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The SuperDraft

Does MLS Block College Underclassmen from Draft?

Saint Louis University junior Robbie Kristo is a two-time All American with great size and a scorer's touch. But he was excluded from Thursday's MLS SuperDraft. ASN wanted to find out why.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
January 17, 2014
6:39 PM
IT STARTED OUT as a simple question. It turned out to have a not-so-simple answer.

When Major League Soccer announced its annual Generation Adidas class this year, it only had seven members—that is, seven college underclassmen signed to contracts before the league’s annual SuperDraft.

Why only seven?

Surely there are more than seven underclassmen in college soccer both good enough and interested in turning pro before they’ve played their senior years of college ball, right? We see this happen in the other so-called Big Four of American professional sports leagues for years, where underclassmen announce they’re declaring for their sport’s draft and spend less than four season on campus.

So could college soccer players do the same thing? Just declare for the draft minus a Generation Adidias contract? Does the league actually have a policy about this and if so, what is it? Is there interest from MLS coaches in this? Are there underclassmen who are good enough to turn pro and want to do so who don’t get a GA offer? Is this an issue addressed in the league’s collective bargaining agreement and, barring that, is it legal for MLS to keep underclassmen from seeking employment with them if they aren’t already signed to a deal? What are the NCAA’s rules regarding this issue? And finally, is MLS’ policy good for the league and the development of American soccer?

American Soccer Now weaved its way through this maze of questions, and while nothing appears definitive when dealing with MLS and the NCAA, two entities noted for their Byzantine bylaws, we think we came up with some answers.

Let’s start with an easy question: Are there underclassmen both good enough and interested in turning pro who aren’t getting offers? This one has a simple answer: Yes!

With deft feet at the bottom of a six-foot-four frame and a scorer’s nose for the goal, Robbie Kristo, a junior forward from Saint Louis University, is a two-time All American with professional aspirations—the type of player who should have gone very high in this week’s Major League Soccer SuperDraft.

But instead of shaking hands with Don Garber and getting a team scarf after hearing his name called, Kristo was back home in St. Louis planning for his future after being told he wasn’t eligible for today’s draft.

“I would have at least liked the chance to find out what the interest is in me from MLS teams, see where I’d go in the draft,” Kristo told ASN. “And I know I have some teammates and guys at others schools who would consider leaving early if they could declare for the draft.”

Make no mistake, at least a few MLS teams have interest in Kristo, a Bosnia native who grew up in his parents' homeland, Croatia, until immigrating to the United States at age five. Last fall MLSsoccer.com predicted that in 2014 Kristo would be one of the top players in the league under the age of 24.

“I got a lot of calls from MLS coaches about Robbie,” said Saint Louis coach Mike McGinty, a former MLS goalkeeper. “They’d say they were interested in him but we never heard a thing from the league.”

Kristo's European Union passport “gives me a few more choices over there than a lot of other Americans have,” he said. “Except for my Mom and Dad, all of my family are in Europe so I wouldn’t mind playing over there. So I plan on setting up some trials for spring break and the early part of the summer. But I’m an American and I really would have liked playing in this country.”

Kristo isn’t alone among college underclassmen to have waited for MLS contract offers that never arrived. Reigning MLS Rookie of the Year Dillon Powers of the Colorado Rapids wanted to turn pro after his junior season at Notre Dame in 2011. “I got an offer after my sophomore year but didn’t feel like I was ready to turn pro,” Powers explained. “But after my junior year I thought I was ready and was told an offer would be coming but never heard back” from MLS.

Powers returned for his senior year and admitted it was a blessing in disguise because “who knows what would have happened if I had come out early. Coming back [for my senior year] allowed me to get healthier and end up in a great situation here in Colorado.” But the point remains, he was ready to turn pro and was denied the chance to do so. And as good as he was as rookie, would he have been better if he got in a pro system earlier?

Would MLS coaches want the draft opened up to underclassmen who haven’t signed Generation Adidas deals? Absolutely, especially in a year like this one when the draft isn’t considered to be loaded with high-end talent.

“You’d always like more choices available to you,” said an MLS coach who asked not to be identified because he didn’t want to run afoul of the league office. “We get some good players with Generation Adidias but do we leave out some good players every year, too? I think so. I know there were [underclassmen] I saw this year who aren’t here who are better than a lot of the players that are here at the Combine. There are players who are ready who aren’t getting signed.”

But what is MLS’ policy on underclassmen? A survey of a handful of college coaches, those most likely to inform a player of his professional options, revealed that the common perception is that the MLS draft was closed to underclassmen who hadn’t signed a GA deal. And they are right. Sort of.

