Not feeling the draft of MLS

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Perhaps the biggest issue surrounding the latest incarnation of the Major League Soccer SuperDraft surrounds new franchise Seattle Sounders FC and whether it will trade the No. 1 pick and, if not, whom it will select.

For others, the burning question coming out of St. Louis this week is not what will happen at the SuperDraft, but this: What is the point of it all?

MLS does an admirable job of promoting its draft as one of the important events on the North American soccer calendar, along with its championship match and All-Star game. The league's leading executives will be on hand Thursday at the St. Louis Convention Center, where commissioner Don Garber will announce the first pick with his usual dramatic effect. The action will be nationally televised live, and there is some interest in the host city, which is poised to have its own MLS team within two years.

However, while the proceedings will give MLS fans something to discuss and argue about a couple of months before the start of the 2009 season, in reality the SuperDraft is just not very, well, super.

American sports have drafts. But there are key differences between MLS's selection day and the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL drafts that stretch far beyond a gap in domestic popularity.

In other sports, chosen players represent the best unrecruited talent in the world. Some will have a chance at ultimate superstardom. Think of LeBron James or Peyton Manning, the sort of performers that can spectacularly alter a team's fortunes.

Within MLS, the reality is different. The MLS draft changed to a SuperDraft in 2000, abandoning the previous format of hosting two separate drafts, one for college players and one for anyone else who wanted a contract in the league.

Since then, the top picks have been Steve Shak, Chris Carrieri, Chris Gbandi, Alecko Eskandarian, Freddy Adu, Nik Besagno, Marvell Wynne, Maurice Edu and Chance Myers. Shak, Carrieri and Besagno faded almost without a trace. Adu's potential is still huge, but he is struggling to make an impact in Europe, as is Edu, who transferred to Scottish side Glasgow Rangers after impressing at Toronto FC. The rest have had solid, yet unspectacular MLS careers.

A handful of players have come through the SuperDraft and gone on to bigger and better things. Ryan Nelsen was taken fourth by D.C. United in 2001, was signed by Blackburn Rovers of the English Premier League in 2005 and is now that club's captain. Clint Dempsey moved to Fulham in 2007 after being chosen eighth by the New England Revolution three years earlier. And Taylor Twellman and Shalrie Joseph have emerged as two of MLS's shining lights since being drafted by the New England Revolution in 2002.

But do returns such as these justify the expense and hoopla that the league tries to generate around this occasion?

The problem is that many of the best players at youth level have already pursued lucrative European opportunities and bypassed the MLS route altogether. Out of this year's college elite, Marcus Tracy of Wake Forest would surely have been a No. 1 pick, but he is poised to join Aalborg of Denmark's SuperLiga.

Garber and his colleagues will put on a good show Thursday, and it is hard to blame them for trying to use the SuperDraft to drum up interest during the league's offseason. The draft has its place and the teams with the savvier spotters of talent can steal an advantage and add some decent players to their roster. Dozens of beaming players will be brought up to the stage, to pose with shirts and caps and the commissioner.

But to place too much emphasis on the wheeling and dealing that will carry on throughout the afternoon is an exercise in futility.

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