This ain’t the NCAA Superdraft, but it’s not much better
The new Canadian Premier League’s been keeping me on my toes the last ten days as it slowly begins to deliver the long-promised stream of news and announcements.
I’d heard rumours about a university draft, but expected it would have been announced, y’know, about three months ago, so chalked it up to a not-quite-ready-for-year-one goal.
CanPL announced Wednesday that a USPORTS university draft will occur on November 12th. That’s less than a month off.
We’ll get to the ups and downs of this system in a minute, but regardless, the timing for this is way, way off. Let’s be charitable and assume the league’s operations department has known about this for a while, and so has already begun scouting players who may be injured, whose seasons are already effectively over, and so on. Take Charlie Watters, Cape Breton’s star striker who’s missing this entire season with a knee injury he sustained in the summer, but who could well be fit for a CanPL pre-season. He should have a shot to make a team, but this draft is an easy way to avoid scouting him.
The league has said it’ll have all its scouts at the upcoming national championship in Vancouver, for which only eight teams qualify, and there’s almost always an upset somewhere in the conference playoffs.
Managers will have access to a prospects list compiled by the operations department. The list will include video footage, and (almost) every USPORTS game is streamed now, so that should help work around the above problem a bit.
The whole operation still looks a lot like the MLS Superdraft, though. That’s the more broken than not mechanism by which MLS “franchises” acquire college players each year.
It might seem, as someone whose watched the university game for a long time and who’s a big supporter of CanPL, that I’d be thrilled by this news. I’m not.
Drafts tend to be inefficient–this one in particular, for the above reasons. They concentrate talent in one place and chance the incentive structure. This leads to things like the MLS Combine, an adidas-sponsored schermuzzle that overvalues players who make a one-off impact. That’s exactly what will happen at nationals this year, and some team (lookin’ at you, Pacific FC) will end up grabbing the player who, every year, has a great tournament after a so-so year.
This represents an opportunity for university players, and for that I am glad. Most of the initial chatter on Twitter and such has been about that, and about how the seasons will intersect. Credit where due, it’s an ingenious little system, modeled more on the PDL than NCAA/MLS: university players will sign “developmental” contracts that allow them to retain college eligibility and return to their university sides on August 15th of each year.
University players would be well-advised to watch out, though. While those contracts avoid one of the most vexing of the MLS Superdraft’s problems–turning pro burns NCAA eligibility–it also more or less guarantees USPORTS draftees will be reserve players. They’ll also have no choice in where to play, and likely little to no ability to freely negotiate their contracts. This is a very bad deal for the Christian Oxners (who just separated his shoulder and wouldn’t have been at nationals anyway, because SMU aren’t that good) and Christian Cavallinis, who should be in the mix as training camp invites anyway. Teams even have an incentive to draft a high-profile university player in order to control his rights and save money. Much of this system is going to depend on how CanPL handles free movement.
In theory, a draftee who becomes a starter would then be signed to a larger contract to permit the CanPL side to keep him past August 15th, although with CanPL running a single-table it may again incentivize teams out of title contention to let the player return and thus keep him on a cheaper deal. That, in turn, would hurt the on-field product, not to mention the local flavour of the teams, both things CanPL clubs need to develop to grow their markets.
Developmentally, this does fill a hole in the pyramid and it’s nice to see the two leagues working in sync. There will be players who benefit from this system immensely.
I actually worry as much or more about the clubs. The MLS Superdraft has been largely superseded by arcane MLS contracts and the club’s own academies. Relying on the Superdraft is hit or miss, and it has tended, over the years, to produce the more physical and less technical players for which early MLS was known. It meant key players joined teams later in their development curve.
CanPL sides are unlikely to be able to finance academies, at least not right away–even the MLS academies are largely funded by adidas. That’s probably fine, since there’s already a pipeline of young talent coming out of the MLS academies in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. As a stop-gap measure, a university draft will help teams build a deeper, affordable roster for year one. Teams that rely on it too much, or for too long, are going to be in trouble. Clubs can’t out-source their developmental responsibilities.
I’d also like to see similar partnerships with local club teams, as that’s when players should be deciding whether to pursue professional opportunities or not. In fact, a lot of players, particularly in Atlantic Canada, still pursue the NCAA route, and thus wouldn’t be eligible for this draft. The local club teams also have, politics aside, better reach and better scouting networks.
In many ways, the Canadian Hockey League is a strong example of how such a system can work well (though it has its own issues with free movement). It drafts from local junior teams–often in small towns–and players play until they’re 20, when their development is largely complete. Then they either go pro, and are drafted into the NHL, or they go to school–and the CHL pays their tuition. In turn, this makes the university leagues much higher quality. Granted, hockey in Canada has a depth and breadth in its pyramid that Canadian soccer does not, but it’s also a depth and breadth we should aim for. Local club teams already exist and do, by and large, good work. It’s common in world soccer for top flight teams (which CanPL is) to align with local youth and amateur sides to facilitate loan deals, training partnerships, and the like.
When that starts to happen, the Canadian soccer pyramid will grow far more it will through any draft.