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MLS Draft warnings, caveats and context: Looking at those 2010 top selections

Jan 14, 2013, 12:45 PM EDT

Portland Timbers v San Jose Earthquakes Getty Images

Denizens of the American sports scene recognize the imprecise nature of drafting college talent. Clearly it’s more art than science – otherwise, we would not have the notorious Jordan Oversight to consider:

Michael Jordan was selected No. 3 in the 1984 draft, but went on to more or less rule the kingdom with Chicago, claiming six NBA championships and 10 scoring titles as perhaps the game’s all-time all-timer. Ahem … No. 3.

So if elements as studied, filtered and fretted over as the NBA draft or the NFL draft cannot be folded into something more predictable, does the lesser known world of domestic soccer draft eligibles really stand a chance?

We don’t have to go much further than 2010, exactly three years ago, to see the imperfection at work. (Today is the exact anniversary of the 2010 MLS draft, so it seemed handy to start here.)

The top three picks were Danny Mwanga (pictured),Tony Tchani and Ike Opara. If you built a team around those three today – a forward, a midfielder and a defender now ostensibly be growing into their veteran leadership years – you might have something that looked like Toronto FC last year.

Note, if you will, that Toronto FC is picking first in 2013. There’s a reason: TFC was awful in 2012.

This is not to pick on Mwanga, Tchani and Opara, each of whom has struggled for reasons not entirely of their own creation. None of them are bad players – but they are walking, talking illustrations of the difficulty inherent in this process. Because they simply have not been what we might have reasonably expected of the top draft trio; shouldn’t one of the top three draft picks be strutting into star territory?

Rather, the trio’s combined average starts over three MLS seasons stands at an underwhelming 12.

Tchani launched his pro career in New York before moving to Toronto and then Columbus; all totaled he has 45 starts in three seasons.

New York was a tough place to start, as then-manager Hans Backe quickly assessed that products of the American system “are just missing something,” he once told me, unable to place exactly what, but probably referring to that extra little sixth sense of the game. It is probably the same something that Jurgen Klinsmann famously assessed was missing when Ghana dismissed the United States from World Cup 2010.

(MORE: a quickie MLS draft primer)

Backe once, somewhat infamously, I suppose, imposed a temporary rule in practice demanding that Tchani passed balls forward rather than backward or laterally. Clearly, the manager was something this side of impressed.

Tchani was traded to Toronto, where almost no one succeeds. Since then he’s moved to Columbus, where the central midfielder is a polarizing figure for fans around Crew Stadium. Again, he’s not a bad player – he’s just not storming the castles of success, either.

Opara has started even few games over three years (22), although some of that is down to injury misfortune. Either way, San Jose just let him go, and Opara – once seen as a shoe-in as the next great U.S. center back – now hopes to provide depth along Sporting Kansas City’s back line.

The circumstances around Mwanga, who has 42 starts, are even more muddy and tangled.  He was the Union’s original draft pick, taken No. 1 by the expansion club that day in Philadelphia – coincidentally, the draft was held right there in Philly. And he looked like a “can’t miss” type.

Well, he missed. Or the system missed. Or his deteriorating relationship with former Union manager Peter Nowak missed. Or something.

Bottom line here:  when a “can’t miss” No. 1 overall draft pick moves to Portland for Jorge Perlaza and allocation money, something has gone badly wrong.

Or, maybe we just say it again: it’s all more art than science.

By the way, the Nos. 4 and 5 draft picks that day in 2010, Teal Bunbury and Zach Loyd, have combined for seven full international appearances. That’s seven more than the combined number for the three men chosen above them with far greater acclaim on draft day exactly three years ago.

  1. tylerbetts - Jan 14, 2013 at 2:17 PM

    I think MLS is much closer to the NFL draft than to the NBA draft. For MLS and NFL, it’s not just about finding the right talent, but also the right fit for the system you want to run. That’s why those teams with good organization consistency who know what they want year-to-year do well drafting (in the NFL, think about Pittsburgh and New England, in MLS, I think about Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, or Seattle). In the NBA, that’s less true. Lebron James is going to be Lebron James no matter where he goes or what system he’s in. For MLS, it’s no wonder to see sides that are always in churn (Toronto, Chivas, RBNY) not only picking high, but not doing well with those draft picks. When you change managers and philosophies as often as my wife changes her shoes, you’re not going to have the foundation to draft well. Especially in a league with all the salary and player movement rules that MLS has.

