No one has asked me to follow up on my annual SuperDraft in Review - Five Years On, and maybe I should take the hint. Then again, every year, more and more people travel to a convention center to watch their commissioner call up a few good young players to a stage, have them try on a hat or a scarf or (if the team was scary prepared) a jersey, and send them off into, for the most part, obscurity cut short by injury.
This is happening in every American sport, not just MLS, and it baffles and confuses me. I almost - almost - understand why the NFL draft has become a spectator sport, because both pro and college gridiron are insanely popular. Where the college sport is less popular - like, hockey and baseball - maybe, just maybe, you're finding out whether your team gets some laughably overhyped prospect or not.
As for people who went out of their way to attend the SuperDraft as a fan? Well, history says you're getting excited about guys who are getting cut in a month or two. I've been looking at these drafts for a minute or two now, and here's what you get: a couple of painful misses in the first round due to bad luck or stupidity, a couple of jaw-dropping bonanzas in the last two rounds based on good luck or insight, and a bunch of college soccer players.
Let's look at the 2008 SuperDraft anyway, because even now, some of this is still illuminating. Also, it would be a shame not to salute the Wikipedist who put in some drolleries in the footnotes. Here is the last draft of MLS 1.0, broken down (literally in most cases) by team:
KANSAS CITY: Chance Myers, Roger Espinoza, Yomby William, Jonathan Leathers, Matt Marquess, Rauwshan McKenzie. Wanna know how the SuperDraft compares in the grand scheme of things? The Wizards got multiple quality seasons out of three of these guys. That's an A. Was Myers the best possible pick? Nope, which brings this down from an A+. Finally, with Myers I have backup for taking five years to judge a draft - see how useful he got?
I see you're skeptical that SuperDrafts are the MLS equivalent of panning for gold in your bathtub. Fine, keep reading.
DALLAS: Brek Shea, Josh Lambo, Eric Avila, Jamil Roberts, Ben Nason. If I had waited four years instead of five, this would have been an A++. I think we'll all be watching Brek Shea extremely closely this year, for a lot of reasons. A
SALT LAKE: Tony Beltran, David Horst, Alex Nimo, Brennan Tennelle. This was the draft of a team that, starting this year, became a perennial contender. Because Beltran went on to be a starter for the club that drafted him, I have to give Salt Lake a good solid B.
LOS ANGELES: Sean Franklin, Ely Allen, Julian Valentin, Matt Allen, Brandon McDonald, Matt Hatzke. Keep in mind I'm Sean Franklin's biggest fan. Also keep in mind he's the only one on this list who has played ninety minutes on two MLS Cup champions (and was damn near MVP for MLS Cup 2011). Maybe it's irrational to rate him ahead of Shea, but it's not insane. Is it? A
COLORADO: Ciaran O'Brien, Adrian Chevanne, Brian Grazier, Scott Campbell. This was the draft of a team two years away from winning MLS Cup. O'Brien injured Carlos Ruiz in his first game, and hasn't played an MLS game since. Despite that, this is still an F.
COLUMBUS: Andy Iro, George Josten, Ricardo Pierre-Louis, Ryan Miller, Steven Lenhart. This was the draft of a team that won the double that season. Boy, I really thought Iro was going to be a force in this league. Lenhart was one of the two big surprises of this draft, picked in the fourth round. But it took the genius of Frank Yallop to make him the complete player he is today. B-
CHICAGO: Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Cervi, Peter Lowry, Dwight Barnett, Stephen King, Austin Washington. Cervi went on to...whatever it was he ended up doing. He was in the national team pool for a hot minute, did we ever figure out why that was? Lowry and King are currently available, after bouncing around various teams. Nyarko is one of the few players here where the jury is still out, kinda. Since we have to judge right now, and since Nyarko's career scoring total is roughly that of a good two months for Chris Wondolowski, we have to give this a B-.
TORONTO: Julius James, Pat Phelan, Brian Edwards, Mike Zaher, Joseph Lapira. They worked hard this draft to get these guys, too. F, considering James and Phelan were both first-rounders.
