In the past few years, MLS and its 19 clubs invested more in developing youth players, but the existing MLS Draft order defies that progress and actually hinders the professional development of the very top college prospects.
The draft order is a relatively painless rule to change and one that would continue to enhance player development in the U.S. without remarkably negative consequences for clubs at the lower end of the table.
The MLS college draft serves up the nation's top young players by order of its worst performing clubs up to the best, which only gets the 19th pick. Under this policy, consistently poorly performing clubs such as Toronto FC and Chivas USA get the nations' best and in that way, the draft order supposedly helps maintain parity in MLS.
However, the top prospects not only have to deal with the new physical challenges of the pro game and personal responsibility as a kid just out of college, but learn to play on a team that's used to losing and deal with the off-field issues that dog failing clubs.
Draft order and parity
First, it's highly unlikely that one college prospect can seriously impact a team with an inadequate roster, questionable management and history of failure. The logic that weighs the budding career of a young player against a team legacy of gloom is fantasy at best, a tiny band-aid on a gaping wound. Although a top pick might temporarily lift the spirits of fans, they only have to review previous seasons' results and draft picks to know that it really won't make a difference.
Moreover, the top talent that has been nurtured and invested in by development clubs and Division 1 colleges is now thrown to the bottom of the pile in an environment not conducive to the best development. Yes, the college prospect will get a lot of playing time, but with it an overworked body, questionable playing habits and a hard introduction to the adult professional game.
There's a tendency to consider draft picks as "right out of the box" or "ready to go," but in reality, the rookie year is a loaded development year full of hard lessons, both physical and mental. The rookie is no longer coddled by a wealthy university invested in making him healthy, well-educated and successful, and is instead surrounded by grown men with families and mortgages and much more at stake than he has.
"There’s an unwritten rule that everything that goes wrong on the field is usually a rookie’s problem," Columbus Crew technical director Brian Bliss told me. "The older players tend to be able to vent their frustrations during the game at a younger player who makes a mistake as opposed to an older player.
At a certain point a [rookie] hits the wall. Some players hit the wall at 10 games, some players hit it at 16 games, some hit it at 20."
For Bliss, the best place for a rookie is in the reserve league, with carefully selected first team games to develop the player professionally without severe consequences, and not as a regular starter. The rookie season is a critical year in player development and not all top picks survive and thrive. It makes no sense for MLS not to give these young stars the best opportunities by sending them to the most successful MLS clubs getting good results under strong management, so they can learn how to succeed in the pro game.
Meanwhile, the poorly-performing clubs are required to do nothing to develop the young star as well as the better clubs. Instead, the few carefully-nurtured U.S. talents are used as leverage in a corporate parity game instead of continuing their development at the professional level to help them excel in MLS and internationally. Essentially, the draft order weighs a shaky example of corporate equity over U.S. player development and it's holding back development of the top U.S. players.