    • wesbadia - Jan 14, 2013 at 4:21 PM

      I’d even argue that teams like RSL, LAG, and Seattle have consistently drafted poorly, especially as of late. The only exceptions would be Seattle’s Andy Rose (which was actually picked by RSL and traded for the rights to Leone Cruz, if I’m not mistaken).

      But you look at who RSL drafted last year (Martinez, de Alemeida, Velasquez, Rose, Bonfigli, Kupe), only two are still with the team after a single season, one of which has only debuted for the reserve league (Martinez). The same is true with Seattle’s picks (Duran, Sodade, Pontius, Banton, Aman, Feighner) and LAG (Meyer, Walker, Garcia, Gorentzvaig, Posa, Davies). Where are these guys now? Most aren’t in MLS, if even in American soccer at all.

      This is obviously just from last year, but I think it’s evident of all previous drafts. They’re hit or miss… big time. Sometimes you get a player that can contribute; most times you get duds that aren’t equipped to play at the MLS level, and end up filtering down through the pyramid to lower divisions, or end up going abroad to lesser leagues.

      If even the top clubs are unable to be consistently successful at the draft, what’s this saying?

      • wesbadia - Jan 14, 2013 at 4:22 PM

        I forgot to add Tommy Meyer to exceptions.

    • Steve Davis - Jan 14, 2013 at 5:43 PM

      We’ll get into some of this as the week goes on. Which teams tend to do well, etc.

  2. charliej11 - Jan 14, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    Not disagreeing with your overall message, but……

    Come on, so Tchani, Opera, and Mwanga are in their verteran leadership years at the start of their third years after leaving college early ( I assume all three were GA ). Come on.

    Then you quote Backe regarding American players ?

    Someone has to call you out on these things. I just did.

    • Steve Davis - Jan 14, 2013 at 3:26 PM

      … Start of their fourth year. Just a small difference, but still.

      And not to sound defensive (but to defend myself just a teeny bit), what I wrote was ” … growing into their veteran leadership years …” That seems like a fair assessment of a fourth-year, high draft pick to me. You may disagree, and that’s fair (and your point about early withdrawal from college is a good one). But let’s make sure we are debating the points accurately.

      All that said … Thanks, sincerely, for reading and commenting. Disagreements and thoughtful “calling outs” always welcome. (Because what I do sure ain’t science either!)

      • charliej11 - Jan 15, 2013 at 3:07 PM

        The problem is, and sorry about the year off thing it was not intentional, that many read this article, knowing not enough about MLS,
        and think the college draft picks have been garbage

        ……….but nothing is further from the truth. There have been some flops, there have been some small inversions, and there have been misses ( Zusi, Ream, etc ), but….

        ….none of these guys are done are they ? Zusi for example was drafted in 2009, but he didn’t excel for two-three whole years !

        Mwanga (21), Opara (23), and Tchani (23) all have a lot of playing in MLS, and they WILL play more, before you write them off as bad 1-3 picks.

        ps. you never apologize about using a Backe viewpoint on American talent

      • joeyt360 - Jan 19, 2013 at 1:45 PM

        Chance Myers is another guy who was drafted high, disappeared for a couple years, and then became a staple.

  3. wesbadia - Jan 14, 2013 at 4:01 PM

    Are we meant to think that 19 technical staffs around the league are virtually inept at selecting top talent in the MLS draft system when the overwhelming majority of individuals in those technical staffs have been bred, groomed, and plied their trade in this league over the last 18 years?

    I have to ask this because it seems a rather large “red flag” to think that most clubs around the league aren’t able to select top talents through a draft system, especially clubs that have gotten top picks for years on end. The intellectual choice that needs to be made is whether the blame should be leveled at the way those clubs select players (and, by inclusion, how we guesstimate draft order and college player rankings); or that the actual college system that develops players that stand out the most is broken.

    In other words, are professional clubs really bad at picking good talent from college because their systems of picking are flawed, or is the college system producing sub par talent for the likes of MLS?

    If you choose the first option, the next question is “Why are the systems of picking draftees repeatedly failing?” It’s then no stretch to assert, again, the second choice: that college ball is producing sub par talent for the likes of MLS.

    It’s a popular and highly-controversial topic now, for sure. But the subject of college vs academy soccer is going to only become more inflamed as college products continue to under-perform their academy colleagues. The inevitable path will lead us to a point of further choice: whether to alter the college system to be in line with IFAB/FIFA guidelines and MLS’s needs; to alter the draft system in such a way that players don’t factor directly nor immediately into a club’s player acquisition models; or to abandon the college draft entirely in favor of a more open and academy-oriented model.

