The 2021 MLS SuperDraft and What to Look For Through Minttinted Glasses
Written by: Vaughn Pollman
On Thursday the 21st at 2pm ET, expansion side Austin FC will select first in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft. The annual SuperDraft is the opportunity for teams to select eligible players from a list of college seniors, Generation Adidas signings, and players who have waived their college eligibility by competing in a domestic professional league such as the USL. The list of 176 draft-eligible players was announced exactly a week ahead of the draft this year and can be found here: https://www.mlssoccer.com/superdraft/2021/prospects. Players will be selected over 3 rounds, starting with expansion side Austin FC and followed by teams in reverse order of the standings at the end of the 2020 MLS season.
So, what's the strategy for teams selecting players? It's a loaded question, and the answer varies. First of all, some teams value the draft more than others, and secondly, it's become increasingly more difficult to build through the draft.
Ahead of the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, the Philadelphia Union famously traded all 5 of their picks to expansion side FC Cincinnati for $150,000 GAM, or General Allocation Money. This is a set of funds made available to each team in MLS, and provided by the League, to help in roster construction as part of salary cap rules. The move didn't pan out so hot for Cincinnati, FC, who has struggled to compete since joining the League, so the picks clearly didn't help, while the Union has gone on to win the Supporter's Shield this past year. Philadelphia has actually traded their first-round pick for three straight seasons with a greater emphasis on integrating players directly from their academy.
On the other hand, some teams have still found significant value in the draft. The New England Revolution, for example, made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final this year with a backline made entirely of players acquired through the SuperDraft. By drafting well on the defensive side of the ball, they have been able to spend big on midfield and attacking pieces like Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou.
Teams also have to evaluate a player's readiness to contribute to an MLS roster. Are you selecting a rising 19-year-old with a high-ceiling or a graduating 22-year-old who is near their potential? Does the player need further development before seeing the field or are they ready to play day 1? And furthermore, does the player fit a position of need or are you just selecting the best available talent at the time of selection? These are all questions that teams must evaluate in the draft, just like in any other sports league.
Beyond those factors, there are also two-player classifications that may impact a team's decision to select a player: whether they are a Generation Adidas player or if they are considered an international player?
Generation Adidas players have pre-signed contracts with the League ahead of the draft. These contracts are unique as they are sponsored by Adidas and the League and are typically reserved for some of the draft's top talent. College underclassmen and youth national team members are signed to these Generation Adidas contracts to encourage them to start their careers within MLS. For MLS teams, the benefit of selecting Generation Adidas players is that their salary, being paid for by Adidas, does not count against a team's salary budget, rather occupying a spot on a team's supplemental roster until they graduate from the Generation Adidas program. In this year's draft, there are 3 such players as of the time of this article: MF Philip Mayaka, from Clemson, FW Calvin Harris, from Wake Forest, MF and Daniel Pereira, from Virginia Tech. Mayaka and Harris are currently projected to go 1 and 2 in this year's draft.
The other classification that was mentioned is a player's international status. Each MLS team has 8 available international spots on their roster each season. These spots can be traded among teams, typically for allocation money. An international player is any player that does not have US citizenship or any other kind of legal resident status, such as a green card, or refugee or asylum status. MLS teams have facilitated getting their players green cards over recent years, opening up these valuable roster spots. The teams that are best at helping players navigate that process have the added benefit of bringing in more international talent or selling unused international spots to help build the rest of their rosters. All three of this year's Generation Adidas players will require an international spot, which could deter certain teams from selecting them. Non-Generation Adidas players who are classified as internationals may see their draft stock fall.
In last year's SuperDraft Inter Miami selected Clemson's Robbie Robinson, a domestic striker, first overall. Robinson had won the Hermann Trophy as the top college soccer player coming into the draft and was seen as an immediate starter for Miami. He featured for them early on in the season before injuries and trades saw his minutes decline, and the top player from last year's draft class, through their first season, ended up being 5thoverall pick Daryl Dike. Dike became a major contributor for Orlando City's attack, scoring 8 goals and contributing 3 assists over 22 total appearances, and earning a recent call-up to the USMNT. Nashville SC, the other expansion side, selected Jack Maher, a centerback, 2nd overall. Maher was actually loaned to the Charlotte Independence ahead of the start of the season making 1 appearance for Charlotte and 3 for Nashville.
You may have noticed a trend with local colleges being mentioned. There are so many really amazing college soccer programs in the Carolinas. Clemson, Wake Forest, UNC, UNC-Charlotte, Duke, NC State, Coastal Carolina, Campbell, and South Carolina all have very strong programs that have ranked high in NCAA Division 1 rankings in recent years and have churned out MLS-ready talent that has been selected in the MLS SuperDraft in past years. It's not a stretch to imagine Charlotte FC looking to draft and sign players from the region in the near future and beyond. The level of talent is clearly there, and for the player, it's an easier transition from college to stay in the area or region you've been living in or even grew up in.
For Charlotte FC, they are penciled in as selecting first overall in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft. This is one benefit of starting in 2022, instead of 2021, as there was no guarantee of that top spot if they had entered the League at the same time as Austin FC. It's pretty simple that Charlotte FC will have the option of selecting the top eligible player or to trade the top pick for another asset. Hopefully, the NCAA will be able to hold a season in 2021, both to give players some run and to give Charlotte FC the opportunity to have some fresh scouting of players ahead of the draft. In 2020 only the ACC took the field, so selection in this year's draft is a bit more challenging than in other years, with teams having to rely largely on past scouting.
After Thursday's draft, Charlotte FC will officially be on the clock with the next pick in the SuperDraft. I would venture to guess that the team will be targeting defenders and attackers with the top pick considering the midfield signings we have already made, but that's purely speculation. Projecting who the team will select at this time is more like looking through minttinted binoculars than glasses, but we can try anyways. Some of the top-rated players who may be eligible in next year's draft include defenders Carlo Ritaccio from Akron and Moses Mensah from Campbell, as well as forwards Milo Yosef from Marshall and Jack Lynn from Notre Dame. In the midfield, there are two players from Pitt that should be closely scouted, Valentin Noel and Veljko Petkovic. Another name to keep an eye on is 2019 Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year, midfielder Omar Hernandez who is at Wake Forest. We can all have a good chuckle next year when none of these players are drafted at all. Regardless, this time next year, we should have a pretty good idea who Charlotte FC will be targeting to add as our first ever SuperDraft pick heading into our inaugural season.