Time to scrap the MLS draft

Posted on 25 January 2010 by Nicholas Gkionis

Major League Soccer’s player allocation model is stuck in purgatory. On the one hand it tries to emulate the European/international model of player development, where clubs own the rights to players developed by their youth systems. On the other, it wants to emulate other U.S. professional sports, with the college development/draft allocation model. It clearly wants to have the best of both worlds, with the excitement and fairness of Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft and a system that allows clubs to keep a few select the players they develop in house.

Personally, I would like MLS clubs to bring kids up through their academies and eventually sign them to their first team if they are good enough. It makes no sense to develop a kid and then hope you get the chance to draft him. I know more MLS clubs are starting up their own academies and I know from my experience that the New York Red Bulls have a pretty good set-up. The league should reward, not penalize, these developments.

For the U.S. to truly take over the soccer world, players will have to start being introduced to the professional game at ages 17-18. Personally, the most fun I had playing soccer was in college, but that doesn’t mean it was the best for my development. At this point, college stunts the best players’ growth. Look at the best soccer countries in the world: all the players are being introduced to professional environments at young ages. By 22 they are seasoned professionals, when most American kids are just getting their start in the pro game.

If the NCAA changed its rules and players were allowed to train as much as they want any time of year with their MLS team maybe it would be different. But that’s surely a non starter as it would jeopardize their “amateur” status. Better then for MLS to revamp its model.

Player development begins and ends with the academies and clubs need incentives to develop their youth players. The first thing would be to grant rights to the clubs of all players who have stayed in their academies for a certain amount of years. I think we should just get rid of the SuperDraft, even though I love it for other sports. It’s just not useful at this point because the level of talent in the MLS draft and that of an NBA or NFL draft is miles apart.

MLS would need to change of a lot of its structure for this to happen, specifically the idea that all clubs are subject to the league authority for player allocation.

I believe it’s time for MLS to become a free market where there is no salary cap and where if someone wants to come in and buy a team and pour millions into it, then all the power to them. But I would also implement a rule that there has to be a certain number of players from a club’s academy on its first team squad. All MLS would need is a few billionaires to come in (which would happen) pump a ton of money into the youth set-up of the club, buy big time players, and turn a few MLS teams into big time clubs. These teams would challenge the best in Mexico and South America through the Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana. Everyone would benefit: the level of play would be better, the league would be more respected at home and abroad. MLS teams would be obligated to field players from their academies and of course if someone is spending a lot of money on the team they would make sure the youth set-up is right.

I like the idea of keeping it competitive, as ensured by the current system of parity. But name another soccer league in the world that is competitive top to bottom. The same teams win every year in England, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, just to name a few, and judging by the levels of interest in those countries they seem to be doing just fine with it.

This is just an idea maybe and of course it’s easier said than done–especially the second part. But the sport needs academies for it to reach the next level of competitiveness and teams should be rewarded for developing their own talent. Right now that simply is not the case.

12 Comments For This Post

  1. f4denz Says:

    Wonderful ideas, but reality is a very different picture. First the NCAA isn't going to allow players to “practice” with pro teams as things like even getting a uniform would be a violation of their policies. Free Market and no salary cap, I love it when people want this to happen overnight, it is so far from what MLS needs that it is just amazing. So you want owners who are already losing money(yes most clubs are still in the red) to just spend their way to making thing better, wonderful so ticket prices will jump 2-300% as teams try to recoup their unlimited spending without a better TV deal, or larger stadiums (wait they can all build new ones that hold more people or maybe we should all play in NFL stadiums).

    So where do you see these billionaires coming from? who are going to pour money into a fringe sport in the US? easy to say but much harder to do. So you want US clubs to run the same horrid debt levels of clubs in Europe, that will eventually be the demise of many of them. The US market for sports isn't the same as the market in Europe and parity is something that most leagues set high on their list of objectives here in the US.

    I am always amazed by people who think a league just 15 years old should embrace the same structure of leagues that have been around over a hundred years, that a sport that only gets 20 million a year in TV revenue should spend what leagues that get 10 to 100 times that amount spend in the name of lifting the level of the sport in the US.

    You are right that academies are wonderful ideas but right now many MLS teams are simply trying to stay afloat as businesses and asking them to pump millions and millions of dollars into youth systems at this point is something many can't afford. Yes the Red Bulls and a few other teams have build quality systems by partnering with local youth soccer groups, but that structure isn't available in all markets.

    I would like to see US Soccer take a much larger role in development of an academy system in the US, but again getting the money for such a project is a tough thing to do.

