The real value of the MLS draft

Bobby Warshaw, the 17th pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, comes to a realization about the need for hope

Abu Danladi, 1st pick of the 2017 draft (Minnesota United)

The stage sits at the front of the room, lights placed diligently in the scaffolding above. Twenty-two tables make up a half circle around it. On the next layer are seats for the fans, a small section taped off for potential draft picks and their families. Cameras rest on a stage at the back, pointed all around the room to catch all the angles. Near the entrance is a beautiful set with four analysts speaking into their microphones, a newly unpackaged ball poised on a stand with a light designated to shine a glare onto its panels.

That’s the point of the day: shine, glare, hope. Today is beautiful, tomorrow will be better. It’s Draft Day.

We are one of a very few countries in the world that has drafts for our sports. The draft itself, though, isn’t the quintessential American part. It’s what comes with it: the hope. We tune in to the draft because it makes us think about tomorrow. And when we, Americans, we think about tomorrow, we get excited. We envision better times ahead. No matter what’s going on today, tomorrow will be better. The draft gives us a chance to dream about the future, about what could be.

It’s never more stark than at an MLS SuperDraft. Who did your team pick in the 1st Round five years ago? If you remember, you’re probably in the minority. If you look at the 2012 MLS SuperDraft — to select a random year — 11 of the 19 players are no longer in MLS. Within five years, more than half of the players are out of the league. Of the other eight remaining, only four are consistent starters (Andrew Wenger, Kelyn Rowe, Dom Dwyer, and Matt Hedges). There isn’t much reason based on logical or historical precedent to get stoked about the guy your team picked. Yet we watch and hope anyway.

With the rise of USL, even fewer of this year’s draftees will play in MLS this season. Most of the guys will end up in USL to get minutes. The MLS Commissioner calls their name and they thank their families for helping them achieve their dream and then they get sent to Reno or Oklahoma City or Wilmington. For the most part, the draft means very little to MLS teams. And, yet, the room looks so beautiful.

The dissonance feels palpable, even painful. It feels a little bit like we are slutting the kids out for our own need, our own aspiration. We give the kids their moment in the sun, but it’s not about the kids or the teams or the sport. It’s about us. It’s about our need for the hope.

I feel bad for the kids. I see how excited they are on the stage, but they have no idea. They, too, will probably be a name we look at on the History page of the player profiles packet in five years and feel proud of ourselves for remembering who he was (I am one of those guys). Because the draft isn’t about results or winning or success. It’s about much more. It’s about hope. And in being about hope, it’s about being American.

For all the problems our country has right now, we still have our draft. And despite the shot of guilt I feel as the kids walk across the stage, I feel strangely proud of my hope in this moment. I am glad we make such a ridiculous ordeal of something that doesn’t really actually matter at all. It sparks something inside of me that I’m glad I have; that I’m glad we all have.

People have rightfully questioned the merits of the MLS Draft. It clearly doesn’t hold much of a function for the quality of the product. When I walked into the room and saw what a festivity they put together, I wondered why they do this. I wondered why they make such a show for nothing, why MLS feels a need to trick us and lie to us and make us care about something that we shouldn’t care about.

The truth is, I’ve realized that sometimes you don’t need to do things for any tangible reason. Sometimes you do things for the soul. The MLS SuperDraft doesn’t mean a damn thing, and yet it means so much. For us, about us. I needed it today.