As North American sports fans, we sure do love our drafts. In some sports, they are virtual holidays, welcomed with as much excitement as the season opener or the playoffs. Major League Soccer has seen this and has really tried to turn their SuperDraft into an event.
The first round is now televised. The top players get all dressed up in suits and pose for pictures with the commissioner. The soccer-focused media even gets joins in the fun, devoting precious energy to what is considered the biggest offseason event of the year.
But is it all for show? Is the MLS SuperDraft all pomp and no circumstance? While it's a little unfair to call the draft downright irrelevant, the numbers seem to suggest that it's not nearly as important as we tend to think it is, especially once we get past the first 10 picks.
Method to the madness
I examined the first two rounds of the last four SuperDrafts just to get an idea of how much talent MLS really acquires through those means. The only statistics I looked at were games played and minutes played, ignoring any subjective measures of performance. I only looked at the last four years mainly out of convenience, but also because that's how long the standard Generation Adidas contract runs for. As statistical relevance goes, I'm not sure how this will stand up, but I do think it illustrates just how much of a crapshoot the draft has been, at least in recent years.
Unless otherwise noted, I used the pool of 126 players that were selected in the first two rounds of the draft since 2008. When I refer to percentage of minutes played or games played in, it's under the assumption that they could have played in every game a team played since they were drafted. If a player was cut before they made a single appearance, for instance, that would be zero percent. If a player was picked in 2009, that means they had 94 games available to play in; if they were picked in 2010, it's 64 and so on.
All playing time statistics were taken from MLSSoccer.com.
These were my findings:
Breaking in is tough
Of the 126 players picked in the first two rounds of the past four SuperDrafts, just 41 of them have even appeared in half of the games played during that time. That's about 32 percent of them. As a point of comparison, 39 of those players have appeared in fewer than 10 percent of available games.
Looking at the extremes of those pools is even more stark. An astounding 33 of the 126 players picked in the first two rounds of the last four SuperDrafts have yet to make a single MLS appearance. Just 12 have played in at least 70 percent of the available minutes since they were drafted.
Generation Adidas is no guarantee
But maybe it's a little unfair to look at this big of a player pool (although it is worth noting that by looking at the first two rounds we exclude more than half of the players picked during the draft). Even if we refine our search to only examine players who had been signed to Generation Adidas contracts prior to the draft, it doesn't look that much better.
Five of the 39 players signed to GA contracts in the past four years have yet to see the field. Just four of those 39 players have appeared in at least 70 percent minutes. Less than half (18) have so much as appeared in 50 percent of games.
For every Omar Gonzalez (GA Class of 2009, who has played in 92 percent of the available minutes since being drafted) there is a Rob Valentino (Class of 2008, who never made an MLS appearance). For every Class of 2008 (which collectively has played about 55 percent of the available minutes since being drafted) there is a Class of 2010 (whose class has played in about 27 percent of minutes and has just two players who have participated in at least 50 percent of minutes).
The cream really rises
As should be expected, there is a lot more value at the top of the draft than there is at the bottom. But for all the attention we pay to the first round -- and to a lesser degree the second -- there's not much value to be found after Pick 10. Even considering that just 18 players picked in the first two rounds since 2008 have appeared in at least 70 percent of the games, 11 of those players were selected within the first 10 picks of their respective drafts.
Once you get beyond Pick 19, which this year will mark the end of the first round, you're basically playing with penny stocks. Just seven players taken between picks 20 and 38 in the last four drafts have managed to appear in at least 50 percent of games. Even more telling, 39 players selected between picks 20 and 38 (out of 76) have not made a single MLS appearance over the last four years. Put another way, those players are more than five times as likely to never play as they are to appear in 50 percent of the games.
Even among players selected in the first 10 picks, players are almost as likely to appear in less than 50 percent of games than more than that limited bar of achievement. Of the 40 players picked that high in the past four years, 16 of them have played in less than 50 percent of games and 11 of those players participated in less than 25 percent of the available minutes.
The MLS SuperDraft is not going anywhere and this is not meant as suggesting it's a pointless endeavor. But teams expecting to find their savior in the draft are probably doomed to failure. At the very least, this research suggests finding a full-time starters take more than a year or two to develop.
The draft is definitely a useful way to keep fans interested in the league during the offseason, but it's not going to be the main way a team become successful.