CHICAGO — It’s impossible to imagine any other Philadelphia sports team trading away all of their draft picks at once, as the Union did on Wednesday. Would the Eagles or Sixers, for example, ever dare do such a thing? Surely not.
But when Ernst Tanner pulled the trigger on this week’s big deal, it was met with widespread acclaim. It’s no secret to anyone in MLS that the draft becomes less and less relevant each year.
In the years before MLS teams had their own full-fledged youth academies, college soccer was the top development pathway for American players wanting to become professionals. Now, though, it’s clearly inferior. College soccer’s short season and non-standard rules — such as a clock that counts down instead of up, and loose limits on substitutions during games — hinder the game’s ability to prepare players for the pros.
There has also been a major push to get prospects to turn pro as teenagers instead of as 22-year-olds, since that’s how things work in the rest of the world. And the Union are at the vanguard of making that push in the United States.
“I think it’s obvious the direction we’re going,” Union technical director Chris Albright said. “How we address it so that it’s the most efficient mechanism to make sure that we are pulling real pros out of the draft, I think that is something that is being discussed at the league level.”
The draft is still the kind of stage show that you find in other leagues, with players coming on stage to don scarves after their names are called from the podium. But the players are, at best, the third tier of young talent. Academy prospects who turn pro as teenagers are at the top; academy products who aren’t ready at 18 but leave college early (and thus are exempt from the draft) are second; and true college products are third.
That’s why there’s a growing movement to do away with the draft, or at least the spectacle of it. If MLS wants to have a player allocation system for college players as a competitive balance measure, a conference call would work. Removing the glitzy production would help make expectations for drafted players more realistic.
If the league wants to keep having a marquee event as part of the annual United Soccer Coaches convention (a goal that has some merit), it should hold baseball-style winter meetings instead, with teams making deals and talking to media. It’s already the case at the draft and the scouting combine that precedes it that most news is made off the field.
“There’s a lot of business that gets done, there’s a lot of conversations around how to improve the league,” Albright said. “Whether the draft continues to be the centerpiece of that, I don’t know. ... Gone are the days where we’re going to build our franchise around picks 2, 7 and 9. It’s become more of a supplemental piece.”
Three players with local ties were selected in Thursday’s National Women’s Soccer League draft.
Defender Kenie Wright, a Mount Laurel native and product of Lenape High and Rutgers, went in the fourth round to Sky Blue FC, which plays its games at Rutgers’ Yurcak Field.