Europe’s soccer academies are known the world over for their rigorous training programs and the high quality athletes they produce. Scouts scour the globe for talented youngsters to conscript into their military style soccer schools where cherub-faced 7 year-olds are transformed into Europe’s next superstars. The top clubs are built on call-ups and transfers from various academies. They are the bread and butter of La Liga, Serie A, The EPL and Bundesliga.
Here in the US, our academy system is far less established. The US Soccer Development Academy was founded in 2007 and struggles to compete with various youth clubs and High Schools when recruiting members. MLS teams have their own academies but they’re even younger and less developed. As a result, the MLS SuperDraft relies largely on the NCAA to provide a worthwhile talent pool. In addition to the main draft, the MLS hosts a supplemental draft that allows them to pickup professional players from various leagues under USL (United Soccer League) jurisdiction. The teams with the worst records get the highest picks, mimicking the NFL. The system is in place to ensure parity.
The draft is an Americanism, a stark departure from the way in which soccer teams are traditionally built. It gives the MLS a unique flavor and takes advantage of the greatest farm-system in all of sports: The NCAA. The draft also provides a degree of entertainment and speculation that is absent from other leagues. With that being said, here is a look at the top three picks in the 2017 draft:
1. Abu Danladi, UCLA
Danladi is a Ghanaian graduate of the Right to Dream program and was drafted first overall by Minnesota United FC. He played high school soccer in southern California where he won the Gatorade player of the year award in 2014. After finishing high school, Danladi decided to stay in SoCal, becoming a UCLA Bruin in 2014. His college career garnered him several freshman of the year awards. Danladi was also invited to participate in Generation Adidas, a joint venture between the USMNT and MLS that hopes to increase the United States’ soccer playing ability. This program allowed him to declare early for the MLS. Generation Adidas, formally Project-40, has included superstars like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard.
While at UCLA, Danladi’s teammate Leo Stolz won the MAC Hermann trophy in 2014. If you don’t know his name, it’s because he didn’t fair particularly well in the MLS. The Red Bulls dropped Stolz after just one season. He never played a game. Danladi on the other hand has played in six games already and doesn’t look to be the dud that Stolz was. Danladi has also managed to put a few shots on net so far, solidifying himself as a part of the Minnesota attack. Although he’s still looking for his first MLS goal, the future is bright for Abu Danladi.
2. Miles Robinson, Syracuse
Miles Robinson is an American born defenseman who played for Syracuse University. He was selected 2nd overall this year by Atlanta United FC. A high school basketball player, Robinson took his team to the Division 2 North championship in 2015. Despite averaging 20 points a game, the dual-athlete chose to pursue collegiate soccer instead of basketball. During his 42 starts on defense, The Orange posted 20 shutouts. Currently, he starts for the U.S. Youth National team at the U-20 level.
Atlanta’s defense, led by Michael Parkhurst is already pretty stout. For this reason, despite his pedigree, Robinson has yet to take the field this season. It’s unfortunate that someone at his level is stuck riding the bench but it’s only a matter of time before Gerardo Martino finds a way to get Robinson involved. Robinson’s debut will be one to watch for in the coming weeks.
3. Jonathan Lewis, Akron
Another member of Generation Adidas, Jonathan Lewis is the youngest of the top three picks and has played for several developmental academies including, Chicago Fire Academy, Plantation FC and Kendall SC. During his time with Kendall SC, the forward scored 20 goals in 22 games. Lewis only spent one year at the University of Akron before declaring for the MLS draft but as a freshman he managed 2 goals and 12 assists in 22 games played.
While Lewis has the potential to be an explosive force for NYC FC, he has only played 11 minutes this season. If David Villa keeps scoring goals like this, Lewis may not find himself with a lot of opportunities to play this season. At this point, the striker is really more of an insurance policy than a viable starter for New York. The team will probably take their time developing Lewis rather than rushing him into play. Currently, New York’s first team is full of young forwards trying to prove themselves worthy of a starting spot. Only time will tell if Lewis will be the one to break out this year.
But What Gives?
Ultimately, the fact that the top 3 draft picks have only played a combined 125 minutes this year speaks to the lackluster nature of the American academy system. The best players in Europe are usually superstars by age twenty. US players seem to take much longer to develop. While the current draft picks have an impressive collection of accolades, they are nothing compared to the top European prospects. That being said, the academy system here is young and growing. On top of this, the MLS is finally gaining traction and becoming a more widely watched and funded league. In the end it all boils down to culture. If soccer can become a mainstream spectator sport in the US, academies will start receiving better funding and our top players will be at the same level as Europe’s. Until then, the MLS draft will continue to deliver future prospects rather than current stars.