No league loves a draft like MLS loves a draft.
Just take stock of the inventory over the years. There's the SuperDraft. The re-entry draft (two parts). The expansion draft. The waiver draft. The supplemental draft (RIP). In years with multiple expansion teams, there's even a draft to determine the order of picking who has the better picks in each of the subsequent drafts. It's ... a lot.
But the SuperDraft (and its less-super predecessor, the college draft) has been the constant. Preceding each of the league's 25 seasons, MLS has held the kind of draft that's commonplace in American sports, and Thursday's virtual affair is No. 26.
Questions about the viability of the draft, and the utility of college soccer as a means to develop future pros, have been asked for years, yet neither is going away. There's a purpose to both, even if the number of impact players that come out of the draft has seemed to decrease considerably.
In the most recent years, since MLS eliminated the supplemental draft and effectively combined two rounds of that with two rounds of the SuperDraft for one event, there has been a massive uptick in teams punting on their third- and fourth-round picks altogether.
The value is there for those dedicated enough to keep searching, though. Just look at last year's draft, for instance, in which University of Virginia teammates Daryl Dike (Orlando City) and Henry Kessler (New England Revolution) went Nos. 5 and 6, respectively. A year later, they're in U.S. U-23 national team camp. Wake Forest's Alistair Johnson (Nashville SC) went 11th overall and wound up being a regular starter for the successful expansion team. That won't stop calls from multiple corners for the draft to end or be restructured again, and as a counter to the productive trio named above, an immediate hit rate of three of 26 first-round picks doesn't inspire much faith in the product.
Clubs, some more regularly than others, have been hinting at their desire to stockpile talent elsewhere for years. The LA Galaxy passed on a fourth-rounder in 2014, while no teams passed on picks in 2015. Since then, it's become an increasingly aggressive pass-fest. The Galaxy passed on a third-rounder in 2016 and were joined by three other clubs in backing out of the fourth round. The trend of passing on third-rounders spread to Real Salt Lake and CF Montreal (née Montreal Impact) in 2017, with D.C. United and the Galaxy again passing on their picks in the fourth.
In 2018, RSL and Montreal were accompanied by NYCFC in ducking out in the third round, with the Vancouver Whitecaps and repeat punters LA and D.C. skipping the fourth. A year later, six clubs begged out of their third-round picks, and there were more passes (13) than picks (11) in the fourth round.
Last year, the number of clubs passing in the third round hit nine, with the number of passes (16) once again outweighing the picks (10) in the fourth.
The way things are trending, the draft is becoming less and less of a focus for clubs as they construct their squads. Just look at how cavalier the Philadelphia Union have become about it all.
It's a little disingenuous for the Union to be so dissenting. They have, after all, benefited greatly from the mechanism in the past. Ray Gaddis (second round, 35th overall, 2012) is the club's all-time leader in starts, appearances and minutes played and has been part of the bedrock since his arrival. Andre Blake (first round, first overall, 2014) has been one of the league's top goalkeepers since claiming the No. 1 job in 2016, winning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year that season and in 2020. Jack Elliott (fourth round, 77th overall, 2017), has been a steady contributor at center back.
Yet priorities change and so do the ways to build a team. The Union have chosen to put their emphasis on developing youth from within, skipping the draft process entirely in the last two years and not making a first-round pick since 2016, and it's hard to argue with the results. After all, nobody trusts the process like Philadelphia. The club won the Supporters' Shield in 2020's abbreviated and interrupted season, and Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson were both sold to European clubs for sizable (by MLS standards) transfer fees.
“Our philosophy is, and continues to be, focused on our academy pipeline as a source for cultivating young talent for our first team,” Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said in a statement after dealing the club's two picks this year and first-round pick next year to Nashville SC for allocation money. “As we see two homegrown players continue on to European leagues and 10 total homegrowns on our 2021 roster, we’ve proven that our model and allocation of resources works.”
Philly is not alone in preferring to bring along talent that's been ingrained in a team's system from a young age. That is, after all, how clubs regularly operate around the world. Youth development in MLS has been a work in progress over the last 25 years, and some clubs have aced it to a significantly higher degree than others. But if you can become more efficient in developing from within, then that eliminates some of the scouting and guesswork that can be part of the draft process, and it streamlines the development pathway.
But not every youth player's path is the same. There are always gems that have fallen through the cracks to be discovered, and there are always players for whom college is either a priority or a door-opening avenue. That pool of players will always exist and represent an alternative, relatively low-cost option for clubs filling out their squads. At the very least, the picks to select them can be used as assets to acquire other means of MLS-specific currency.
Just like there's no one way to draft an MLS player, there's no one right way to construct an MLS team.