The world has changed mightily since the first ever MLS College Draft was held in 1996. So too has the significance of the draft, which was renamed the MLS SuperDraft in 2000, and, for 2021, is the MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas. In the earliest years of MLS, it provided a pivotal supply chain of young players each year for the embryonic MLS clubs, and provided the surest path to a professional career for the top American collegiate talent. As Austin FC approaches their inaugural SuperDraft, the landscape of MLS team building has changed rather dramatically, particularly in the last decade. But the draft still provides value, and occasionally some surprises.
For a recent example of a draft that exceeded expectations, take a look at what expansion team Atlanta United did in 2017. With a similar first-round pick to Austin FC (picks number 2 and 8) they first of all snagged defender Miles Robinson, then landed midfielder Julian Gressel. While Robinson took a couple of years to flourish, Gressel slotted in immediately and became a big part of what the Five Stripes did under Tata Martino. And Gressel was part of an increasing trend; International players coming to MLS through college soccer. Three of the top four ranked players in this year's draft (Philip Mayaka, Calvin Harris and Ed Kizza) are internationals.
There is already significant institutional firsthand knowledge of the draft in Austin. Seven of the 17 players already signed started their professional careers by sitting nervously on draft day wondering which MLS teams, if any, would pick them. Matt Besler is the most accomplished, taken eighth overall by his hometown Kansas City in 2009. What a year that proved to be for defenders as Omar Gonzalez and Rodney Wallace both went in the first round too. Meanwhile, FC Dallas took Peri Marosevic at five. Who? Exactly! And a reminder that there are far more misses than hits in this process.
Two of Austin FC’s three goalkeepers (Brad Stuver and Andrew Tarbell) also emerged through the draft, as did Hector Jiménez and Ben Sweat. The most recent college-to-pro trips were taken by Jared Stroud and Jon Gallagher, and the 24-year-olds highlight another path the draft often produces. 2018 saw Gallagher taken 14th overall (again by Atlanta) and Stroud 83rd (by the NY Red Bulls after four teams had passed altogether on picks). Both players then spent two years with their clubs’ second teams before breaking through with the first team in their third years as pros. Sometimes, it takes time. But perseverance and patience can pay off.
Davy Arnaud knows that all too well. Austin’s assistant coach was taken 50th overall in the fifth round as a virtual unknown out of West Texas A & M in 2002. Kansas City were patient and nurturing as Arnaud barely saw the field in his first year and a half. All that changed in 2004 when Davy delivered big time. He started every game that year as KC won the West and the Open Cup. He notched nine goals and 10 assists playing alongside....none other than our Head Coach Josh Wolff who himself had emerged from college soccer six years prior.
“Every player has a different path," said Wolff. “There are always different factors involved. I was taken by Bob Bradley in Chicago then immediately loaned out. I didn’t even see the Fire first team again until May or June that first year. At some point, though, you have to demonstrate what you are capable of, and demonstrate that you belong. It can be a challenging adjustment, but it’s our job to find players who can adjust, then to help them make that adjustment."
Yes, times have changed, dramatically, but the need to identify, procure and develop talent has not. There are so many more avenues open to MLS clubs now, including the resounding success of clubs' own youth academies. There aren’t too many Clint Dempseys waiting to be snagged in the draft (taken eighth in 2004 by New England after Dallas had taken two other players ahead of him). But the college ranks can still provide. This year of all years, it will be particularly challenging given how little college soccer was actually played in 2020. But if there is a gem out there waiting to be discovered, and then polished, Austin FC have the right people, processes and plan in place to be able to dig one out.