    Not bad ideas but your right they are much easier to say than do, so why don't we focus on things that are doable for a league that isn't rolling in cash, has horrible TV deals, and is still considered by 90% of the population to be a fringe sport at best, a sport for foreigners at worst.

  2. amersocc Says:

    I think the article recognizes the thing with the NCAA has no chance, in fact it even goes as far as to call it a non starter.

  3. parkinglot1a Says:

    Your precisely right. The league will find it very difficult to ''roll in the cash'' with the current set-up. It is not desirable for any owner to buy a team now. One thing owners don't like are restrictions and currently its a problem so you are right. However, if the MLS moved to a free market this may change because now teams can become ambitious in terms of investing in there club and maybe seeing the returns in the long run.

    Where would the billionaires come from? There is a ton of reasons new owners would come in if the set up changed. Its the USA and for any sport or business it has the potential for greatness. Soccer could be massive in the USA if one or two teams became very very ambitious. In my opinion, an MLS club in a free market has more potential then buying Burnley or West Ham or some team like that. Imagine if an owner like the one at Man City came to the USA and did the same thing he is doing there over here. It would be madness and there is no reason a new owner wouldn't. A Russian even decided to buy the Nets in the NBA and they are one of the worst teams in history. Sports in the USA will attract big time investors in the right circumstances its a fact.

    And your point about pumping money into youth academies. Your right. A few years ago when I was with the Metrostars there was no reason for the club to pump money into the youth set up. You couldn't sign the players so there was no reason for it, but if new rules are implemented in terms of roster quota's and that then a smart owner would want his youth set up done right because it would effect the quality of his team.

    Free market is a must. Its the one thing thats holding the MLS back. Salary caps are non-sense. You want to know where the TV money or tickets will come from? It will come when a new ambitious owner comes and buys a club in a free market and buys a ton of big time players (isn't that far-fetched look at the cosmos) and makes them the talk of the league. Other people will see that and invest too. You will have 3-4 big teams and then a bunch of sleepers. In European leagues you have 2-4 good teams in every league and the rest are feeder teams for the big ones. That could work for the USA league and the feeder teams would stay afloat like that, just like a bunch of European clubs do. They sell there players and thats how they stay afloat. With the right youth set up that can be the formula in the USA too.

    TV deals will come flying in. They will fill football stadiums and work wonders.

    We aren't modeling this after the European system because there are not quota's all over Europe.

    I also disagree that 90 percent think its a fringe sport. I think a lot of people would go to soccer games but at this point its not attractive enough for them.

  4. Pico Says:

    Nicholas,

    While I do agree with your proposition about letting teams benefit from their investment in their academies, there are a couple of critical issues that will make it hard to implement.

    The first and more obvious is the existence of the NCAA and the perception that to be a soccer professional you have to go through their system. The US is the only country (someone else correct me if I am wrong on that) where a prospective soccer professional has to decide on a teaching institution in order to advance his/her career. To make things worse, the player development is many times stunt by the system.

    The other item is that in most soccer countries, a kid that decides to pursue a professional soccer career is usually introduced to a development system at a much earlier earlier age than you propose (as early as 12 – 13). However, unlike other countries where soccer is the ticket out for many underprivileged kids, US parents will have a hard time deciding between a sports career and an education.

    If teams like the Red Bulls decide to invest in lower divisions and create a constant talent source to its first team, and other teams follow suit, we might then see the clash of systems.

    Cheers

  5. amersocc Says:

    Once professional soccer players become better paid in this country I think this issue will go away on its own. Right now it's simply not worth sacrificing a college education. When it does become worth it (not only for the very best ie Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies), you'll see only a fringe of the best players in college, the way you do now in ice hockey for example.

  6. f4denz Says:

    But what do we consider better pay? I would love to see MLS work with all their players on saving for education after their careers (either for themselves or their kids). I consider this part of the “quality of life issues”

    I do agree that the MLS draft is simply an oddity in soccer, but for now it beats the whole discovery process that is simply a joke beyond laughing at. I would also love to see every team build an academy system but that is much easier to do in New York, LA, or DC, than it would be in KC, Denver, or Salt Lake where the pool of players for such a system is much smaller and shallower.

  7. soccerenthusiast Says:

    Very interesting perspective… this guy should write for you guys more often!!

  8. amersocc Says:

    thanks…I think

  9. 87fire Says:

    I believe that we need to develop players at a younger age as well. We really do not begin better development until college years. By having more formal academies at a younger age tied with the MLS will provide better training and also incite more focused players at a younger age to really succeed. Definitely something worth considering, good ideas you are proposing here.

