Adding Some Super to the MLS SuperDraft

In order to live up to the lofty name, the MLS can add a new class of ‘super’ players to its draft
by Mike Firpo   |   Monday, January 09, 2012

MLS SuperDraft 2012

The MLS SuperDraft moniker is just about as misleading as the second division of English soccer calling itself The Championship. Yep, the one under the appropriately significantly coined: Premier League.

Premier meaning top of the rung, that works. The Championship does not. Just like the MLS “SuperDraft” does not aptly describe the event about to take place in a non-Western city near you (the SuperDraft coincides with the NSCAA Convention and to maximize the attendance of their coaching membership, it’s typically held in the Midwest or Northeast).

False advertising aside, it sure does get a lot of coverage from the league. A solid two weeks’ worth and possibly more if you count stories on college soccer prospects, Generation Adidas (GA) signups, the MLS Combine, mock draft picks, the run-up to the NSCAA Convention and the SuperDraft itself.

The MLS Combine -- the synthetically organized pre-draft tournament that is supposed to show MLS club GMs, Technical Directors and Coaches what the college and GA players they are oblivious to for 11 month of the year, how they perform out of shape, out of position, in a different environment, with different teammates and coaching – with their future livelihoods at stake -- now gets loads of coverage this time of year. The oddly Adidas-product-named team matches are now streamed live for hibernating MLS supporters to gobble-up after the MLS Cup confetti and champagne have long since been cleaned.

On the first weekend of the 2012 MLS Combine, out of the 16 stories that the league website reported on that Saturday and Sunday, 11 of them were about the MLS Combine and 1 other was about Generation Adidas. Obviously that’s a lot of coverage, even during a traditionally slow offseason period. It seems as if the league is trying to grow its coverage of the Combine and if so, you can count on the draft also getting the bulk of the coverage later in the week as well as it draws nearer.

In itself of course it makes sense, the draft is a league “event” and property and a way to keep its name in the news and in league official’s eyes it’s a necessary function for an American sports league to make a big deal about their college and youth draft.

There’s only one small catch. Almost none of these players will matter to their MLS clubs next season.

Unlike the other big four American sports where college draft picks can have immediate impacts on their clubs’ fortunes in the near future and are justifiably coveted, MLS’ 17 years of history clearly illustrates that the players selected in the SuperDraft next week will likely not become … well … “super”. Nor can their contributions. Well, certainly not in the short-term at least.

That’s a lot of attention than given to a maximum 57 players (19 teams & 3 rounds) that likely will be invisible, forgotten or long gone from their clubs come the end of the season. Sadly but truthfully, most will have either not been signed by their drafting clubs, loaned out to minor league clubs during the season, not received much playing time or the rare starter. Almost never has one of these players become an immediate impact player for an MLS club and been … “super”.

Even the best American college players cannot make the transition to the MLS game, likely due to unfulfilled development in the college soccer system. Which, as sagacious soccer writer Paul Gardner has noted for many years, is where American youth soccer talent goes to die.

Generation Adidas players are generally courted and valued more as they’re typically younger than college picks and don’t count against their clubs’ salary caps. Their youth however means they are less experienced and typically smaller than the rest of the league. In an athletic-leaning MLS, they likely won’t see much or any playing time their first few seasons.

When you look back on the SuperDrafts of years past, you realize that most of the hoopla seems a bit disingenuous or at minimum - exaggerated.

MLS does need youth and player injections annually however and they wisely lean towards the parity model of the NFL, so the draft isn’t going away any time soon.

So how than can the league make its annual SuperDraft live up to its haughty title?

Add ‘Super’stars

The league has Designated Players (DPs) that currently count outside of the salary cap for clubs who want to spend more and risk the associated costs (high salary) on the rewards of higher gates, more relevancy in their markets and on-field success. MLS teams can have none or a maximum of 3 DPs per club, but only a few do and a handful of clubs have none.

It would be complicated to put DPs into the SuperDraft, as some of the world-class players that spend their last few playing seasons in MLS, decide to do so based on the league and specific clubs as well. Beckham likely would only have come to Los Angeles and Thierry Henry has been in love with New York for over a decade. Both likely would have not wanted to play in small markets like Salt Lake or Columbus.

So adding DPs to the SuperDraft would be out of the question.

But what about a level of player somewhere in between the DP and the league maximum for non-DPs, ie: the rest of the league. Not international superstars like Keane, Beckham or Henry but guys closer to their primes who to their teams are very good players at the MLS level and probably more a player and less a marketable commodity, like: Dwayne De Rosario, Javier Morales, David Ferreira or Mauro Rosales.

Most of this newly designated class of players will be foreigners at first, but overtime Americans and Canadians would earn more of these spots as well.

The league could sign said players into a player pool and pay them directly from the league, outside of the salary cap, and pay them between say $400k and $1million. With players over $1million being reclassified FMPs (Fixed Marquee Players) and the new level the RDPs (Rotational Designated Players). Every team would get one of these RDP players at the inception, so 19 would be needed initially. If it was successful after a season or two of testing, they could increase the RDPs per club as it makes sense monetarily.

Now if that doesn’t raise the level of the league and help get it to the next level of its growth, in a reasonable and affordable way thus avoiding past NASL pitfalls, I’m not sure what will.

Another secondary bonus from this new classification: the league can than put these players into their existing SuperDraft along with the youth Designated Players (new for 2012) sub-classification and existing GA and college youth pool. It can than literally overnite give credence to the event’s title and meaningful attention that is justified to the hardcore supporters and national media alike who really have ignored the current incarnation of the SuperDraft.

It would be unlikely with the aforementioned caliber of player and resulting merited attention that ESPN would continue to only air the first round of the draft (and that was only until recently). Who knows, they may even cover all three rounds, add some pre and post-game shows and possibly not bury it in one of their backwater channels any longer.

If MLS doesn’t want to take the leap, than it should do itself a favor and properly re-package the SuperDraft for what it really is – the MLS Youth Draft.

If however, the league wants to show it is ‘Major’ and that its draft is ‘Super’, it needs to take more risks like this, especially now that it’s on more solid financial footing.

Following the other American sports in their drafts won’t work for MLS, soccer is too distinct. And so to must be MLS’ draft.

To get to the next level, or at least begin to do so, and earn the grandiose self-proclaimed titles the league has bestowed upon itself like the SuperDraft, MLS needs to begin trying to live up to the loftiness.

Adding MLS caliber ‘super’-players to the draft instead of a bunch of promising kids who likely won’t be around in a few years, will do just do that. Just as the league may not yet be ‘major’ internationally but will be one day, so too the SuperDraft isn’t too ‘super’ today, but it can be.


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.