Among my purist friends, there was a haughty combination of despair and disgust. An MLS SuperDraft? What is that? Certainly not a footie thing. Players are never “drafted”, like cattle to an abattoir. They are “acquired” in the time tested tradition; Moments after exiting their mother’s womb, they are tagged, weighed, measured and sold for top dollar to a multinational corporation – I mean football organization – where they will be spoon fed the club’s ethos until they emerge, years later, as either top flight players with accents unintelligible to their “birth parents” and haircuts that defy the laws of physics, or are distributed around the world as some sort of top league roadkill. A draft? After university? Good lord how barbaric.
On the other end of the spectrum were the casual fans who fill my inbox and my twitter and facebook feeds and who were shocked that MLS had such a thing. “How did you think players got into the league?” I asked them. They shrugged. “I figured they just sorta showed up outside the stadium on gameday. Except for NYCFC who flies them over first class from their secret lab in Europe on a special invisible Etihad jet.”
And then there were, somewhere in the middle, the real fans of our league who said “Sure, the MLS SuperDraft is comparatively deep this year, but the drop-off is always pretty steep and really, six months from now, how many of those kids who hear their names called are going to be on a pitch? Look at last year. Top pick (and eventual Rookie of the Year) Cyle Larin played over 1900 minutes. Second pick, was NYCFC’s Khiry Shelton – 824 minutes. Third pick? The Impact’s Romario Williams – 7 minutes. The third pick played 7 minutes!” (Sure, but the 4th pick, San Jose’s Fatai Alashe played over 2300, and Matt Polster at #7 played more than that. But point taken – a first round pick in MLS is not a guarantee of playing time, or even that you’ll make the team).
Okay, so the MLS SuperDraft, like much in the league, has some issues.
But here’s the thing: it’s really great. Really.
Yes it’s weird and sometimes a little unwieldy and maybe at times a little preposterous, but it would be a shame if it went away, and here’s why:
It’s that terrific combination of what MLS is and what it hopes to become.
On the one hand, you’ve got all the trappings and set decoration of a “Big Four” draft. The stage, the photo area, the press tables, the Commissioner everyone loves to boo, the clock ticking down the moments until the Vikings screw up their pick (sorry, wrong draft). All the things that any American sports fan can easily point to and say “Hey! I know what THAT is!”
But on the other hand, you’ve also got the non-Big Four stuff that still makes MLS endearing. Like the supporters groups wrapped in flags and squaring off in the lobbies, fan areas, men’s rooms, parking garages – well, everywhere actually. (Indeed, one of the worrisome things about next year’s MLS SuperDraft in Los Angeles is that it won’t have the geographical bounty that Baltimore – and before it, Philadelphia – have. At both locations you had substantial supporter representation from four teams. Do we really think folks are gonna drive down from San Jose, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver to join the Riot Squad?)
And you’ve got the incredible accessibility that is still, by and large, a distinguishing characteristic of MLS. You’ve got the draftees wearing the scarves of their new employers, meeting their new fans in the convention center, on the street, in the local public houses. Hell, you’ve got their parents there, sharing drinks with you at the bar.
You’ve got college coaches trading stories, and beat reporters reconnecting, and fans from all the teams gathering during the dark days of the off-season to talk, eat, drink, shout and laugh about the game they love.
I have heard from multiple sources that next year’s MLS SuperDraft may be the last one. And while there are many logical reasons for that, it would be a shame. MLS needs an event like this in the off-season. An event when fans and players and administration and front offices can come together and nerd out together.
Hell, it needs more events like this during the season itself, but I’m willing to settle for once every winter.