The Highs and Lows of a Dwindling MLS SuperDraft

The MLS SuperDraft is still a significant moment for a number of promising players, even if its overall significance in the bigger picture seems to be diminishing.
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As each year passes, there seems to be less and less that's "super" about MLS's SuperDraft, the mechanism that allows college seniors and select underclassmen to enter the league.

College soccer's role as a talent developer and provider has diminished in the changing landscape, as teams turn to their own academies for youth prospects and place more emphasis on the global market to find top players. The Philadelphia Union, for instance, traded out of Thursday's two-round festivities altogether, making it clear that they view their own youth pipeline as sufficient enough to stock the first team.

There are always players who either prioritize the college experience or are late bloomers or who have just fallen through the cracks of the vast soccer landscape around the country, and that's why there still can be value to find in the draft. Atlanta United's Julian Gressel (No. 8 pick, 2017) is the prime recent example of a diamond in the rough that a big-spending team can land to pair with its high-priced talent and form a dynamic combination.

Still, MLS pared down the event considerably in 2020, removing it from the convention center ballroom atmosphere at the annual United Soccer Coaches convention and putting it entirely online. MLS and ESPN teamed to stream the first round with analysis and had reporters on site with a few league executives and picks for a shot at a more light-hearted and engaging social-media-friendly event. The second round was then evidently a conference call conducted at lightning-speed, making it seem like most of the picks were pre-determined, or at the very least conducted with very little thought. 

What was once the prime stage for preseason wheeling and dealing–the league hotel was notorious for late-night discussions over bar drinks once upon a time–was rendered rather uneventful save for a few minor trades. It stands to reason that many of the picks are destined for beginnings–and perhaps long runs–at USL club affiliates. Such is the state of the draft as it relates to its importance in the roster-building process.

Here were some of the things that stuck out the most from an odd affair, one whose very existence seems to be dwindling:

Skyping with Becks

Robbie Robinson, Clemson's Hermann Trophy winner, went first overall to Inter Miami, which came with the honor of getting a call from one of his club's owners, David Beckham. The two couldn't be more extreme opposites on the personality scale, and the call was riddled with audio issues and awkward echoes, but it was a neat moment nonetheless for the top pick.

“That was crazy. It was kind of surreal looking at him because I've watched him my whole life,” Robinson told The Associated Press. “So for him to be on a call with me, and his belief in me that I could be a player that can help this team along with everyone else that's at Inter Miami, it is crazy. And it gives me that much more confidence to go out there and do what I can do and work for this team.”

Robinson has his work cut out, with the club said to be eyeing high-end attacking talent to go along with rising Argentine star Julian Carranza, Juan Agudelo and the rest of the pieces up top in South Florida. But after an 18-goal, nine-assist season, he'll be confident of contributing to the expansion team in its inaugural year.

The home ambush

Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs crashed the home watch party of Indiana and U.S. U-23 center back Jack Maher, bringing a busload of Nashville supporters to his family's front lawn in St. Louis to introduce them to the No. 2 overall pick.

Now, in a vacuum, that's a pretty cool moment. But what if Miami had taken Maher at No. 1? What if Nashville were made a godfather offer for the pick that it couldn't turn down? Would that bus have turned around? Suppose Jacobs & Co. were ready to make that gamble–or knew well in advance that it wasn't a gamble at all. Maher, however, claims he didn't know anything was in the works.

"I had no idea. It was crazy. I don't even know how they kept it from us," Maher told the AP.

Inter Miami's objective in Year 1 is apparently to win the U.S. Open Cup

That's according to ESPN's Taylor Twellman, who went on to add that Miami sees it as an attainable way to make it into Concacaf Champions League–a competition that manager Diego Alonso knows quite well–from the start. When has a team ever made it known that its top objective is to win a secondary cup competition, though? That's not exactly shooting for the stars, and while clearly every team, Miami included, theoretically wants to win everything, that's a rather underwhelming sentiment from a team that is striving (and not exactly thriving as of yet) to win the optics game. 

Why there's still hope for selecting teams

Teams who scout the college game aggressively can still come out on top and find a market inefficiency. Minnesota United made the playoffs for the first time last season, and it got tremendous contributions from Chase Gasper (15th overall) and Hassani Dotson (31st overall) to get there. The year before, it found Mason Toye (seventh overall). All three players have gone on to U.S. national teams as well and came at a discounted rate.

The same year Gressel went to Atlanta, he was picked after Miles Robinson (second overall to Atlanta), Jonathan Lewis (third overall to NYCFC), Jeremy Ebobisse (fourth overall to Portland) and Jackson Yueill (sixth overall to San Jose), four more players who have U.S. experience now.

Some draft classes outperform others in all sports, and it's entirely possible that the 2020 class will have its gems when looking back in year from now, even if the event that marked its entry to the league stated plenty about the direction the mechanism appears to be headed in the future.