Seeking clarification, ASN contacted MLS, which declined to provide a league official for comment. A league spokesperson answered questions about this for the record but asked to be quoted anonymously.

“It is the policy of Major League Soccer to not put underclassmen who aren’t signed to Generation Adidas deals on our-draft eligible list,” the league spokesperson said. Even seniors with no eligibility remaining have to be on this list to be able to be drafted. They are placed on this list at the recommendation of MLS and a selection of college coaches.

MLS claims altruistic reasons for keeping unsigned underclassmen from the draft: “The league doesn’t wasn’t underclassmen to declare for the draft and then lose their (NCAA) eligibility if they don’t get drafted,” the MLS spokesperson said.

But here’s where the plot thickens. As it turns out, MLS has an exception, albeit one that few in college soccer know about. “If an (underclassmen) who isn’t (Generation Adidas) signed with an agent (which is an NCAA violation that would cost a player his eligibility) or is academically ineligible or has lost his (NCAA) eligibility in any way, he can be put onto our draft-eligible list,” the MLS spokesperson said.

So if an underclassmen has bad grades or signs with an agent, voila!, he is draft-eligible. But wait, there’s more. ASN also spoke with NCAA spokesperson Cameron Schuh, who referred us to NCAA rule

“An enrolled student-athlete in a sport other than basketball or football may enter a professional league's draft one time during his or her collegiate career without jeopardizing his or her eligibility in the applicable sport, provided the student-athlete is not drafted and within 72 hours following the draft he or she declares his or her intention to resume participation in intercollegiate athletics.”

So it turns out, underclassmen wouldn’t be risking their eligibility if they went undrafted after declaring for the MLS SuperDraft, which would seem to negate MLS’ rationale for excluding them from the draft.

So is there another reason for MLS’ policy? Some of the men who negotiate deals for the players think so. Having the option to go back to school creates salary negotiating leverage for the player, and MLS has a long history of trying to eliminate leverage for the players whenever it can.

“The last thing MLS wants,” said one MLS agent who asked to be quoted anonymously, “is to create a situation where a club really wants a player and he is using going back to school as a way to get more money—like you see in baseball sometimes.”

(Major League Baseball rules stipulate that all high school seniors, all junior college players, and all players who have completed their third year at a four-year college or turned 21 are automatically eligible for the draft. Teams have a set deadline to negotiate a contract with those players or they will lose their rights to that player and get nothing for their pick.)

Further, the younger a player turns pro, the younger he is when he hits free agency and younger free agents have more market value with overseas teams and thus more leverage with MLS.

Is this addressed in the CBA? And is MLS’ policy legal? No and yes.

“This is not something that’s covered through collective bargaining,” said Major League Soccer Players Union head Bob Foose. “It’s strictly an MLS policy.”

Is it something they might seek to address when the current CBA expires after this season? “We as a union are still in discussion about what our biggest priorities will be for the new CBA,” Foose said. (Translation: we likely have bigger fish to fry for our current members.)

According to Mike Jarosi, an Ohio-based sports attorney who has dealt with Major League Soccer, the league’s policy is legal. “It might be short-sighted, because it limits some players who are ready from turning pro, but is it illegal? I don’t think so,” he said. “Because MLS is single entity, meaning one company instead of a bunch of privately held companies coming together to form a league –they can hire who they want to based on whatever criteria for talent they want to use.”

Fair enough. But does this policy make soccer sense for MLS and the U.S. national team?

While MLS may have financial motivation for keeping unsigned underclassmen from the draft, there’s little question that it is limiting options for its clubs, and preventing the best talent from entering into a professional environment as early as possible.

College soccer takes a lot of stick for the problems of the American game, and much of that is undeserved. But even the most hard-core advocates for the college game conceded that the NCAA’s short season and limits on practice time inhibit player development.

So while four-year college players like Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi, and Matt Besler continue to carry the banner for college soccer, most of the elite players in the U.S. either don’t play college soccer or leave early. Of the 64 players to have been capped under Jurgen Klinsmann, 27 didn’t play college soccer at all, and 23 others left college before their senior seasons.

And with MLS set to add five more teams in the next few years, starting with two next year, it seems short-sighted to not get the better players into a pro setting sooner rather than later.

So will things change? Will we someday soon see college players holding press conferences announcing their intent to declare for the MLS draft even though they haven’t signed a contract with the league?

Who knows, but at least now we know it could happen even if MLS doesn’t encourage it.

We'd like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please chime in below.

Brooke Tunstall is a veteran journalist who has covered Major League Soccer since its first player dispersal draft. Follow him on Twitter.

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