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Breaking Down The Value Of MLS Drafts

The Philadelphia Union are set with 2 of the top 10 picks and 8 overall picks. But how valuable are these picks? And how have the Union been historically at the SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft?

Ned Dishman

Stats have a way of telling a story regardless of any preconceived notions you might have about something. Back in April I wrote an article for Reckless Challenge that explored the myths and realities surrounding Designated Players. The conventional wisdom of them being primarily older European stars who command huge salaries was incorrect, and that the average DP was a rather young 29 year old from South America making around $880,000 a year. Now it's time to take a look at the MLS SuperDraft and the recently departed Supplemental Draft.

Conventional wisdom also holds that the drafts are a gamble. Any good player worth his salt has already been snapped up by a Mexican or European academy long before he is of age to attend college. Those that are left with talent are picked up as Homegrown Players by MLS clubs, and then what you're left with are Generation Adidas guys and then a crap shoot - guys who at 21 or 22 years of age are too old to be considered prospects by clubs.

But is that correct? While there is no data readily available regarding Americans in foreign academies, the MLS drafts are very well documented. I've taken a look at the drafts starting in 2010 when the Philadelphia Union came into the league. I've researched all 401 picks from the past four drafts and found as much information on them as possible and compiled this into data to try and make sense of the drafts, and what I found was pretty interesting.

  • Out of the 401 picks, 387 players were selected. The remaining 14 picks were passed over by teams - D.C. United (three times); Chivas USA, Los Angeles Galaxy, and Portland Timbers (twice each); Houston Dynamo, Montreal Impact, New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake (once each).
  • Of the 387 players, 251 (65% of the players) are still playing soccer at some level, 130 (34%) aren't playing at any level, 5 (1%) retired from soccer officially, and 1 player (Kirk Urso) has passed on.
  • 13 of the 251 players still playing were released from their MLS clubs. These players are still technically contracted to the league.

This is an interesting point - only about 2/3 of players drafted are still playing soccer on any level. I scoured the internet looking for every player for whom data wasn't readily available. If I can find a player in the American fifth division (USASA) or the 1. deild karla (Icelandic second division), I feel confident that I can find you if you're still playing - yet over 1/3 of the players chosen aren't playing competitively. Some are coaching at various levels. Some have gone on to "normal" jobs.

  • Of the 251 that are still playing, 133 (53%) are still in MLS - by far the largest presence of any league. The second biggest are the 41 (16%) who are in the USL PRO, followed by 20 (8%) in NASL.

Another interesting point. While 59% of those who are still playing soccer are in MLS, they only represent 38% of all players drafted.

  • The largest presence in any foreign league are the 4 players (Bryan Meredith, Charlie Campbell, Dan Keat,and Taylor Morgan - 2% of all players still playing) play in the Superettan - Sweden's Second Division.
  • One player drafted since 2010 plays in the English Premier League - Jason Banton was selected 72nd overall (34th in the Supplemental Draft) by the Seattle Sounders in 2012. He was cut during camp, and signed to Crystal Palace after going on trial that summer. He's currently on loan until January 2014 with Milton Keynes Dons in League One.

Interesting that the one player who plays for a team in any of the "Big Four" leagues - England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Germany's Bundesliga, and Italy's Serie A - is a relative unknown. It is noteworthy that Tim Ream, who was drafted by New York Red Bulls and sold to Bolton Wanderers, did play in the Premier League before they were relegated at the end of the 2012-13 EPL season.

So we know that picking players is risky, however roughly 4 out of 10 players remain in MLS. Not terrible odds, especially when you're given 4 chances to pick (and more if you trade your picks). So what teams have been shrewd with the picks they've been given?

  • The teams with the most draft picks still playing in MLS are the Columbus Crew and the Philadelphia Union - each with 13. San Jose Earthquakes is next with 11, followed by Los Angeles and Vancouver Whitecaps FC - each with 10.
  • Teams with the least amount of picks still playing in MLS are Colorado Rapids, D.C. United, and Portland Timbers. Each of those teams still have only 5 picks still left in MLS.
  • The New England Revolution had the most picks over the past 4 years with 27, however came in 13th in percentage of picks still in MLS with 29.63% still in the league. Philadelphia was second in the amount of picks (26) and ranked third in percentage of picks still in MLS (50%). Columbus had the best percentage (56.52%) while Toronto FC and New York Red Bulls tied for worst percentage (26.09%).

This is not surprising - Toronto struggles with player turnover (34 different players played for TFC during the 2013 season) and New York tends to acquire players through trades, free agency, and DP signings while Columbus and Philadelphia have rosters flush with players who are products of the draft. 73.91% of the Union's players who saw minutes in 2013 were drafted, while 35.29% of Toronto's players who saw minutes in 2013 and only 25.93% of New York's players who saw minutes in 2013 came through the MLS Draft. It is worth noting, however, that New York does have 3 Homegrown Players while Toronto also has 3 Homegrown Players and a player who was signed to a development contract who saw minutes last season. So it seems the Union's strategy is to build through the draft, which when 1/2 of your picks still play in MLS (well above the MLS average of 37%) isn't a bad strategy.

Except we're forgetting one key component of the draft - the managers who select the players.

  • Three of the four best managers (statistically speaking) at drafting over the past four years are no longer managing in MLS - and the only one currently managing was just hired in October. The manager with the best percentage of draft picks still playing in MLS? Ex-Union boss Peter Nowak. 11 of Nowak's 19 (57.89%) draft picks are still playing in MLS. Teitur Thordarson (57.14%), Robert Warzycha (56.52%), and then new Chicago Fire boss Frank Yallop (55.00%) have done the best over the past 4 drafts.
  • On the other end of the spectrum with no players drafted still playing in MLS are Caleb Porter, Curt Onalfo, and Preki. Between the three of them they had 8 picks - none of which are still in MLS.
  • Current Union boss John Hackworth is tied for 22nd overall with 28.57% of his picks still in MLS.

So what does it all mean? This year's MLS SuperDraft can be a good way for a team to pick up players - if the team has a manager that knows what he's doing. That being said, success in the draft doesn't always ensure a team - or a manager's - success at a club.