    We’re leaping towards this crossroads with every player that’s drafted and every article like this that’s written.

    • Steve Davis - Jan 14, 2013 at 9:24 PM

      One thing to keep in mind: As of, say, five years ago, most teams didn’t HAVE a technical staff. Even now, not all do. It’s an evolving position, and the hierarchy of power is evolving. It’s still a young league in a lot of ways; this is among them.

    • charliej11 - Jan 15, 2013 at 2:39 PM

      Another thing to keep in mind is almost all of the top 10 draft picks for the last three years ( I didn’t go back 4 years ), have varied from “just” playing, to national team invites for their countries.

      And I said before many of those picks are underclassmen, where you would think you could see some inconsistancies early in their careers.

      As much as you would love to see the college system fail, the exact opposite has happened.
      You won’t give up your bias of course, but please tell me all these academy successes. I am curious.

      ps “college ball is producing sub par talent for the likes of MLS” is the stupidest thing I have read all year. Do you follow MLS at all ? Even just catch a game once in a while ? The college system guys are CRUSHING it. I will take the top 10 draft picks of 2010-12, for thirty picks….you give me your top 30 non-college guys. Go.

      • wesbadia - Jan 15, 2013 at 3:11 PM

        Hyperbole and demagoguery aside, I actually don’t wish to see it “fail”, I wish to see it evolve. As I said below, no one in positions of importance are willing to consider any alternatives to what other American sports consider their bread-and-butter player acquisition processes. Plain and simple, the only reason MLS has a college draft system to begin with was that it was clearly the easiest way to harvest any amount of talent in the sport in the early years of the league to make the organization even viable, let alone successful.

        But, also very simply put, relying on the spark plug that is the college draft to continue to be the bread-and-butter of player acquisition for a sport that is very much in the minority (albeit growing) in this country for sustained production of quality talent in perpetuum is bound to fail.

        Please… look at the list of players I’ve referenced above from three supposedly top-drafting sides in MLS from last year and tell me who or where those players are. By extension, let’s look at all the draftees for the years you mentioned, shall we?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_MLS_SuperDraft

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_MLS_SuperDraft

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_MLS_SuperDraft

        Now look at the homegrown players that have signed on with their clubs:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Grown_Player

        Even before we make direct comparisons, we need to factor in age. The kids that are coming up through academies are largely under 23 players, which makes sense since most academies weren’t started until the last 5 or 6 years. So, right out of the gate, you’re asking 21 year old kids to stack up against a 24 or 25 year old. Granted, some overlap occurs, and at times the younger ones show better, or vice versa. But think of the longevity; when the HGP guys are 24 or 25, where will they be? Still with their club? Signed to a multi-million dollar international deal? Or sitting on the bench in the NASL or Caribbean league?

        What you’re asking of me is to compare the possible futures of players that are either fresh out of the academy or don’t even exist yet to “your” crop of players who have been playing in an over-rated and under-performing organization (NCAA) for the last 3 to 4 years biding their time until draft day. If you can’t see the logical fallacy of that, then I’m sorry, but you’re a lost cause in this discussion. Apologies.

        Take as many digs as you want against me or my logic and opinions, but the reality is that college, as we see it today, is a dying version of the game. In 10 years, where will those top 10 picks be getting you compared to the swelling, bulging list of HGP kids making inroads into the American sport? No one can answer that right now, but in 10 years, let’s get back together and talk.

      • wesbadia - Jan 15, 2013 at 3:50 PM

        Another point that I should’ve made, and one that factors into my comment about college ball producing sub par talent for the likes of MLS: You can attempt a similar comparison by taking the “top 10 ranked USL-PRO/NASL players” and stacking them against HGP products. Does that make those 2nd and 3rd division players adequate for the likes of MLS? I don’t think so. And I doubt you would either. If you’ve ever watched a game in one of those leagues, it’s apparent that the quality is below MLS, regardless of what ex-commissioner Downes has said about rivaling MLS. Watching my hometown USL club playing against B-squad Eastern Conference teams is mighty good fun in USOC. Watching them go up against the A-teams isn’t so enjoyable.

