It’s the time of year for pundits from all corners of the American soccer universe to sharpen their pitchforks and take aim at the MLS SuperDraft as a dying institution.
While those arguments undeniably have merit, it betrays the sense of potential surrounding the Philadelphia Union’s trip to Baltimore Thursday, in possession of two picks in the top six and three in the top 23.
Coach Jim Curtin put it bluntly in a conference call Monday, labeling the draft for what many see it as. “It’s a way to get inexpensive labor, to be honest,” Curtin declared.
Depending on the point of view, it’s also a way to entrench the single-entity system whereby contracts are signed with MLS and doled out to teams, and another limit on players’ freedom of movement, right from the start of their careers. Some decry it as a vestige of Americanism that will go by the wayside with other measures like shootouts to eliminate regular-season ties as the league gains international status. Some conflate it with the ills of American college soccer, from its self-interested focus on winning over player development to the brevity of its calendar.
Or more simply, the implementation of MLS academies and Homegrown signings will render the draft obsolete, as it has already siphoned off much of the premier talent in an age class that hadn’t already abandoned scholastic soccer for European academies or pro contracts.
The Union’s case Thursday is privileged. Their anticipation is unique to the slight majority of teams either within the top 10 or so picks that project as yielding immediately impactful returns or have the wherewithal to trade into that echelon.
Yet for all the naysayers, the draft has won at least one convert: New Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, who had understandably low expectations of the edifice after a decade doing things the Dutch way.
“I came to the Philadelphia Union, everybody was telling me pretty much, you’re going to go to this college draft and you’re not going to find any players, and this and that,” Stewart said. “I was pleasantly surprised with what I’ve seen. Aside from the academies being built and the players coming through those ranks — and maybe in the future, it might go in a different direction — I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of players that are here right now. … The potential in a lot of players that are here is good.”
That refrain was oft-repeated by Stewart. And one reason could be the international imprint on recent drafts, reflective of the shift toward colleges looking internationally for talent.
Each of the last two No. 1 overall picks — Canadian Cyle Larin in 2015 and Jamaican Andre Blake by the Union in 2014 — were non-Americans who matriculated through college programs. The first round last year featured 10 non-Americans drafted. This year, that number could range from five to seven, and England-via-Wake-Forest midfielder Jack Harrison could go first overall.
The international influence may extend to the Union, since Curtin mentioned that “the four to five kids that we just interviewed, they started in top academies in Europe.” That includes a heavy German influence, including likely first-rounders Fabian Herbers (Creighton) and Julian Buescher (Syracuse).
The narrative of international players populating American colleges fits nicely into the approach Stewart espouses. He’s committed to increasing the homegrown footprint on the Union. But growing those players entails not just giving them chances to flourish, but also surrounding them with the best players of any origin to push them and raise the level of the entire group.
“If international players are coming into our colleges and they’re pushing the American players at the same time, I think in the end, that’s good,” Stewart said. “Obviously we want to make sure we develop talent in the United States, homegrown and American talent because that’s the most important thing. To add those types of players to certain colleges and drive other American players to higher heights is actually good. The best playing against the best is what development is about.”
As long as NCAA soccer relies on that outside assistance in priming the pump, it seems the SuperDraft will have a place.