Quality in the MLS SuperDraft

Among the verge-of-retirement European stars, young Latin American trequartistas, and CONCACAF stalwarts that pack MLS currently, there are also a thousand players (1009 to be exact) that have been extracted from the MLS SuperDraft since the year 2000.

We seem to understand the quality of a Robbie Keane, Bradley Wright-Phillips, or Diego Valeri. They are foreigners to the league who have not only enhanced its quality, but also asserted themselves as the upper echelon of MLS.

But for every Robbie Keane, there has been a Chad Barrett. For every Wright-Phillips, there has been a Brad Davis (which means there is a Shaun Davis out there somewhere). For every Diego Valeri, a Logan Pause.

These are the Americans (and foreign entries as well) that have graced MLS via the SuperDraft over the course of 17 seasons. Many, foreign and domestic alike, came through the ranks of college soccer.

What have these players from the past 17 drafts contributed to the league? What quality is available in the draft? What judgements, therefore, can be made about the efficiency of the draft and even the efficiency of college soccer?

Intuition suggests that the MLS SuperDraft is on the decline. MLS academies, new numbers of designated players, and better international recruiting by MLS clubs have sped up the slow roll downhill. Essentially, the SuperDraft is Indiana Jones (in the Temple of Doom), fighting off slow-moving-but-increasingly-well-funded transfer budgets and scouting networks in the form of walls, as well as newly-added MLS academies in the form of large pikes of impalement aimed to expedite, well, death.

Maybe the SuperDraft can add a gauntlet with a large boulder, Nazis, whip-versus-gun fights, or even the Ark of the Covenant and it’ll at least draw some good audiences during its slow demise.

Rationale:

The overall question was, “What quality does MLS, collectively, get out of the SuperDraft?” It’s a former centerpiece of the league’s offseason that is waning in importance as new pipelines for MLS players open up.

Minutes played in the league was the initial criteria. Useful players will be used more, or so the old MLS adage goes. A player in the league at this moment could expect to play over 3,000 minutes at 90 minutes per match, across 34 matches (and yes, the amount of games played has varied per season since the year 2000). Secondly, goals, assists, and shutouts (for goalkeepers) were easy statistics to track over the course of a player’s career. This naturally varies between positions, as defenders and even defensive mids alike will lag behind with goals and assists. Attacking mids and forwards will receive, as a result, quite larger numbers in these categories.

“How many minutes must a player have in the league (including playoffs) to be considered a quality pick?”

It’s ultimately a question with few guidelines. 2,000 minutes per season sets the bar fairly low, and that is essentially a player playing 60 minutes per match over a 34 game season. Arbitrarily, the bar has been set there. Would, then, 8,000 minutes be adequate enough? You can view that number in at least a couple of different ways. The first way might be that 8,000 minutes represents four seasons of consistent appearances in MLS. Another way might be that 8,000 minutes represents three seasons, with a few injuries and international absences thrown in (given how few SuperDraftees are full internationals, this rarely happens). Either way, this is a low bar set to accommodate more players, many of which still have careers in the league. Keegan Rosenberry played every minute of every match and chalked up 3060 minutes in the MLS regular season. That’s a rarity. 2000 minutes per season? It’s not achieved as often as you would think.

Disclaimers:

Having a career in MLS is not necessarily the pinnacle of a player’s career. Certain players only spend a year or two in the league and find opportunities elsewhere. Some even come back to the league, like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Carlos Bocanegra. Furthermore, it’s easy to see that many players are still young in their careers, and that has an effect on minutes played. On a related note, there are SuperDraftees, such as Steve Zakuani, who have their playing careers cut short by injury. Aside from exceptions presented by Zakuani and others, the numbers will change as years elapse and players play.

