As a development feeder for Major League Soccer, the college game has its share of critics, as it should. The rules are wonky, the season is short, and the match scheduling is a recipe for athletic disaster. Throw in the rise of the USL and more productive imports, and a tradition like the annual SuperDraft is suddenly ripe for the kind of cynicism that the soccer webs produce oh-so efficiently.
The USL has provided a lucrative platform for young stars of the future, not unlike some lower divisions around the world, or other minor league sports here at home. Indeed, a small but growing segment of players is jumping straight to the USL from high school, or at least eschewing the last year or two of college eligibility in order to get in front of a professional coaching staff while still young enough to capitalize.
Given the existence of this pipeline, now 30 teams strong, one would be forgiven for saying that MLS is not likely to need something as archaic as a draft focused on college players. I see that, but the flip side of USL’s rapid growth makes the SuperDraft just as useful as ever.
Of particular interest are the clubs which control their very own team in the USL (or in the case of San Jose and Houston, the soccer side of operations, at least). Each MLS club in this situation uses its USL side a little differently, but in each, one benefit stands out to me. The MLS club essentially has a larger “roster” on which to place guys that they may otherwise have been unable to take a chance on.
A wholly-owned USL franchise, like Vancouver Whitecaps 2 or Seattle Sounders 2, can be used as a real-world training ground for players who showed well in college, but either need more time or experience in order to show their worth to the organization. In years past - or present, in the case of clubs like Dallas and Chicago which have yet to invest in a USL squad - the number of players that could be kept on after final cuts was limited to those on the fringes of the 18, and a few reserves. No more.
WFC2 and S2 can, if they like, sign a whole gaggle of draft day finds, and let the first team decide over the course of a season or two whether the guys are ready for prime time. In an uncertain world of late-blooming performers and mid-season injury bugs, having a stable of players on the payroll who are fighting for their spots gives a club many more options.
For this reason, smart managers do not see the SuperDraft as an obsolete exercise, but rather as one development tool of many, meeting an ever-evolving need.