. It's what the fans want. It looks good on paper. The fans love it. Everyone wins. But it's completely wrong.

Why? College players, in and of themselves, are inherently unpredictable. NCAA soccer, with its limited practice time, unlimited substitutions, and ambitious 2-3 matches/week schedule, falls flat on its face to replicate pro soccer. Compound that with the general difficulty that exists in developing strikers - not midfielders/forwards, not attacking midfielders, and definitely NOT defenders/forwards - and the selection of a collegiate striker in the first round is a loser's bet that every single MLS team has made.

Why are strikers, in general, so difficult to develop? Well, they are the only field players with quantifiable expectations. A defender isn't judged on clean tackles. A midfielder isn't judged on accurate passes. But strikers are always judged on their easy-to-find goal totals. As a result, they incur an exhorbitant amount of pressure to perform - perhaps moreso than any other player on the field, including the keeper.

And that is to say nothing of the physical abuse they receive every match. They are almost always double or triple-marked. As a result, they endure a great deal of physical punishment over a 30-game season. They often incur serious injuries along the way. The sum of their injuries often shave a substantial amount of time off their careers. In short, strikers simply do not stay healthy for very long.

Given these factors, it's nearly impossible to predict where most collegiate strikers will be in two years. Some, like Kljestan and the recently-retired Jay Heaps, will drift back and enjoy successful careers in the midfield or the defending third.

But for the most part, history has shown us that there is, indeed, no such thing as a collegiate forward prospect.

No comments: