Armchair Analyst: Academies, college soccer and a new path for young talent

Welcome back to the Thursday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic – today's being 24 Under 24 and the SuperDraft – and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.

We all know about Jordan Morris already, right? The Stanford junior has scored goals for the USMNT, the US U-23s, and the Cardinal, and he's a Seattle Homegrown and is widely regarded as the best pro prospect playing college ball right now. I think he's very good, and has flashed the potential to become more than that.

There are, of course, more Jordan Morrises in the pipeline -- kids who have been in MLS academies since they were tweens, guys who've been instructed by pros for most of their lives, players coached to learn a specific skillset or system with the idea of transferring that type of learning "up" through the ranks of their various age-groups, then into USL, MLS and beyond. Teams are doing a better job now of "making" players, rather than relying upon an inefficient system to "find" talent. This is a relatively new concept for MLS, and the early returns are promising.

This is also why I think the future of the league is so promising. Up to now, US players have improved over the decades in spite of, rather than because of, our systemic training and infrastructure. Reversing that is the best way to close the gap on the dozen or so leagues around the world that are, frankly, better than MLS right now, and as a result we've seen a decreasing reliance upon the annual SuperDraft for the acquisition of talent. Teams are building from within or targeting better, younger foreign players. Fabian Castillo, Lucas Melano, and basically the entire Vancouver Whitecaps roster come to mind.

Year % of Minutes by Drafted Players
2010 57.96%
2011 60.80%
2012 54.55%
2013 43.62%
2014 38.40%
2015 36.11%

A good way to understand this shift is by looking at the percentage of minutes played by kids who've come out of the draft in each year's 24 Under 24 list, which is in the table to the right (thanks to Ben Baer for crunching the numbers).

Now, there is the occasional Joao Plata or Kekuta Manneh who comes through the draft without ever playing college ball. But by-and-large those numbers to the right are a proxy for "American and a few Canadian kids who came up through the traditional North American system," and we can see tangible progress in moving elite young players away from that path.

But that doesn't mean college soccer and/or the SuperDraft will ever truly go away. The US and Canada are big places, and even as the top three leagues in the pyramid expand, there will never be the level of talent coverage that, say, Argentina gets.

Kids will fall through the cracks, and kids who fall through the cracks will go to college, and kids who -- like Morris -- really want an education will go to college, and it's important to understand that kids who go to college are not doomed to perpetual mediocrity. Clint Dempsey went to college, and Claudio Reyna went to college, and those are two of the three best field players the US has ever produced.

Morris won't be drafted, but he's hardly the only elite prospect playing NCAA ball right now. Abu Danladi of UCLA is, by the reckoning of a few scouts I've talked to, a better forward prospect in the long term. Michael Amick, also down in Westwood, is projected by some to be a Matt Besler-esque defender on the next level (though he may turn out to be more of a fullback). Then there's Oregon State's Timmy Mueller, who was Pac 12 freshman of the year last season, and PDL Young Player of the Year this summer, and has four goals in five games for the unbeaten Beavers already as a sophomore. Maybe he's not mobile enough (I strongly dispute that analysis, by the way -- Mueller is cat-quick over 10 yards), or maybe he's the next Alan Gordon. Maybe he'll be even better?

That's just scratching the surface of the talent available in one conference. Go across the country and you'll find Omar Holness, a full Jamaican international, running midfield for UNC, or Michael Gamble pulling the strings as a true No. 10 for Wake Forest. That Panamanian U-20 team that played so well in this spring's Youth World Cup? A couple of those guys are playing college ball, which means a couple of those guys will be available via the SuperDraft at some point.

And let's not forget about the path the likes of Dom Dwyer, Andy Rose and Luke Mulholland forged for Englishmen. BBC.com had a long article on this earlier in the week, and it's worth a read.

None of this is a bad thing. The "bad thing" was reliance upon the SuperDraft as the primary mechanism for acquisition of young talent, and college as the primary shaper of the same. That was reality for the first 15 years of the league's existence, and today it no longer is (hooray!).

The "bad thing" now would be dismissing the efficacy of the draft as an acquisition tool and college as a developmental tool all together. Morris isn't the only academy kid who will benefit from his college years (though 3 may be one year too many); Danladi isn't be the only immigrant who improves his personal and professional future by matriculating; and Mueller isn't the only talent from the middle of nowhere -- hundreds of miles from any sort of pro set-up -- who will jump into the pool and thrive against his peers.

Ok folks, thanks for helping me kill another Thursday!

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