The MLS SuperDraft is usually a pretty straightforward event, with little in the way of controversy and surprises aside from the random trade or perhaps a player accidentally thanking the wrong team for drafting him.
This year’s draft was just a little bit different, at least in the aftermath. The circumstances surrounding the No. 7 pick of the 2014 draft, Jamaican midfielder Andre Lewis, came to light a day after the draft, but still managed to provide a cloud of uncertainty and head-scratching that begged for some clarification.
To catch you up, Lewis was selected by the Vancouver Whitecaps on a draft day that was actually a strong one for the Canadian side. Well, except for the fact that on the same day Vancouver was signing him, Lewis was busy signing a contract to play for the second-tier New York Cosmos.
What followed soon after that news, first reported by Goal USA, was a series of statements from MLS and the Whitecaps stating very clearly that Lewis was, in fact, signed to MLS and would be a Whitecaps players.
Those statements would quickly be adjusted, in not so subtle fashion, to suddenly include the Cosmos, and a deal being worked out by MLS with the Cosmos for Lewis’ services. Even Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson was quoted as saying that he and Vancouver were made aware of Lewis’ deal with the Cosmos before he was drafted, and that a deal has been made to ensure Lewis would be a Whitecap.
Rest assured, this sloppy sequence of face-saving by MLS and the Whitecaps revealed far more than it covered up.
So who is Lewis exactly? He is a talented Jamaican Under-20 national team midfielder who first caught the Cosmos' eye in the fall, and he spent weeks training with the Cosmos before joining the NASL champions on a tour of Spain. He didn’t sign a contract with the Cosmos then, nor had he signed a contract with the Cosmos when he set about taking part in the MLS combine less than two weeks ago in Florida.
After impressing at the combine, and drawing the interest of several teams that considered him the best field player at the event, Lewis returned to Jamaica without a binding contract. Just what Lewis signed with MLS is unclear, but what is clear is that MLS teams were informed that Lewis was signed by the league, and therefore teams interested in selecting him were well within their right to think he would become their player.
Things didn’t quite work out that way, and what transpired next remains a bit hazy save for one incontrovertible fact: that Lewis signed a contract with the Cosmos before he ever signed a contract with MLS.
Multiple sources have confirmed the timeline to Goal USA, including officials within MLS verifying that teams were told before the draft that Lewis had been signed by MLS.
If that were, in fact, the case, we would not have heard a single mention about MLS or the Whitecaps reaching any agreements with the Cosmos, a team MLS does its best to avoid mentioning on a regular basis (including on the league’s official website, which reports regularly on all aspects of American and international soccer but omits the NASL and Cosmos).
Instead, we had MLS vice president of player personnel Lino DiCuollo quoted by the league website:
“MLS has an agreement with Lewis and the Cosmos for him to join MLS and the Vancouver Whitecaps provided certain conditions are met. In the event the Whitecaps want to retain the player, as of the roster compliance date, then he will be with them on a loan or after a transfer from the Cosmos.”
What wasn’t made clear in that statement was just what "the certain conditions" are exactly. As of the weekend, MLS and the Cosmos had yet to reach any agreement, according to Goal USA sources, so it is safe to assume that what still needs to be worked out is just what sort of loan fee or transfer fee the Cosmos will be asking for the 19-year-old midfielder.
It is safe to assume that MLS, and not the Whitecaps, will be paying that bill since it is a mess of the league’s own making, and because it has caused even more strife for a club already dealing with a fair share of bad publicity.
The Whitecaps are enduring the embarrassment of having been forced into selling their best player, MLS Golden Boot winner Camilo Sanvezzo, after he very publicly went to Mexico and posed with the jersey of Liga MX club Queretaro before a transfer was in place.
Vancouver ultimately wound up selling Sanvezzo for a multimillion-dollar fee, but the Whitecaps still came away from the situation looking like they had mishandled it even though they were simply forced into dealing with a mess made by Camilo and his overzealous agent.
Now the Whitecaps, who sources tell Goal USA are irate with league officials, must wait for MLS to work out a deal with a Cosmos team that is really under no obligation to make one.
Chances are a deal will be struck of some sort, but there is no denying the whole situation will lead to a change in how MLS officials handle the signing of top draft prospects.
What should be made clear, though, is that the Lewis fiasco shouldn’t be seen as some sort of sign that the MLS draft is somehow vulnerable or obsolete. This was an isolated incident involving a foreign player who was brought into the MLS combine/MLS draft system while holding other options. Very few teams knew much about Lewis before seeing him at the combine, and Lewis’ representatives were probably not in a hurry to let MLS know what other options Lewis had on the table.
The draft is still made up mainly of college players and MLS remains the clear-cut first choice of players leaving college. Now if the Cosmos, or other NASL teams, start actively pursuing college players and making competitive contract offers for the best talent coming out of the college ranks, then we can start to ask questions about whether the draft is in trouble.
Maybe that scenario plays out one day. But for now, the MLS draft is in good shape. The Lewis fiasco was more simply the case of someone at MLS making a mistake, and the Cosmos stepping in and signing a player they had scouted for some time.
Consider it a reminder to MLS that the competition for talent is only increasing, and mistakes like the one made involving Lewis are more and more likely to be punished.
- Sports & Recreation