The path to becoming a professional soccer player in the United States has always been … a little different, especially in comparison to the famed European models like England’s EPL, Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A. One of the main differences is the fact that soccer has not historically been as deeply embedded into American culture as sports such as football, basketball and baseball.
When soccer did eventually begin to gain popularity in the U.S., Americans were determined to put their own spin on it at the professional level, with one of the most obvious instances being the use of the word “soccer” in place of “football.” Because professional football, basketball and baseball all utilize draft systems where athletes are scouted and drafted either out of high school or college, the founders of MLS opted do the same.
The advantages of doing so are obvious, as it allowed Americans to make the foreign sport of soccer seem a little more familiar. To this day, MLS still utilizes a draft system where college players around the country can be picked up by MLS clubs and placed on their roster, or be used to make further trades for different players or allocation money.
However, with the rapid growth of soccer in the U.S., the MLS draft system is no longer the best way for aspiring athletes to become professionals.
A look at current U.S. internationals like Eddie Johnson, Brek Shea, Luis Gil, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley tells the story. These are arguably some of the best talent the U.S. has to offer, and none of them ever played college soccer.
Although the U.S. has always strove to differentiate itself from the rest of the world in sporting terms, it’s time for MLS clubs to continue investing in their academies and not rely as heavily on the draft system. Yes, the college draft system has produced quality players like USMNT legends Kasey Keller, Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey, but the current crop of U.S. internationals have been coming up through MLS academies.
Young players are now choosing to forgo college soccer and come up through the academy ranks for three main reasons. First, academies offer players the chance to work and train with professional coaches year round, whereas most college players only play for around six months out of the year.
The second reason is the gap in skill. Players in college who are serious about becoming professionals regularly go up against athletes who are committed, but who do not see themselves playing soccer for a paycheck. At academies, players are exposed to specialized training and a professional atmosphere, better preparing them for the real thing.
Lastly, academies allow players to become professionals at younger ages. In much of the world, it is not unusual for young players to make their first team debuts when they are 16 to 18-years-old. If a college player plays all four years and enters the draft, they won’t become professionals until they are 21 or 22.
One only has to look at the young talent that has been coming up through various MLS academy systems to understand. Players like the aforementioned Gil, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Tristan Bowen, Andy Najar and Russell Teibert never stepped foot on a college field. That being said, college soccer does offer the chance for players to play at a high level and the chance at a good education, something that should not be ignored.
With the USMNT being drawn into the “Group of Death” for the 2014 World Cup against teams like Germany, Portugal and Ghana, many Americans feel that their team won’t make it out of the group stage. Because the U.S. has used the college draft system for so long, it may explain the gap in quality between the USMNT and established South American and European international teams, as well as up-and-coming African and Asian nations.
If the MLS and United States Soccer Federation are serious about creating a generation of players capable of competing with the world’s best, it may be time to do away with the draft system.