NEW ENGLAND: Rob Valentino, Michael Videira, Joe Germanese, Matt Britner, Spencer Wadsworth. Jesus. F
SAN JOSE: Shea Salinas. The first draft of the current version of the Earthquakes. They traded the number one pick overall for Nick Garcia, and their third round pick to get Frank Yallop from LA. In retrospect, they could have gotten both way cheaper, but unlike certain other teams, I think the Quakes are happy with the coach they drafted. B
NEW YORK: Eric Brunner, Luke Sassano, David Roth. I remember thinking Sassano was going to be really, really good. I think it's because he, like Andy Iro, was on a team that made MLS Cup, and got significant playing time in 2008. Brunner is currently part of the Houston roster, after failing to sign with New York because the Red Bulls preferred Andrew Boyens. Which was, you have to admit, very Red Bulls of them. Oh, and they gave up their first round pick to Chicago in exchange for the guy they thought would be a better coach than Bruce Arena. So, if the world had ended in November 2008, this would have been a pretty good draft. F
DC UNITED: Andrew Jacobson, Ryan Cordeiro, Tony Schmitz. Jacobson plays for Dallas these days, after rejecting DC United to try his luck in Europe. Which is the sort of thing you should know a player is planning to do before you waste a pick on him, if'n you ask me. F
HOUSTON: Geoff Cameron, Jeremy Barlow. This is why the SuperDraft can help you, if you use it intelligently. Cameron was the last pick of the third round, but was Houston's first pick of this year's draft. The other thirteen teams thought 75% of the names you've read so far were better bets than Cameron. (Lenhart was still on the board, by the way.) Not exactly mystifying why Kinnear's teams play the last game of the year so much, is it? A+
CHIVAS USA: Keith Savage. Preki mostly peddled his picks to get Paulo Nagamura, Alex Zotinca and Atiba Harris during the course of 2007, so this was never going to be a terribly interesting day for CUSA. Savage was the pick immediately after Cameron - so, gee, they could have had Steven Lenhart, too. Nagamura, Zotinca and Harris all contributed, which put them ahead of most draft picks this year. D
What I should have been doing all these years is comparing the success rate of MLS drafts with those from more established American leagues. Because other leagues do not have significant competition abroad, and because other leagues have thoroughly scouted semi-professional minor leagues, you would expect the importance of the draft elsewhere to be much greater...and you'd be right. The majority of first round picks in the 2008 NBA draft are still in the league; the top five picks were Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. Out of the top ten picks of the 2008 NFL draft, only three aren't still with the teams who drafted them...and two of those are explained by those teams being the Jets and Bengals.
But even the Jets and Bengals don't have the kind of washout rate suffered by MLS teams. It's not because MLS front offices and coaching staffs are manned by Epsilons - there are plenty of reasons why the end results have been all bark and no tree. There's so much more to scout in the soccer world outside the NCAA...most of whom aren't limited in practice time or play according to wackadoodle rules and regulations. College soccer games aren't televised to nearly the degree that NCAA football and basketball are, and MLS teams aren't nearly funded adequately to field the kind of scouting network that could either watch enough tape or attend enough games. The very best college players can plausibly threaten to take their talents to Europe...where, in fairness, they routinely crash and burn, but that's still talent that MLS can't, for want of a less accurate word, exploit. And there are quicker and more reliable ways to build an MLS roster - Salt Lake signed a bunch of international stars below the Designated Player rate, for example. And Colorado's Cup was won largely through players from other teams - the best place to scout for MLS is probably MLS. You never know when someone's going to decide out of nowhere to put Jeff Larentowicz on the market, for example.
The craft of building an MLS franchise is dark and treacherous - you know those idiot MLS coaches who didn't think Herculez Gomez was good enough for their team? Sigi Schmid, Frank Yallop, Gary Smith, Peter Vermes. Five MLS Cups between them, plus a passel of minor trophies.
The league will keep marketing the SuperDraft, of course, because it's January, and there's a soccer convention anyway, and drafts are as easy to grasp for the American sporting public as they are murky for MLS teams and incomprehensible for international fans. But you have absolutely no reason to be excited about your team's draft until Rookie of the Year award time rolls around - and sometimes, not even then.
As far as wanting to watch the proceedings - not everything about American soccer should be televised. Speaking of which, isn't it just about January national team friendly time?