Furthermore, the data is certainly not final. After several weeks of piling in numbers, there is room for error. I don’t purport myself to be a phenomenal statistician. This also may not be the most efficient way of rating the quality of players picked up in the SuperDraft. For instance, new player data in the form of xG’s, key passes, and pass completion rates are not available for the older versions of MLS SuperDraftees. They are stats that would give a clearer image of each player’s ability. Tracking a defender’s successful clearances, or a holding mid’s interceptions would do the exact same. Even so, those stats aren’t readily available, either, especially across a broad number of MLS players across an equally broad number of years.

The data does not also account for players traded after selection. Jack Harrison (2016) is a great example, as he was drafted by Chicago and immediately shipped out to NYCFC. Cory Gibbs was drafted two separate occasions, only to turn both down, join the Dallas Burn for a brief stint, and later land in Chicago in the later years of his career. So, data like minutes spent with original drafted team will be added later, hopefully, or very soon depending on the amount of complaints received.

Finally, playoff minutes have been added. They are not regular season minutes, but are still quite a large feature of the league format itself. They were included to offer a further glimpse into the quality of players in the draft, especially those players who have gained the right of at least a playoff appearance in their career. I’m almost on the verge of removing it to quell the complaints, and given the sheer amount of subtraction that will have to occur, it’s best to keep things as they are and edit over time. So, yes, this is a look at SuperDraftees with their playoff minutes added.

Given that, it is important to start the conversation, especially given the fact that the issues of the SuperDraft have now been made more apparent than ever as we trudge on to the 2017 edition. So, given the fact that this is kept on Google Sheets and is easily editable, please drop in any errors identified into the comments, or tweet me @coryhjensen so things can be streamlined. It’s still a work in progress, and the idea is to be able to add more data as time moves on.

SuperDraft Issues:

Primarily, a growing number of players are ready to sign homegrown contracts prior to the SuperDraft, which is an issue that has cropped up in recent years. This dries up the talent pool available. Who could possibly blame a player for signing a guaranteed contract rather than going into the crapshoot that is the SuperDraft instead? Boyd Okwuonu is a rare case of where a homegrown contract (with FC Dallas) was available, but not pursued by the player, and instead he entered the draft. Furthermore, since 2010 there have been two Rookie of the Year winners who were both homegrown products: Andy Najar (2010) and Jordan Morris (2016). This further illustrates the way in which the homegrown system will undercut the quality in the SuperDraft.

The next issue impacts the source of many SuperDraftees: NCAA soccer. For one, more players will opt to jump straight out of high school and into the league. Omar Salgado, Raul Mendiola, Marc Pelosi (who opted to go overseas first), and Jack McInerney are examples of kids going pro and circumventing the NCAA, albeit the jury is certainly out on whether this choice has paid off for any of them.

Furthermore, the college game will have to change to produce draftable players. Recent changes at the NCAA Division I level are encouraging, mainly a fall and spring split schedule that will be capped at 25 games, but allow players much more time between games. The rest and extra training in between is certainly a boon, but we will certainly not see the benefits of this new arrangement to the system until it has set in for a full four-year cycle. Add in the fact that the NCAA heard proposals during November and that means further delay. In reality, a change in the NCAA schedule to better accommodate player development at the Division I level will more than likely not begin until 2018-19 or even 2019-20.

So, it will be at least six or seven years from the 2017 draft until the benefits of this new system, should it be adopted, are seen. At least the new relationship between USL and MLS acts as a safety net for some of these players, but that is still in its early years, the benefits of which won’t be seen, once again, for a few more years. Again, most of the 2015 and 2016 SuperDraftees did not play meaningful minutes for their respective teams. Fortunately, USL stepped in and provided a place to not languish for many. We still have yet to see many examples of, additionally, players drafted in MLS, sent to the USL, who have then hopped back up into MLS. Time will tell.

So, the Superdraft is on notice. Here are some simple facts to begin with:

  • As of 2016, a SuperDraftee can expect to play just above an average of 3400 minutes in MLS. If you’re going by the 1 season = 3000 minutes rule, you can see how short of a career each draftee would have.

