The MLS SuperDraft's Dwindling Impact and the Best Picks in Recent Years
To say the MLS SuperDraft is an inexact science and holds a decreasing significance in the league's bigger picture would be an understatement. There's been very little that is "super" about it in recent years. With academies churning out more and more would-be draftees who are able to sign via the Homegrown Player route, a bevy of young players opting for Europe or even USL instead of MLS and clubs finding value through and placing priorities on myriad other means, the draft's impact has dwindled considerably.
Look no further than the 2018 edition, whose top overall pick, Joao Moutinho, was traded after one season at LAFC, and the second- and third-overall picks were left unprotected in the recent MLS expansion draft. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the top talent available via this mechanism.
But while most teams swing and miss–and the misses are becoming more prevalent in recent years–there are still some solid hits, and given the vast quantity of players competing on various levels in the U.S. and the emphasis for many on getting a college education, there are always potential standouts who fall through the cracks, which is why the draft goes on. Expansion club FC Cincinnati, which now has seven picks in Friday's first two rounds of the 2019 edition after paying $150,000 (and potentially $200,000 based on performance incentives) in allocation money for the Philadelphia Union's five picks in a That's-So-MLS trade on Wednesday night, will surely be hopeful of finding at least a couple.
So what kind of talent can still be had via the SuperDraft? Here are the best picks from the last five drafts that give an indication (that there are none from 2018's class is not a misprint):
2017 - Jeremy Ebobisse (No. 4 overall, Portland Timbers), Julian Gressel (No. 7 overall, Atlanta United)
These two both started MLS Cup in 2018. Gressel was the 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year and has accounted for nine goals and 23 assists in two seasons surrounded by the more heralded stars of Atlanta United. Ebobisse, meanwhile, currently finds himself in his first U.S. men's national team camp after seizing a starting role in Portland.
Gressel wasn't even Atlanta's first pick in the draft (center back Miles Robinson is a bit player on the squad), and perhaps his age and international status scared some clubs away, but he ultimately represents the kind of gem that clubs are seeking.
This class also featured borderline emerging talents like Abu Danladi (first overall to Minnesota; eight goals in his rookie season), Jonathan Lewis (third overall to NYCFC; currently in USMNT camp) and Lalas Abubakar (fifth overall to Columbus; 20 starts in his second season) who have shown glimpses of bringing a greater return on the investment but haven't quite gotten to that top level just yet.
2016 - Jack Harrison (No. 1 overall, NYCFC via Chicago Fire)
NYCFC traded with Chicago to land Harrison, who wound up securing a transfer to NYCFC parent club Man City (and an eventual loan to Leeds United). Harrison had 14 goals and 13 assists in two seasons with NYCFC and earned England U-21 call-ups as a result. His post-MLS life hasn't been as fruitful, but he's still just 22.
Outside of Harrison, the only other real success story from this class was Philadelphia's selection of right back Keegan Rosenberry at No. 3. He was recently traded to Colorado and is currently in U.S. national team camp. The pick after him, left back Brandon Vincent, also enjoyed success and had a taste of life with the USMNT, but he abruptly retired after this past season at the age of 24.
2015 - Cyle Larin (No. 1 overall, Orlando City), Tim Parker (No. 13 overall, Vancouver Whitecaps), Cristian Roldan (No. 16 overall, Seattle Sounders)
When we look back on SuperDraft lore, this draft may be the last one that comes closest to resembling an NFL or NBA draft–meaning there was depth in the quantity of contributing players and borderline stars. Between the three highlighted above, Toronto FC's pick of goalkeeper Alex Bono at No. 6, Chicago's selection of Matt Polster at No. 7, Colorado's choice of eventual 2016 Best XI center back Axel Sjoberg at No. 14, this was a solid class (In fact, you can make an argument that the top seven picks in this class, which also included Khiry Shelton, Romario Wiliams, Fatai Alashe and Nick Besler, all were or have proven to be worthwhile selections in one way or another).
The three that stand out the most are Larin, Parker and Roldan, though. Larin scored 43 goals in three seasons before departing for Besiktas, Parker rose to U.S. national team status (though mostly for his work at center back in New York after a trade to the Red Bulls) and Roldan did the same by winning a key role in Seattle's midfield.
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2014 - Andre Blake (No. 1 overall, Philadelphia Union), Steve Birnbaum (No. 2 overall, D.C. United)
The Union took plenty of flack (during a draft that happened in Philadelphia no less) for drafting Blake, a goalkeeper, first overall after they had just gone on a goalkeeper binge. It took time for him to seize the No. 1 role, but five years later, he's become a stalwart at the position both for the club and the Jamaica national team.
Birnbaum, meanwhile, enjoyed a run of call-ups for the U.S. national team and has been a steady defensive presence–when he's not battling injury.
While the top two picks of that draft worked out, the next two did not, for various reasons. Both Christian Dean and Steve Neumann retired within four years.