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The Truth About Getting To The MLS
More than ever, college players no longer dream of proving themselves in Europe, but staying in America to play in MLS. How likely are you, as a college player, to make it into MLS?

The short answer? Less than 1%. The long answer? The game is changing, and you need to as well.


The 2016 MLS SuperDraft was interesting. There were 250 eligible players listed in the draft pool. These players were nominated by teams, signed to Generation Adidas contracts, or accepted as international options. In total, 238 university seniors were put in the pool.


Of those 250 eligible players, 75 were drafted. Now a little over midway through the 2016 season, 40 of those players are already out of MLS, and another 22 find themselves skating on thin ice. Of those 62 players either out of the league or not entrenched with the first team, 36 were cut in pre-season. Four were waived this summer, and 22 players find themselves in precarious roster situations where they have been dropped down at least once to the USL level on loan.


Of the 75 players drafted, two came from NCAA Division II, and one came from NCAA Division III. Plainly, non-Division I players weren’t held in very high regard leading up to the draft, as of those three drafted, only two were even invited to the MLS combine. For the 2015 SuperDraft, two players came from NCAA Division II, one from Division III, and one from NAIA. None are in the league in 2016.


Kudos, then, to Marshall Hollingsworth, who turned his storied D-III career into being drafted and signed by the Columbus Crew despite very little mainstream attention. One has to wonder if there are more like him out there, toiling in the ranks of Division II, Division III, and NAIA programs that are geographically far removed from the MLS spheres of influence.


In all, since the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, 340 players have been drafted and 236 are out of the league, with the grand majority being cut in pre-season or waived after the first season. 46 players are surviving by a very thin lifeline as they go back and forth on loan to lower leagues, while 8 of the remaining 58 players locked into their organization’s first team have played in fewer than 10 games.


That’s 50 players out of the 340 drafted since 2013 who have turned into role players at the very least for their team. 15%.


So much for the good chance of turning a solid college career into playing in MLS. With MLS clubs’ increasing reliance on signing homegrown players as well as bringing in foreign players to bolster their roster, college seems to be on the way out as a feeder for the top tier of professional soccer in the United States.


There’s not even a guarantee anymore of first round draft picks being set up for success. Of the 2016 first round draft picks, 11 of the 20 players picked are on that thin ice of being seen as not ready, and sent on loan to USL. Some have clawed their way back, but it’s a precarious situation to be in as aspiring first team players.


From the 2015 draft, six players are out of the league already, and six more are hanging by a thread as loaned players. From 2014, eight players are out of the league, and three more continue to hang by a thread. From 2013, eight more are out, and with one player still being in the league but with no appearances to his name.

Let’s break down the percentages of first round draft picks over the past few seasons.


2016

9 in

11 at risk

55% at risk

2015

9 in

6 out (plus 6 at risk)

57% out/almost out

2014

8 in

8 out (plus 3 at risk)

57% out/almost out

2013

11 in

8* out

42% out

*Includes Deshorn Brown, sold to Norway.


The prospect is even scarier for second round draft picks.


2016

2 in

13 out (plus 6 at risk)

90% out/at risk

2015

2 in

14 out (plus 5 at risk)

90% out/almost out

2014

5 in

11* out (plus 3 at risk)

73% out/almost out

2013

3 in

13 out (plus 3 at risk)

84% out/almost out

*Includes George Fochive, sold to Denmark.


And what about third round?


2016

1 in

15* out (plus 3 at risk)

94% out/at risk

2015

2 in

15** out (plus 3 at risk)

90% out/almost out

2014

1 in

17 out (plus 1 at risk)

94% out/almost out

2013

0 in

18 out (plus 1 at risk)

100% out/almost out


*Includes Brendan Hines-Ike who signed in Sweden.

**Includes Robert Kristo who signed in Italy.


So what do these numbers tell us? To put it bluntly, they tell us that the grand dream of transitioning from university or college into MLS is mostly just that: a dream. The reality of the situation is that last year (2015) there were over 430,000 boy’s high school soccer players in the United States. The number playing collegiately in one division or another, including Junior College, Community College, NAIA, all the way up to D-I, is around 35,000. Without having proper figures to draw from, let’s just assume that 20% of those players are graduating seniors. That makes 7,000 draft eligible players (not including Generation Adidas or internationals) in the United States last year, of which 238 (again, not including GA or internationals) were selected to be potential draft picks. That’s 3.4% of draft eligible players being seen as MLS prospects.


