Even if Toronto has a bit of a bad track record in the draft landing a talent like Joao Plata is a reason to at least make a case for the continued existence of the draft.
Last week John wrote a post arguing that the SuperDraft was something that the MLS would be best off making a part of its history. Predictably that resulted in a lot of comments from people as the draft tends to be one of the most divisive issues among MLS fans. With that said I will now present the case for why the draft is something that at least for the time being the league needs to continue on with.
The first argument for keeping the draft alive is the most obvious one. It is the case that despite the rise in the number and quality of academies in the MLS landscape there is still talent coming through the draft. That is a fact that some will dismiss by saying that the academies are still new and have not been able to get all of the top talent yet, but the counter point to that would be to note that no matter how good the academies get some talent will still slip off their radar and a college might catch that talent. There are also a lot of players who are not ready to turn professional at 18 or 19, so they are better off going to college for a few years and even if they come out early they will have had a few more years to develop and mature.
If you look at just the draft from last year you can quickly find names like Omar Salgado, Darlington Nagbe, A.J. Soares, C.J. Sapong, Will Bruin, and several others who were able to make serious contributions in their first years in MLS. To say that the draft should no longer exist would mean having to dismiss that kind of talent as not being worth adding to the league.The draft is not just about bringing in the best talent from NCAA teams but is also about providing MLS teams with an easy way to refill their rosters and round out their squad at relatively low prices. In a league where clubs are forced to operate under a firm salary cap it is crucial to find affordable players to fill out your squad, even if in most draft years you do not land a top tier talent capable of being a difference maker in the league. If you do have a bad season though there is enough talent available in the early picks of each draft to help improve your side. Add to that the chance to land Generation Adidas players and avoid any hit to your cap at all. When you are forced to be creative with your cap space the draft is a great way to save some money and get serviceable players for the league minimum or no cap hit at all.
I will agree that the shrinking of the draft is good news for the league. Going down to two rounds makes sense as the depth of talent seems to be shrinking the past few years, and with the league improving there are fewer and fewer college players capable of reaching that standard. Add in the rise of academies meaning that in the coming years more and more roster spots will be taken up by home grown talent and you can see why it makes sense to decrease the prominence of the draft.
To kill the draft off all together though would be a very foolish move for the league at this stage. For now the draft is a key part of the league's relationship with the NCAA which is something that cannot be taken for granted. Even if the NCAA does not care all that much about soccer and is actually losing a lot of programs and cutting spring games, the MLS still needs them. They need them for the sake of every young player who is now considering signing on to join an academy program. Right now the players in MLS academies who are not good enough to reach the pro level are instead worked with to try and send them to college and get them a scholarship if possible. That means that these young men are given the chance to get a good education and continue to develop as a player. So if they do not make it to the MLS level then they have their schooling to fall back on, and if they do make the MLS but only last for a season or two they are again given a back up plan.
If you take a player like Matt Gold for example you can make a clear case for the value of getting a proper education. If he had gone through an academy and then gone professional and only lasted one season what would he have to fall back on now if another MLS team does not give him a chance? He would be stuck out in the cold forced to either work out his own scholarship and head to school late or struggle to get by. As long as the draft remains and the league continues to have a good relationship with the NCAA they can ensure that players like Gold get the chance to go to college and have an education that is much more valuable than one or two years in the league.
It is hard to say if getting rid of the SuperDraft would ruin the relationship but it certainly would not help things and it is safe to say that getting rid of the draft would make young men much less willing to take the NCAA route and get their education as it would be seen as the end of their pro dreams to not take the academy route.
Keeping the draft really is a no lose for the league when you look at it from a financial stand point. Even if year after year it produces limited talent for the league it is a free source of that talent. The league does not have to spend a single dollar to get the rights to these draft eligible players from the NCAA, so it is essentially a free source of talent. Add in the fact that no team has to use its draft picks and there is no way to make a real case that the draft is bad for MLS teams. They are not forced to draft any players or to sign them after the draft so in that sense clubs remain free to fill their roster through other means if they choose.
So what about the argument that the NCAA is bad for talent development and that players would be better off in academies. That is a valid point to a certain extent as with the NCAA cutting back on soccer most players would be better off in an environment where they get more playing and training time. Even with the cutbacks though there will continue to be some talent coming through the NCAA. For some players being in the NCAA is a better choice than many of the MLS academies as they are still developing. There are a handful of very good academies around the league but many still have a long ways to go. There is also the fact that 19 MLS academies can only have so many players in them which means talent will always be missed so having the NCAA and the draft there is a good backup plan.
So what am I really trying to make the case for here? Well I for one feel that the draft is something that will continue to have value to the MLS for the foreseeable future. Even if most fans look at it and question the level of talent coming through it there is no doubt that some talent enters the league through the draft each year and it is talent that costs the league nothing to bring in. It is hard for me to make any case as to why the draft should be brought to an end any time soon for all the reasons I have already gone over. To me the question is not worth asking until every team in the MLS is being consistently stocked by academy players and even if Toronto FC has a few on their roster that day is still a long ways off.
So for now I will continue to look forward to each years draft and view it as a chance for teams to improve quickly. I for one am glad that TFC has a pair of early picks this year and that they seem to be doing their homework and should be able to get two well scouted and talented players in the first round.