Our City is a weekly column devoted to looking at the culture surrounding Orlando City, Major League Soccer, and the American soccer landscape.
You might have noticed the NFL Draft took place over the last few days. Actually, it was pretty difficult to avoid with live broadcasts, constant social media updates, and thorough coverage of each pick all over the internet. The NFL Draft and the NBA Draft have become events in their own right as fans are eager to learn where the best prospects will land and if their team will acquire the missing piece to make them competitive in the coming season.
The MLS SuperDraft is not that event. Soccer’s developmental structures and international networks mean that college players are one of many streams in which teams look to improve their rosters. MLS also holds a variety of drafts prior to pre-season to allow teams to acquire players. This has combined to make the SuperDraft less important to MLS teams than their peers in other American sports.
Additionally, while there’s quality to be found, it’s always been a bit trickier to identify talent in the soccer draft.
Universities have long been the development ground for American soccer players. College soccer has, of course, provided stability for the American game for more than 100 years as professional leagues have come and gone. While it has been a steadying force for American soccer, in recent years player development has shifted to academies with a strong focus on bringing American players to a more internationally competitive level, with year-round training. Former United States Men’s National Team Manager Jurgen Klinsmann was critical of college as a developmental tool for American players.
With American players trending towards academies and away from college development, foreign players have found a niche. Players like this year’s top pick, Joao Moutinho, and the top pick in the 2016 draft, Jack Harrison, are both foreign players who used their skills to leverage a college education in America before starting a professional career. Orlando City’s Dom Dwyer also found a similar route to the professional ranks.
Between domestic players taking the traditional route through college athletics and foreign players moving stateside to get an education while hoping to break into the professional ranks, the SuperDraft shouldn’t be as easily dismissed as it has been recently.
Orlando City brought Cyle Larin in through the draft in 2015. Unsure of just what they had, the Lions didn’t initially start Larin. But once injuries pushed him into the starting XI, he tore the rookie scoring record apart as he shredded defenses in his first season. This year’s breakout star has been Chris Mueller, taken with the sixth pick. One of Orlando’s 2016 picks is still with the club, Richie Laryea. Further afield, success stories with other players picked in the draft dot every MLS club’s roster.
While there are some players who miss the mark on their potential, players developed out of college are exactly what the league needs. Players with four years of education and competitive experience come into the league as well-spoken, mature players who oftentimes are ready to make an instant impact. While most won’t match the talent of Larin or Harrison, solid mid-range talent that doesn’t require a foreign roster slot is something every competitive team needs.
For Orlando City, a team in transition this season and losing the public relations superstar Kaká, finding an exciting and articulate player like Mueller is a bonus. Orlando’s supporters have instantly fallen in love with this exciting young player. He’s the kind of player that leaves you wondering what he will do next — the kind of player you are willing to buy tickets to watch.
For a team that has doubled down on seasoned veterans like Sacha Kljestan, Will Johnson, Jonathan Spector, and Dom Dwyer, having a bit of a youth movement occurring simultaneously is an absolute boon. Mueller, along with Homegrown former University of North Carolina player Cam Lindley, and Young Designated Player Josué Colmán, have allowed Orlando to build through various MLS routes to create real excitement for the future.
Additionally, with absolutely no disrespect to Mueller or Lindley, they seem to fit into the level of talent that will probably stay in MLS for their entire careers. Orlando and MLS should be looking to these kinds of players to provide the foundational blocks to their teams for years to come. With a bit of scouting and a touch of good luck, the SuperDraft can still be a key component to building competitive squads, even if it lacks the pomp and circumstance of the NFL Draft.
What do you think? Should American players use college as a springboard to MLS or do you favor the academy system? Do you want to see more links built between universities and MLS teams and their academies?