INDIANAPOLIS — Andy Najar is one of the brightest young players in Major League Soccer.
Still only 19, the Honduras-born midfielder first turned heads during his freshman MLS campaign in 2010, winning rookie of the year honours. Since then, he’s become such a hot commodity that he went on to play for Honduras at the London Olympics and been capped by his country’s senior team, and he recently was sent on a one-month loan with Belgian outfit Anderlecht.
But what’s particularly interesting about Najar is that even though he spent his formative years growing up in the United States, he never played NCAA soccer, and ended up taking a different developmental path to MLS. Unlike other prospects who were drafted out of college, Najar signed with DC United after apprenticing with the team’s youth academy.
Sportsnet at the MLS SuperDraft: Gerry Dobson and John Molinaro will be in Indianapolis on Wednesday and Thursday to provide in-depth coverage of the MLS SuperDraft for Sportsnet and sportsnet.ca
Najar is hardly a one-off, as there are close to 50 such “homegrown players” in MLS. Seventeen of the league’s 19 teams have their own in-house youth academies, and Toronto FC went to the expense of building a multi-million dollar training facility at Downsview Park to house its ever-expanding youth academy.
As per league rules, any team can sign a player to his first professional contract without subjecting him to MLS’s college draft system if the player has trained for at least one year in the club’s youth development program and lived in the team’s home territory.
Players also have the option of playing college soccer while training with their MLS club’s youth academy before turning pro. It’s a win-win situation for the players and the teams.
More and more MLS clubs are taking advantage of this rule, raising the burning question: Does the MLS SuperDraft still matter?
Some league insiders believe the draft is slowing losing its importance, and that the college game isn’t as loaded with talent as it once was.
But others, like the Montreal Impact’s Matt Jordan, think the MLS SuperDraft still has relevance and is a vital developmental mechanism for the league. Jordan, the Impact’s director of soccer operations, feels the draft and the youth academy system complement each other.
“I think the landscape in North America is changing a bit year by year, with most clubs now starting their own academies. What we’re really focusing on is trying to mesh the two worlds: utilize what we have inside our own academy and balance that with how we can still improve our team through the draft. I still think the draft bears importance,” Jordan told sportsnet.ca.
Not surprisingly, Kevin Payne agrees with Jordan’s assessment.
During his time in charge of DC United, Payne oversaw a successful draft strategy that saw DC select several college stars who turned out to be successful pros in MLS, a list that includes Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Nick DeLeon and current United coach Ben Olsen.
Now the club president and general manager of Toronto FC, Payne feels the draft remains one of the best and most affordable ways for MLS teams to rebuild and stock their rosters.
“If you look at how DC has been built over the years, the draft has been very important. It’s an unusual circumstance in soccer where you can get players for free and then you can build your team around them,” Payne explained.
He later added: “(MLS teams are) spending a lot of money on academies, but it’s dwarfed by the amount of money being spent by the American collegiate system.”
Greg Anderson offers a slightly different view on the draft and its future importance. The Vancouver Whitecaps’ director of professional teams feels “there’s always going to be good players coming out of college,” but he also concedes that the depth of the draft pool could one day be adversely affected by the continued growth in importance of MLS teams’ youth academies.
“I think the draft is still very important,” Anderson said. “Each year you see a number of really solid players coming out of the draft, especially in the first round. Time will tell how the new incentives around player development and the importance of it will have on clubs who are putting resources into academy structures and player development. It’ll only really tell over time how that impacts the draft.”
Like Anderson, Earl Cochrane, TFC’s director of team and player operations, can’t envision a time when the draft becomes obsolete. But he also sees a trend developing, where some of the top collegiate players won’t be going to the draft.
Under normal circumstances, London Woodberry would be available to any team in this year’s MLS SuperDraft after an outstanding season as a senior for the University of Maryland in 2012. But FC Dallas was able to sign Woodberry to a homegrown player contract, retaining his MLS rights after first signing him to their youth academy.
“I think that’s going to continue. I think there will be five or six or seven guys at the top of the draft class who are going to be locked up by their MLS clubs and sign contracts with them,” Cochrane opined.