122414kristo-supplied Courtesy Saint Louis University Athletics
Major League Soccer

Top Prospect Robbie Kristo Bypasses MLS for Italy

Saint Louis University star forward Robbie Kristo is just one of many top college prospects who was kept out of MLS due to its policies on signing underclassmen. And now Kristo is off to play in Italy.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
December 24, 2014
1:35 PM
ONE YEAR AGO, all it would have taken for Major League Soccer to sign Robbie Kristo was a couple of phone calls and a decent offer. Now they won’t get him at all, and an already weak 2015 MLS "SuperDraft" just got weaker.

Kristo is a three-time All-American striker at Saint Louis University, where he just finished his senior year, a six-foot-four power forward with deft feet and a scorer’s mentality. He would have been one of the top strikers in the draft but instead he’s Europe-bound, having come to terms with a club in Italy’s Serie B.

(Terms of Kristo’s deal were not disclosed and ASN is honoring requests from Kristo’s camp to not identity the Italian team until the signing is officially announced.)

“It was a really good offer and more than MLS was ever going to pay,” according to a source familiar with Kristo’s situation who asked to remain anonymous. “They signed him without him going on trial, just based on video. They really want him.”

Several MLS teams also wanted Kristo. A year ago he was expected to be part of the Generation Adidas class for 2014 and was hoping for a chance to turn pro then. But despite some MLS coaches telling ASN they thought Kristo was ready for pro soccer a year ago, an offer never came his way. So Kristo returned for his senior season and scored 14 goals and registered two assists and was named the Atlantic 10 Conference’s player of the year and a first-team All-American.

Born in Bosnia to Croatian parents but raised in St. Louis, Kristo won’t count as an international player in a European Union country, which made him more marketable in Europe. It also underscores why MLS was shortsighted in not inking him a year ago. Kristo is represented by Mike Gartlan of COR Sports Management, which also represents New England defender A.J. Soares, who is a free agent this winter and has reportedly inked a deal with Serie A club Hellas Verona.

Now, with the need to stock two new expansion teams, Kristo won’t be available in a draft that will already be without some of the top underclassmen in the country.

According to multiple MLS and college evaluators, the three top pro field players in college soccer this year are a trio of sophomores: Connecticut forward Cyle Larin, a Canadian national team player; Joshua Yaro, a sophomore defender from Georgetown who is originally from Ghana; and Washington midfielder Cristian Roldan, a member of the U.S. under-20 national team pool.

The top goalkeeper in the country, especially after Maryland sophomore Zack Steffen signed with Freiburg in Germany, is Syracuse junior All-American Alex Bono.

Yaro was always going to be tough to sign because of his desire to finish, or at least get closer to finishing, his degree. Several sources said the offer he received from MLS wasn’t enough to coax him from school. “Yaro is staying in school and not joining MLS this year,” Georgetown coach Brian Wiese told ASN.

That’s disappointing news for many in the league, especially expansion Orlando City, which made no secret it coveted the speedy Yaro and had repeatedly scouted him.

Roldan is coveted by Adidas, which sponsors the program that MLS uses to sign underclassmen for the draft, because he did a commercial for them as a nine-year old. He has since blossomed into one of the most complete midfielders in the country and was also underwhelmed by the offer he received from MLS.

“It sounds like he is going to stay,” said a source close to the situation. “But MLS, especially if Adidas puts pressure on them to sign him, might increase their offer. They’re still negotiating but right now they haven’t offered enough to get him to leave.”

Larin, as ASN reported earlier this month, left for European trials immediately after taking his last final exam. However, this has prompted MLS to up its offer and he is using going to Europe as leverage to try and get more out of MLS.

“He’s got someone negotiating with MLS for him,” said someone familiar with the situation. “With Yaro not signing there’s a lot of pressure on MLS to get a couple of these guys.”

A league source said Bono is on their radar but as of Christmas Eve MLS had not reached out to him.

All of this raises questions about the future of the Generation Adidas program, which MLS has long trumpeted as the focal point of its annual draft and has produced myriad future national team stars like Clint Dempsey, Brad Guzan, and Omar Gonzalez. Unlike other American professional leagues, MLS does not allow underclassmen to declare for its SuperDraft if they haven’t signed Generation Adidas deals.

“So much of MLS’ emphasis now, in terms of signing young players, is on the academies and the homegrown players,” one prominent agent said. “They don’t seem like they know what they want to do with Generation Adidas now but they don’t seem like they’re as willing to sign the top underclassmen who aren’t homegrown players as they once were.”

Could this lead to MLS scuppering the Generation Adidas program and instead letting underclassmen into the draft?

“We believe that for some players, turning pro early is best for them, for their development and best for our teams,” said MLS vice president for player relations and competition Lino DiCuollo. “But any changes to our system would likely have to come through the new (collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union). Opening the draft to underclassmen could be something that’s in the new CBA. We don’t want players turning pro when they’re not ready and losing their (NCAA) eligibility so it’s something we have to be very careful with."

The current CBA expires this month and MLS and the players’ union are currently hammering out terms of a new one though it’s not expected to be competed for several weeks, if they come to terms at all.

With Kristo and Yaro out of the draft and Roldan, Larin, and Bono unknowns, other possible names that have been mentioned in GA deals include UCLA defenders Michael Amick, a sophomore, and Chase Gasper, a freshman, as well as midfielder Jake Rozhansky, a freshman who just helped Virginia to a national title. All three are members of the U.S. U-20 national team pool.

“Those three, all of them will probably be good players but none of them are ready now,” said one MLS evaluator. “In my opinion it would be a mistake to sign them just because you can’t sign the players you really want. They’re all probably better off staying in school.”

Meanwhile, there are other older players with eligibility remaining who want into the draft but haven’t been offered Generation Adidas deals. One such player is Marquette defender Axel Sjoberg. A six-foot-seven redshirt junior from Sweden, Sjoberg was an All-American as a sophomore and would be the tallest field player in MLS history if he made an MLS roster. His size is obviously impressive but he’ll be 24 in March, which takes some of the luster off him as a prospect.

“He’s getting his degree and he could come back as a graduate student but he wants to turn pro now,” said Marquette coach Louis Bennett. “He has some offers back in Sweden but he’d like to stay here but he hasn’t heard anything from MLS.”

MLS’ policy on redshirt juniors has been inconsistent, with some signed to GA deals, some allowed to declare for the draft, and others returning for a fifth year. “We have tended to take that on a case-by-case basis,” said DiCuollo.

Then there’s the case of Dzenan Catic, a former Michigan high school player of the year who signed with Kaiserslautern in Germany as a senior in high school but returned home after 18 months because of a series of injuries.

Because he had signed with a pro club, Catic was ineligible to play NCAA soccer so he instead enrolled at nearby Davenport, which competes in the NAIA, an association of smaller colleges that has looser eligibility restrictions. In two seasons at Davenport, Catic, 22, has put up video game numbers, scoring 63 goals and 18 assists in 47 games en route to leading his team to a national title and being named NAIA player of the year.

This summer, playing against Division I opponents in the Premier Development League, he scored 18 goals in as many games for the Michigan Bucks, led it to a PDL national title, and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.

“We’ve gotten a lot of calls from MLS coaches about Dzenan and they scouted some of our games and he would like to go pro now,” Davenport coach Chris Hughes. “He’s just a goal-scorer. He’s as good at scoring goals as any college player in the country, regardless of level.”

DiCuollo said he was unsure if Catic would be allowed into the SuperDraft. “We’ll have to look into his situation,” he said.

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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