        Would you want the top players from NASL filling out your team’s roster? If so, you can have Pablo Campos, Ryan Cochrane, Austin De Luz, Wes Knight, and Tony Stahl. None of those guys could make it in MLS (they’ve tried), and I doubt any manager in the league would make up a team out of players of that caliber. I certainly wouldn’t.

        But that’s what you’re asking to do with your top 10 draft picks. Once in awhile you get an Omar Gonzalez. The other times you get a Sebastian Velasquez… or worse, Zack Schilawski (9th overall in 2010). The uncertainty is too great to base any sort of solid system around.

      • charliej11 - Jan 17, 2013 at 2:23 AM

        Well that pretty much proves my point. The HGHs, which are exactly the same type as the college draft guys except they are able to claimed before the draft by a team because of geography and a lose affiliation…are nobodys. The draft classes are the whos who of young MLSrs.

      • charliej11 - Jan 17, 2013 at 2:27 AM

        Well that pretty much proves my point. The HGHs, which are exactly the same type as the college draft guys except they are able to claimed before the draft by a team because of geography and a lose affiliation…are nobodys. The draft classes are the whos who of young MLSrs.

        Obviously the top ten in those.drafts are not 24-25, which would be old for any college grad, and especially old for some leaving early like the GA. You must have known that, but were just trying to skew the arguement and mislead ? Or did you truely know that little about the draft and are still arguing anyway ?

      • joeyt360 - Jan 19, 2013 at 5:17 PM

        I think wesbadia’s over-egging the pudding, but for what it’s worth Soccer America’s 13 to watch list for new players this year included 5 home growns who weren’t in the draft (and it included Boss, so that leaves 7 conventional draft picks). And that’s just players that are incoming this year, it won’t include guys who signed HG a year or two ago who otherwise might have come through the draft this year–for instance on DC United, Bill Hamid and Ethan White are the same age as most of this year’s draft class, and Andy Najar is actually younger than almost all of it.

  4. theasoccerist - Jan 14, 2013 at 4:45 PM

    Hmm. I look at something similar (and have some more post ideas lined up for this week – in honor of the draft). Specifically, I ask the question about the 2011 draft in a blog post from yesterday. Have a look through to see if you might want a take-back on your pick from that year!

    http://tinyurl.com/bgkqbgf

    For a different type of analysis, I put together a table of the leading schools who provide first round draft picks, over the years

    http://tinyurl.com/a4x872k

    Perhaps this can forward our discussion about where the hotbeds of soccer are in the country and what we can/should do to further the quality of other programs.

  5. pensfan603 - Jan 14, 2013 at 7:07 PM

    I dont think i can say it as eloquently as the first person but to me it is all about the system. you cant just draft the best player and have it automatically work out, you have to have a purpose for the picks, it isnt baseball or basketball where, its more of a just get the best player available and even in basketball you learn that, in the draft getting the right supporting players is very important (for good teams) for instance, mario chalmers for miami. I think as time goes on more mls clubs will learn how to draft for their system for instance, last year we saw the red bulls make one pick and that one pick filling their one need. At the same time clubs like sporting KC continually taking players that they know will work in their system, and to even some extent only bring players onto their team who work with their system, while teams like Portland Previously would go out for the big names like Kris Boyd even though he might not fit in with the team, i think with porter now that wont happen for them but i think other teams like Chivas, New England, and Toronto need to learn how to draft players who will work in their system.

  6. paxonst - Jan 14, 2013 at 9:19 PM

    I am not convinced that in a country of 380 million people, that there are only 72 soccer players worthy of being drafted in the MLS. Statistically, if you expand your pool, up to a point, you will increase your chances of picking up more capable players. Wesbadia is on the right trac, the college system is not even a close facsimilie of the professional game. There is too large a differentiation in talent between teams that compete against each other, unlike say European reserve or academy teams. Are there players being drafted who are better than the top talented players in USL-PRO or NASL?

    • theasoccerist - Jan 15, 2013 at 8:11 AM

      Considering youth soccer is one of the largest participation sports in the US-I cant imagine MLS teams have the resources to scout all of their options well. You are probably right that there are a lot of potential stars out there that get overlooked (didnt Clint Dempsey go 8th in his draft year?). However, as the league pulls in more money, the data show it is doing an increasingly better job of scouting out viable talent.

      I think the answer is to pick a strategy that you can expect to carry out, with the resources available and then reassess or ratchet up as the league grows.

      A look at the 2011 draft shows that many more players are starting to make an impact within a year or two (have a look at the list of the first round here, http://tinyurl.com/bgkqbgf if you dont believe me). Now compare that to the first few years of the league.

