Anyone who follows American sports will know that the draft is a central aspect of their mystique. So why should MLS be any different? Well...welcome to IBWM Richard Farley.
On Thursday, Major League Soccer will hold its annual SuperDraft, a process that will welcome 54 new players into North America's first division. One week later, the league will have another three round draft - the Supplemental Draft - the fourth draft the league will have held since late November. Expansion Draft on November 24. Re-Entry Draft on Decembers 8 and 15. Draft. Draft, draft, draft, draft.
Drafts have been around North American sports since 1936, roughly 60 years after the first professional sports league was formed. Then, the precursor to the National Football League (gridiron) saw nine teams alternate selecting recent college graduates, granting the choosing team sole rights to negotiate for the player's services. On Thursday, Major League Soccer will see its 18 teams go through the same process, its own version of North America's ubiquitous talent allocation process.
Across all five of North America's major sports (American football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and football/soccer), certain traits are common to all drafts. First (and most important), it's the principle way of bringing talent into the league. Even MLS, which has viable, alternative routes of incorporating talent, depends on its draft. Second, the worst teams always get to pick first, a measure intended to promote parity. Third, the drafts are major promotional events, with the football and basketball versions drawing significant television audiences. Even crotchety old Major League Baseball has started televising its first rounds, an almost inexplicable step toward relevance for a league so backward it had previously conducted its draft via conference call.
Now every draft is the same. There's a ballroom or arena with a stage at the front. Rows of folding tables recede from the dais, their seats occupied by representatives making perfunctory phone calls to their team's office, rehashing analysis that should have been concluded the night before. Photographers position themselves to capture the moment when the league commissioner steps to the microphone and says (something like) "with their first pick in the 2010 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, the Kansas City Wizards select Teal Bunbury from the University of Akron." Lather, rinse, repeat for each pick and you have your draft.
From afar, the process is curious and fun and ultimately a bit bewildering, but to wonder why MLS utilizes drafts would be like asking somebody hovering over four lines of cocaine why they're about to use drugs. The analogy comes off as harsh, but considering how often Major League Soccer drafts - and the new reasons the league finds for doing so - the behavior seems textbook addictive, as if MLS is developing a tolerance. Even if you're inclined to use drafts (rather than allowing teams to compete for talent), why so you need more than one draft? Especially when it's a SuperDraft? Why four drafts?
Saying MLS has only four drafts may actually be generous. In reality, there are two, constant drafts Major League Soccer's always ready to conduct in-season. Players who are cut from a squad mid-year go through a waiver draft to see if any other franchises are willing to pick-up his contract. In order from worst to best performing team, each franchise decides: do we want this player? In addition, most players from abroad who sign with Major League Soccer are subject to an allocation draft (which has a completely different order). There also used to be an inaugural player dispersal draft as well as a college draft. Major League Soccer has had enough drafts to have a draft of drafts.
Back to the coke-fiend. Think of each draft as a line on a glass coffee table. Picture a man seated, hovering, rolled dollar bill between forefinger and thumb. The line on the far right is Expansion - a millimetre thick starter that's inhaled to start the night. The Re-Entry draft is next, but its just that a bump you use to affirm that the first line took hold. The SuperDraft? Oh, the SuperDraft. That's the thickest of them all: a quarter-centimetre, four inch rail you carved thinking "that's going to be my night, right there. I can already feel it hitting my brain." You suck that in, fling your head back and think "Ohmygod, ohmygod, I hope I don't die, I hope I don't die." The paper thin Supplemental Draft you'll do in the morning. It's just there to keep you from crashing face first.
Ask the coke fiend why they do it and they won't say because they need to (though they might). They won't say it's because they have no choice (because they do). If you're doing coke, it's because you want to. It's because you like it, just like sports fans in North America like drafts. They just do. Sure, there's a logic that says "why would players want drafts? Wouldn't they prefer to be able to negotiate with anybody?"
In theory, yes - that's true - but when you're a 12-year-old kid shooting baskets at your local park, you don't dream of hiring an agent, negotiating with team lawyers, and sitting around conference rooms with your parents, listening to your representation assess the offers. Even as soccer is becoming more prominent in North America and kids kicking Jabulanis off buildings can dream of going pro, he's not dreaming of a Milan scout walking up to him and playing coy. He's dreaming of hearing the words. "With the first pick in the draft, the Los Angeles Galaxy select Richard Farley, midfielder, San Diego."
Of course drafts restrict player rights, and players' unions have proposed doing away with them. But there's little will to do so. "Lose the draft" is a collective bargaining chip, one that's always, quickly discarded. A few players have gone to court to try and change the drafts, either by having it eliminated or making entry rules less restrictive. No dice. Unless you're a rare "home-grown" player signed from an MLS academy, you're either going through the draft or you're going abroad (something that explains the recent trend of United States players going to Scandinavia).
Drafts are Budweiser at stadia. They're hot dogs at half time. They're tailgating before the match and rock music before kick-off. Drafts are part of culture, the same culture that invented fantasy sports with leagues that see a huge attrition after an initial, pre-season picking process.
North American sports fans just like selecting players. They like forming teams, and they like it when the teams they support have to do the same. They like spending months thinking "If (another team) takes the guy we want, what do we do?" We pick another player. For a small window of time, he becomes the team's focal point for a small window in time. He becomes a reason to hope, a reason for even the most downtrodden fan to be an optimist.
Within 30 years of the NFL's first draft, all four major sports had followed suit. By the time Major League Soccer started in 1996, North America had 60 years of drafts under its belt. For MLS, drafting was obligatory, and for those hoping the draft will go away - that Major League Soccer will "fall in line" with the rest of the footballing world – should perhaps note: No major sports league in North America has abandoned drafting once the process has been adopted.
On Thursday, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, on the brink of their first Major League Soccer season, will likely use the first pick on Darlington Nagbe, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder from the University of Akron. When the pick's announced, MLS fans will feel their nostrils clear, their eyes water - a small lump form at the back of their throat. It's the big line. Their once a year fix. The 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
Richard is the Soccer Editor at the leading American sports site SBNation.com, and also hosts the EPL Talk Podcast.