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Roster moves signal shift in player acquisition philosophy

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The bulk of minutes played in 2018 for the Philadelphia Union still went to players who first entered the league via the SuperDraft but the number is trending downward

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

If you look over the list of the players the Philadelphia Union either has declined options for or who currently are not on the 2019 first team or Bethlehem Steel FC roster, there is a noticeable quality nearly all of them share.

All but four of the 17 players who are out of contract and haven’t been mentioned by the club as negotiating new contracts (Fabinho with the first team, James Chambers, Matt Mahoney and Drew Skundrich with Steel) entered professional soccer through the MLS SuperDraft. Eight of those 14 former SuperDraft players were drafted by the Philadelphia Union.

As the first team roster currently stands, just four of the 17 players on the squad for 2019 (Andre Blake, CJ Sapong, Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Elliott) were drafted into the league. Eleven of the 30 players rostered in 2018 met this criteria, but playing time for many of the former draft picks proved illusive, particularly for center backs Josh Yaro and Richie Marquez who didn’t play a single first team minute all season.

All told, 40 percent of the minutes played in 2018 were earned by players brought into the league via amateur draft, which was a new low for the team after having just under 42 percent of minutes earned by drafted players in 2015.

Philadelphia Union Minutes for Drafted Players

Season Total Minutes SuperDraft Minutes Percentage
Season Total Minutes SuperDraft Minutes Percentage
2010 29434 17427 59.21%
2011 33586 18088 53.86%
2012 33571 22144 65.96%
2013 33640 25031 74.41%
2014 33637 17237 51.24%
2015 33568 13970 41.62%
2016 33554 21304 63.49%
2017 33585 17082 50.86%
2018 33485 13510 40.35%
Total 298060 165793 55.62%

One reason for this shift from more than half of the minutes in 2017 and 63 percent in 2016 was certainly the emergence of homegrown center backs Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie, but homegrown minutes still only represented 16 percent of the total minutes played.

Players who first entered MLS through the international market, even ones like Alejandro Bedoya who played college soccer in the U.S. but went to Europe instead of going into the draft, earned 39 percent of the minutes in 2018. The other five percent of minutes earned came from non-homegrown players (Cory Burke, John McCarthy and Olivier Mbaizo) who either went undrafted out of college and made their way to MLS via USL or were initially signed to USL deals before earning first team contracts in MLS.

While overall the drafted players still had the edge in minutes this past season, this number should shrink even more next season as homegrown and international player minutes presumably increase. New Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has said that he wants to focus development on players ages 16-21, which sounds like it will mean a notable decrease in minutes for players coming via the SuperDraft in both the first team and with Bethlehem Steel.

This is all understandable and makes a lot of sense for an organization like the Union that has gone all in on its academy. Increased recruiting by MLS academies to areas without an MLS presence and talk of territory rules being relaxed means teams will look even less to the draft as a mechanism for filling a first team roster moving forward. This is good news for teams and players in the long run, provided the opportunities are there for players to earn the low or no cost college degrees they are passing up to become professionals in their teens and have a solid backup plan.

As the recent early retirement of Chicago Fire defender Brandon Vincent illustrates, it’s much easier to walk away from pro soccer on your own terms when you have the earning potential of a Stanford degree. As it is, many of those players the Union trimmed from their organization with their recent roster moves are at worst only a few classes shy of finishing their college degrees if they in fact don’t return to the Union or pop up on another team or in another league next season.