  10. Michael DiAmore Says:

    Anyone on here saying salary caps are pure nonsense is simply hiding from the fact that the current economic structure (Euro football, NBA, MLB, etc) in leagues/sports that do not have a salary cap is unsustainable. There is a finite limit to how high these salaries can get, how much income a club can bring in, etc. If salaries continue to grow at the rate of some of these leagues, we are poising ourselves to see a massive collapse at one point or another.

    That being said, free market may be necessary for MLS to compete, but it isn't … YET. The first thing that needs to happen is that the US Federation needs to pressure the NCAA to change some rules regarding practice times/rights in training with other squads. If players can play in the PDL, there's no reason they can't play with a club youth outfit. The USSF is in a position to do this because the NCAA will readily recognize that soccer is not one of their big money sports. The angle of player development is one that is certainly not dismissible.

    I'd also agree that the draft should protect youth academy players. Should the time come that the only players being drafted are academy kids, then OK the NCAA has become irrelevant to providing MLS talent, and we've seen significant growth in the league. However, often times there are Caribbean or African born players who might have a more difficult time obtaining a work visa than a school visa, in which case the MLS can still capitalize on those players after they continue to hone their skills at the collegiate level.

    On the money side: The MLS is in its infancy, and indeed many teams are just treading water financially. However, to say that the fan base won't be there is false. Averaging 15,000 a game in only 15 years of existence is nothing to shake a stick at. I expect within 5-10 years they will have surpassed the NBA in average attendance. But right now, the finances just aren't there as evidenced by the extremely low minimum salary. To even start to pick off talent from other places, that will have to change. I'm not convinced though that opening to the free market is the way to go yet though. There is far more work to be done at the grassroots level to grow academies and a supporter base. Unfortunately they've missed one opportunity (Red Bull excluded) in building a fan friendly covered-seating stadiums. It's easy to overlook that feature but it's of massive benefit to clubs with such stadia. How would you prefer to watch a football match, dry or sopping wet for 90 minutes in your plastic seat? Exactly.

    Another point that could be said should be in the works is relegation. There are a couple clubs where on-field personnel just seems like an afterthought (see Red Bull last season). Force teams to manage their squad effectively and put a decent team out on the pitch by enacting relegation with a unified USL. If nothing else it could potentially force the growth of base salary and other key financials, and with more competition comes more notability and better sponsorship and TV deals. Unfortunately, that too is long off in the works.

  11. Michael DiAmore Says:

    Anyone on here saying salary caps are pure nonsense is simply hiding from the fact that the current economic structure (Euro football, NBA, MLB, etc) in leagues/sports that do not have a salary cap is unsustainable. There is a finite limit to how high these salaries can get, how much income a club can bring in, etc. If salaries continue to grow at the rate of some of these leagues, we are poising ourselves to see a massive collapse at one point or another.

    That being said, free market may be necessary for MLS to compete, but it isn't … YET. The first thing that needs to happen is that the US Federation needs to pressure the NCAA to change some rules regarding practice times/rights in training with other squads. If players can play in the PDL, there's no reason they can't play with a club youth outfit. The USSF is in a position to do this because the NCAA will readily recognize that soccer is not one of their big money sports. The angle of player development is one that is certainly not dismissible.

    I'd also agree that the draft should protect youth academy players. Should the time come that the only players being drafted are academy kids, then OK the NCAA has become irrelevant to providing MLS talent, and we've seen significant growth in the league. However, often times there are Caribbean or African born players who might have a more difficult time obtaining a work visa than a school visa, in which case the MLS can still capitalize on those players after they continue to hone their skills at the collegiate level.

    On the money side: The MLS is in its infancy, and indeed many teams are just treading water financially. However, to say that the fan base won't be there is false. Averaging 15,000 a game in only 15 years of existence is nothing to shake a stick at. I expect within 5-10 years they will have surpassed the NBA in average attendance. But right now, the finances just aren't there as evidenced by the extremely low minimum salary. To even start to pick off talent from other places, that will have to change. I'm not convinced though that opening to the free market is the way to go yet though. There is far more work to be done at the grassroots level to grow academies and a supporter base. Unfortunately they've missed one opportunity (Red Bull excluded) in building a fan friendly covered-seating stadiums. It's easy to overlook that feature but it's of massive benefit to clubs with such stadia. How would you prefer to watch a football match, dry or sopping wet for 90 minutes in your plastic seat? Exactly.

    Another point that could be said should be in the works is relegation. There are a couple clubs where on-field personnel just seems like an afterthought (see Red Bull last season). Force teams to manage their squad effectively and put a decent team out on the pitch by enacting relegation with a unified USL. If nothing else it could potentially force the growth of base salary and other key financials, and with more competition comes more notability and better sponsorship and TV deals. Unfortunately, that too is long off in the works.

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