  • For SuperDraftees who have been in the league a minimum of 10 seasons (2000-06), that number is roughly 4500 minutes

  • Roughly one in five SuperDraftees will play 8000+ minutes in MLS, a rate of roughly 13 picks per draft

  • ...which means that several teams in every draft (and at least 9 teams in the 2017 draft) will draft someone who barely ever, if ever, contributes meaningful minutes. Most do not.

  • Roughly two in five SuperDraftees will never play a minute in MLS, a rate of roughly 25 picks per draft

  • The SuperDraft has featured 145 players that have gone on to earn at least one cap for the country’s national team, an average of roughly nine per draft

  • ...and 73 of those players have earned a cap for the US Men’s National Team, an average of roughly four or five per draft

  • Nick Rimando is the only original SuperDraftee (2000) still active

  • Justin Mapp is the only active player from the 2002 SuperDraft, although he is currently a free agent after his contract was declined by Sporting KC after 2016

  • The 2015 draft featured 14 players selected in rounds 2, 3, and 4 that played at least a minute to date. There were 60 picks made in those rounds in total.

  • The 2016 draft featured 8 players selected in rounds 2, 3, and 4 that played at least a minute their rookie season. There were 55 picks made in those rounds in total.

(Link to spreadsheet here)

The amount of contribution drops significantly after round two.

The amount of contribution drops significantly after round two.

A look at the draft by each draft class:

The draft class of 2006 has done exceedingly well for itself.

The draft class of 2006 has done exceedingly well for itself.

Really, the class of 2006 has done well. It averages the best amount of goals scored per player, assists per player, and minutes played per player.

Really, the class of 2006 has done well. It averages the best amount of goals scored per player, assists per player, and minutes played per player.

A look at the draft by club:

Yet more categories in which the Galaxy have done exceedingly well: minutes played, total goals, and total assists by their collective draft picks since 2000.

Yet more categories in which the Galaxy have done exceedingly well: minutes played, total goals, and total assists by their collective draft picks since 2000.

A look at the draft by individual players:

A look at the draft by each college or previous team:

Despite its apparent faults, the draft has provided us with some brilliant stories, on top of some SuperDraft stalwarts of MLS past that have improved the league over the past sixteen years. There are obvious reasons to appreciate the service of a Brad Davis or a Shalrie Joseph, for the sheer number of minutes, production, assists, and goals.

Out there, on the opposite end of the spectrum, are the McKinley Tennysons of the world, who in 2001 scored the only goal of his career in the only appearance of career during the playoffs, lasting a total of five minutes. Peaking among McKinley’s heights is Jacob LeBlanc, a MetroStars draftee in 2003 who scored two goals on three career shots. Or what of Jake Traeger, a Columbus pick from 2003 who bagged two assists in a MLS career lasting all of fifteen minutes?

There are also the evident lows of SuperDraftees, and some that are obviously bittersweet. Kyle Singer, a goalkeeper and 2003 draftee alum, played all of nine minutes for the Revolution in his career, and eight of those minutes were spent as a field player. Players like Mr. Singer can be found in great numbers throughout over a decade and a half of SuperDrafts.

Furthermore, drama and intrigue is a large part of the draft’s attraction. Picks get traded, TAM and GAM is thrown around like confetti throughout the draft floor, and somehow Garber still manages to hide behind the curtain for quite a large part of it in a very-good-man-but-very-bad-wizard kind of role.

In that spirit, Oliver Occean was drafted by New York in 2004, played in a preseason friendly against Odds BK of Norway, was quickly snapped up from New York’s grasp by Odds BK after the friendly, and shipped out to Norway with barely a moment for New York or the league to get to know him. Or maybe the suspense of last year’s draft will whet your appetite, if you’re into player rights, trades, passes, and inactivity. DC traded the rights of Kemar Lawrence to the Red Bulls for a fourth round pick only to pass on the pick when their time came around. MLS draft drama: some say it never actually stops.