Let’s continue being honest.


Like we talked about at the top, of the 250 draft eligible players, 238 were college seniors. 68 of those seniors were drafted. That’s 0.97% of the total possible draft pool in America. And of those 68 players, 40 of them have been cut or waived, and 18 of them have been dropped down on loan at least once. That leaves 10 players who are in reasonably decent shape, not quite eight months removed from hearing their name called and seeing their dream come true. The hard work paid off for 10 players out of 7,000 possible, 238 hopeful, and 68 realistic.


The rest had to settle for something else. Some got jobs. Some dropped down to USL. Some are still trying to figure out what to do now that they’ve been denied entry into the promised land of American soccer.


Now that we understand what’s happening in America, what alternatives are there?


Well, going outside America is always an option for players. There is opportunity around the globe, with over 6,000 teams around the world. Not all of them pay a living wage, obviously, and many of the leagues have strict player acquisition rules that limit who can play in the league. But there are thousands of teams out there that can be possible destinations for players who have been spurned by the flawed domestic system here in the United States. Just because the odds are stacked against you in the United States, doesn’t mean that there are not options abroad to chase your dream.


It’s going to be difficult to crack into a team anywhere in the world, but there are ways to make things easier for yourself. Not sitting around waiting for the MLS dream is one of them. There’s no need to let yourself waste away and become complacent while you wait for an opportunity that in all likelihood isn’t going to come.


So the question is: Why would you wait for something that the odds say will almost never come, and not explore opportunities to play overseas? It’s the route to higher professional levels, the route to National Team exposure, and the route to security.


Are you afraid of traveling? Are you afraid of being told no? Are you afraid of failing? Answer that question and you’ll have the answer, because the sure thing of being an MLS Draft pick doesn’t exist anymore, and even the likelihood of having a better than even chance of success is on the way out as well. Every year the numbers are getting worse, as you have teams doing everything they can to avoid having to bring in college players to begin with, from trading away their draft picks, to simply skipping their turn when it comes calling for them.


In the 2016 Draft, the New York Red Bulls traded away their third and fourth round picks, while New York City FC traded their first round pick immediately after the draft started in order to pick up Jack Harrison. They subsequently traded away their second, third, and fourth round picks as well. NYCFC clearly wanted nothing to do with the 2016 MLS Draft aside from Harrison.


Similarly, the LA Galaxy traded away their first and second round pick, took one player in the third, passed on their second third round pick, and also passed on their fourth round pick. That makes three players drafted by three high profile teams out of 13 possible picks.


Among other teams, DC United traded away their third round pick and passed on their fourth. Sporting Kansas City traded away their first and second round picks, Toronto FC traded away their second round pick and one of their two third round picks, and Real Salt Lake and Montreal Impact passed on their fourth round picks. Just in that small example, that’s 18 draft picks that MLS teams gave up either by passing, in exchange for money, or in exchange for other players already in the league. And there were plenty more trades that went on.


All that being said, the nature of the draft process is very complex, and teams that traded away draft picks were doing so strategically to accomplish an end goal that they regarded as being the best move for their particular situation. And the teams that received the draft picks as their end of the trade made picks that brought players into the league’s pre-season regardless, so it isn’t as though (all of) the picks were passed on.


What it does mean though, is that, in this example, eight teams actively gave up (and in a few cases passed on) 18 opportunities to bring in college rookies for the 2016 MLS season.


On the homegrown front, 15 homegrown players were signed by their MLS clubs following the 2015 season, and shortly into 2016, while 19 were signed following the 2014 season and shortly into 2015. Not all of those players are still in the league, but it shows further competition for the limited number of roster spots that open up each season in MLS.


While MLS is improving its reputation in the international market and becoming a more desirable league to play in, the door is also being shut in the face of what was once the backbone of its roster: College players.


Where will college players go then?


According to the numbers, less than 1% will go to MLS.


The rest? Well, there’s a large world out there. Explore it.

------------------------------------ By Christopher McCollum