      • wesbadia - Jan 15, 2013 at 10:30 AM

        That’s decent qualitative analysis. Albeit based on a questionable source (Castrol Index).

        Unfortunately, looking at a single season of draftees is not quantitative enough to base any real analysis or conclusion on. The quibbles with how the Castrol Index derives its data aside, there just isn’t a good measuring stick to use on college players as they perform in MLS. Nor is there really anything to go by for older draftees from the earlier years of the league. Other than basic stats, it’s largely subjective analysis… which could be argued is really just opinion.

        Until a proper measuring stick is developed, success of college players will remain subjective, and will be subject to the judgment of the club staff as they attempt to develop the players to fit a designated mold. Where college players end up in a few seasons is more indicative of their quality than trying to derive some sort of conclusion from questionable statistical methods.

    • wesbadia - Jan 15, 2013 at 9:06 AM

      Great points, paxonst. Bringing up the lower divisions just brings up more questions opposed to the college draft being the staple of player development for the league. This opens up so many new pathways to acquiring young players for top clubs.

      What if college draftees were required to play a full year in their MLS team’s reserve league before making a first team appearance? This would be more interesting if the reserve league DOES, in fact, integrate itself with USL-PRO.

      What if there is a closer link between club development academies and local/regional educational institutions to integrate and assimilate their soccer programs into a larger entity. This could play to the GenAd program by allowing players to still get a college education (or even be expanded to high school) while developing into a professional player.

      And now for a bigger controversial statement: What if MLS scraps their entire college draft system and hands over the rights to NASL and USL-PRO? In its place could be multiple programs like academies, homegrown, sourcing from lesser international leagues, and (the real replacement) sourcing from lower American leagues like the NASL and USL-PRO. This would insert a level of buffer to weed out the duds and conserve resources for MLS clubs as they attempt to develop a player whom they really have absolute uncertainty with. If MLS was smart enough, they’d let the lower league figure out the college players and siphon off those few that turn out to be stellar performers at lower levels.

      All of these questions (and other unspoken ones) are the type of outside the box thinking that’s needed. Unfortunately, MLS and most pundits are willing to accept the status quo by preserving the institutions that they apparently think made MLS successful, as if no better way is possible.

      • charliej11 - Jan 15, 2013 at 2:54 PM

        webadia, You are fighting a lost cause.

        If you are a parent, you are going to send your kid to Charlotte to play for $15k a year or send him to college ? One way you play video games and hope to make it “big” in MLS.
        The college system will always have more players in it ( or at least until very low level soccer starts paying huge money, I will hold my breath ) and will only grow big time from here. Unless a kid is a sho-in,Brek Shea style, they are going to hedge their bets in a very good way to go about your life.

        Almost all the Olympic sports already do this. Not sure why you want soccer to go a different route.

        Please read Moneyball. Baseball already did this case study.

      • wesbadia - Jan 15, 2013 at 3:20 PM

        charliej11,

        Please don’t let this debate devolve into ad hominem. It’s worth more than that.

        I don’t suppose to have all the answers. I know maybe it seems like I think I do, but that’s not the case. I’m merely one man trying to think about this system we have by not subscribing to presupposed notions about what kind of limits we have. And when I do that, I come up with the type of ideas like I listed above.

        A further idea that I, myself without any help, could come up with to rebut your idea that the system will remain intact because parents want an education to go along with their kid’s sports: a holistic academy system where kids are either in-residence or local and able to commute from home in which the “school” actually is a school. In other words, a soccer academy that provides education to their “students”. The academy would provide teachers for various subjects as per their needs, and would seek accreditation in order to remain relevant and trustworthy in society’s eyes. It could be financed by (various) clubs, local/regional business owners that have stakes in those clubs, various youth soccer organizations (which could result from partnerships and “umbrella” relations), or even local school districts wanting to rid themselves of the necessary funding to sustain their own competitive soccer programs.

        Again, I’m one person, with only a couple ideas. There are people out there that think of these things for a living (I wish I was one) that could come up with much better ideas. But there’s nothing nonviable about the above idea. In fact, it’d only take a bit of tinkering with existing academies to get to that point.

        And if/when that time comes, where does it leave your argument for “education over sports”?

      • joeyt360 - Jan 19, 2013 at 5:18 PM

        Nothing he said in the post you responded to was ad hominem.

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