Additionally, it’s important to remember why teams still agree to this. Well, some do at least. If anything the Arena-era LA taught us that a team can treat the draft with a smattering of disdain. As the number of picks per draft go up the number of passes per team will as well. But teams are involved in the draft simply for the fact that it’s a free shot at a player they see as a potential boon for their team, even if not immediate. From a team’s perspective this comes at minimal risk. Shipping off a second, third, or fourth round pick to nab a player in the first round, in reality, is not giving up that much considering how often those later-round draft picks will actually play in MLS. You also draft based on the potential you see, and sometimes it is immediate. Some players mature after three or four seasons in the league (which yes, is at 25-26 years of age and likely behind players of the same age in Europe), and some players never pan out. The latter of these two options is the norm, however.

From a player’s perspective, the draft can be more than a dog-and-pony show. It’s a shot at a professional contract, or at the very minimum a guaranteed professional trial. No wonder many homegrown players opt immediately for the homegrown contract ahead of the draft: it’s guaranteed money and spot on their hometown club. But for those players who do opt to enter the draft, doing so is also low-risk and a shot and furthering their career. If no contract comes along post-draft, there are now new avenues, like the USL and NASL, in American soccer to further that same career. And as long as collegiate soccer is around, in whatever improved or static form it might take years from now, the SuperDraft will be present.

A rock and a hard place awaits MLS, however, if it continues pursuing expansion like Putin pursues former Soviet satellites. The result is this: the number of rounds will have to be cut down by necessity. The talent pool simply won’t accommodate three or four picks per team if there are 28 teams in MLS. It can barely do that well enough at this moment. The reason that USL has been made so relevant in the past five seasons is simply because it can be American soccer’s purgatory between the MLS and no professional career whatsoever. Again, if and when we see MLS draftees who have been in USL for a season or two make their way back to MLS and play meaningful minutes, the reason for the relationship between the two leagues will be made very apparent.

Until that happens, the SuperDraft should be cut down to two rounds. The 2006 draft featured 48 picks over four rounds and is arguably the best draft class to ever grace the league. If MLS expands to 24 clubs (it will), that makes two rounds fairly simple and probably more efficient. Let the undrafted players fend for themselves as they would without the draft: many will still pursue a professional career. The good news is many just graduated college with a degree and have something with which they can console themselves. Many may end up in USL, but a few will still land spots in MLS, but have more control over where they land in the end. We know that form of individual liberty and MLS are rarely compatible, but it would finally address the fact that rounds 3 through 17 are generally full of draft fodder and little substance.

And what if MLS homegrown money improves to the point that players are willing to forgo a collegiate career altogether? Or perhaps go down the route that LA has pursued, and allow a player to play with Los Dos or the Galaxy first team and have the club subsidize their education at local universities in the process? The relationship between NCAA soccer and MLS certainly won’t end, but how intense or minimal will that relationship be ten years from now?

Yet, the overall answer is apparent: there is quality in the SuperDraft. Some quality. Limited quality. It’s not the draft it used to be. It has acquired more competition over time and is not the primary vehicle through which teams pursue talent, and certainly won’t be in the future with more homegrown players entering the fold. But for the rare few, on average thirteen picks per season, who do actually make a respectable career in the league, they will continue to be a testament to college soccer. The former is an institution that needs relevance as the soccer landscape changes in America, and hopefully new changes will mean better player development and competition amongst the 24,500 collegiate men’s soccer players across the country at all levels. Collegiate soccer needs a sharp change at all levels. The real question is, however, will the league continue to keep a large draft pool as the years press on, or reserve themselves to the fact that a vast majority of their later rounds feature players that will never play a minute or a full season’s worth of minutes in MLS?

3400 minutes. It’s an average. It’s rarely achieved.

To the 2017 SuperDraftees, picks, Garber Babies, whatever we might call them: good luck. It’s still an honor to be in the conversation at this level that so many in the US rarely touch. You’ve got heaps upon heaps of odds stacked against you, but the upside is that you’ve likely beaten a few if you are here. Vaya con dios.

(See the overall comparison chart here)