MLS considering expansion of SuperDraft eligibility, sources say

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Major League Soccer is on track to open its eligibility requirements for the SuperDraft (its annual college draft), sources tell The Athletic. The new format is still in the “proposal” stage, according to a presentation shown to teams’ chief soccer officers seen by The Athletic. The 2024 SuperDraft is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, December 19 at 3 p.m. ET.

The proposed changes would allow any player who’s a collegiate sophomore or above to enter the SuperDraft. College players who are on a team’s homegrown player list will still not be eligible to be taken. The changes could be announced as soon as the end of October.

An MLS spokesperson declined to comment on this report. 

In past years, players did not need to “declare” for the SuperDraft. Instead, the league culled a list of eligible players that was primarily comprised of college seniors who had exhausted their college eligibility. Underclassmen could only be eligible through MLS’ Generation Adidas (GA) program, exclusive only to the top players in the country on the condition that at least one MLS team fully commits to selecting the player before the draft process begins.

Under the new system, the GA distinction can still be earned by any college player (including freshmen) provided that at least one team commits to drafting him if he’s available at the time of their first pick. That process will go unchanged, with the main difference between these players and other underclassmen entering the pool being the guarantee of a contract before the draft. 

Naturally, the plan requires some stipulations for underclassmen who are willing to forego remaining college eligibility. No player can be drafted twice, unlike Major League Baseball. All players who are selected will have their SuperDraft priority rights held by the selecting club until December 31 of what would be the second season following their draft. 

Beyond that two-year window, a player’s rights will be dependent on whether or not the selecting team offers an MLS contract. If a drafted player declines a full MLS contract, that team would still hold their right of first refusal moving forward; if another MLS team wants to sign them three years after they were drafted, they would need to acquire those rights. If a player isn’t offered an MLS contract and their SuperDraft priority rights expire after two years, however, any interested MLS club would instead place a discovery claim before adding them to their roster. 

An MLS Next Pro contract offer does not affect how player rights are determined. Only an MLS contract would allow a team to retain right of first refusal rather than losing that player’s rights after their SuperDraft priority window.

In the event that an underclassman goes unselected, they’d be able to return to school (provided they retained their collegiate eligibility) and enter the pool again in a later year. 

One group of players whose rights could be in complicated states of limbo are those who are on a team’s homegrown player list throughout college, although their situations remain consistent with past seasons. So long as a player remains on that list, they will not be allowed to enter the SuperDraft. A source walked through what those players could face by using a real example that could happen under this framework, using a fake name and a different team to protect the player’s privacy.

Bob Roberts is a junior and arguably the NCAA’s best right back, a certain MAC Hermann Trophy finalist. Before college, Roberts was also part of the San Diego FC academy, and the club kept Roberts on their homegrown player list. As a result, Roberts has been unable to leave school after his sophomore and junior seasons as his MLS future is solely San Diego’s to determine. Having already played three years and earned his assessment as one of the best college players in the nation, though, he’s ready to move on to the next level.

However, San Diego has a deep pool of right backs and isn’t sold on Roberts’ post-college potential, and decides not to offer him a homegrown deal ahead of his senior season. If Roberts is determined to go pro after his junior season, he can then either go to the USL for a year to be eligible for the following SuperDraft, sign with a Next Pro team and hope any interested MLS team is willing to trade something to San Diego for his rights, or explore his options abroad.

If Roberts returned to school and San Diego still did not offer him a homegrown deal by December 1, he could then enter the SuperDraft following his senior year. Any MLS team, including San Diego, could select him. The drafting team would, again, have his SuperDraft priority rights for two full years. If he didn’t sign with the selecting team, his rights would be determined by whether or not he received an MLS contract offer.

The briefing given to sporting executives also clarified the increasingly important process of how a player can retain their college eligibility. It’s a strict criteria set forth by the NCAA. Players are not allowed to miss a single class for a tryout or a practice with a processional team. They would not be allowed to play a competitive game or scrimmage with a professional team. Their tryout can only extend beyond a 48-hour window if the player self-finances all associated expenses, including return transportation.

In short, it’s unlikely that a player will declare for the draft unless they’d be willing to take an MLS Next Pro contract. In last year’s SuperDraft, only 17 selections were signed to full MLS deals before the start of the season on top of the 11 GA players who were guaranteed contracts with the league. That’s less than half as many as the 35 who signed MLS Next Pro contracts, with three players from that 35 earning MLS contracts midway through the season. 

Hopefully this will also eliminate one of the SuperDraft’s poorest elements in terms of optics. In 2023, teams elected to pass rather than select any eligible player on five occasions. That’s down from 10 in the 2022 SuperDraft — an event that saw future St. Louis City starting center back Kyle Hiebert go unselected. 

Still, passing on picks sent a message that teams would rather start their post-draft plans sooner than give a potential professional opportunity to any remaining player in the pool. If teams continue to pass in the new format, it’s indicative of a failure on the team’s part in terms of scouting and preparation.

The softening of age restrictions should help give the SuperDraft an infusion of importance as the quality of each year’s pool should theoretically improve. Simultaneously, these new guidelines could also make the college route a more appealing alternative for players knowing they can go pro after two collegiate seasons regardless of the GA process. 

(Photo: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

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