It was January 17, 2003 in Kansas City, and Bob Bradley was rebuilding the MetroStars. He'd moved to that club – which was something of a punchline at the time for their inability to build any sort of consistency and a lack of emphasis on institutional memory – after five hugely successful years in charge of the Chicago Fire.
Bradley had a plan: He was going to build a young, dynamic, attacking team that would do work on both sides of the ball. They weren't going to invest in the likes of Branco or Lothar Matthaus anymore, but rather they'd find affordable Latin American talent and high-upside US talent. The first part of that haul would come through the usual methods (or what passes for "usual" in MLS, anyway) while the second would come largely through the SuperDraft.
The MetroStars had three of the top 12 picks. They took a future USMNT regular (Ricardo Clark) at No. 2, a future league MVP (Mike Magee) at No. 4, and the youngest player ever to make a Best XI (Eddie Gaven) at No. 12. It is, to this day, the best SuperDraft haul in league history, and will probably remain so for time immemorial.
It is more difficult to build through the SuperDraft in this day and age because of math. Gaven, at pick No. 12, was a second-rounder back in 2003, and on Friday the second round will begin with pick 23. Teams simply don't have as many swings at top prospects as they did 15 years ago, so you have fewer chances to add difference-makers or even roster-building part-time contributors.
Thus, GMs have to – for lack of a better description – diversify their acquisition portfolios. Homegrown signings are clearly the wave of the future, and teams have obviously doubled- and tripled-down on Latin American scouting over the last few years. The Dutch Eredivisie has suddenly become a fertile shopping ground, with talented attackers like Roland Alberg, Michael De Leeuw and Albert Rusnak all coming into the league in the past 12 months. And instead of young North Americans spurning MLS for Scandinavian leagues, it's mostly been the other way around this decade. This is all progress.
This progress hasn't, however, made the SuperDraft obsolete:
- Four of this past year's Best XI were acquired via the draft, and three of them are still with the team that chose them.
- The 2015 SuperDraft didn't just give us the likes of Cyle Larin, Khiry Shelton and Fatai Alashe at the top of the first round, but also guys like Saad Abdul-Salaam, Tim Parker, Axel Sjoberg and Cristian Roldan in the teens.
- Toronto FC just produced the best defensive performance in MLS Cup history with a back five and d-mid all that all came to the league via the Draft (though only one was picked by TFC).
The idea that there's no longer talent to be found in the SuperDraft is, on the face of it, false. The 2014 SuperDraft was arguably even better than 2015, and early returns on 2016 have me optimistic it can be the best of the three. I think, if you look at any three-year SuperDraft haul in league history, 2014-16 actually produced the most talent.
There is a kernel of truth to the falsehood, though: A second-round pick in 2017 is significantly less valuable than it was in 2003. Again, simple math is the explanation there.
Even that is evolving, though, and it's because of the USL initiative. In the second round of last year's draft the Seattle Sounders took defender Tony Alfaro and midfielder Zach Mathers. Alfaro made the team and played a half-dozen games in MLS, along with 20 in USL. He wasn't ready to walk into the starting lineup, but because of those diverse acquisition portfolios I mentioned above, he didn't really have to.
Now last year's second round pick enters his second season as a pro probably at No. 3 on the depth chart in central defense for the MLS Cup champions. I defy you to tell me that's not a valuable pick.
Mathers is taking a different route. He didn't make the full MLS team, but he was a regular for S2 and a rock in central midfield last year and now, this year, GM Garth Lagerwey has said he'll be brought into preseason and have a legitimate shot at making the 28-man MLS roster. Six players have signed from USL affiliates into MLS first teams already this winter.
If Mathers becomes No. 7, it's a good story and good depth. If he doesn't, he still serves a real purpose for this reason: Mathers is now an experienced pro who's playing for a paycheck. Whoever the next big thing coming through the Sounders academy happens to be – the next DeAndre Yedlin or Jordan Morris – will be playing against Mathers in S2 every day in practice and trying to take his job. That is a very different reality than what talented youth players faced even five years ago, let alone 10 or 15, and is the kind of professional crucible US and Canadian soccer has long lacked.
Mathers and picks like him may not be particularly likely to play huge MLS minutes, and they certainly won't be the final boss a top-tier talent will have to face. But smart teams can use guys like that to forge the next generation of Homegrowns, making sure they're ready at 18 instead of 21.
This is also progress, and the Draft remains essential to building a franchise at all levels. Don't believe lazy narratives that say different.