Back in 1997, the U.S. U20 men’s national team was gathered together at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in San Diego, all huddled together in a room, when a man strode in and introduced himself.
I’m Sunil Gulati, he said, and we’re starting something new.
It was a humble beginning for a program that turns 20 years old next year and is in its second iteration. Those players in 1997 knew it as Project-40, a Nike-sponsored MLS draft workaround that identified a smattering of the country’s best young players and lobbed professional contracts at them. When Gulati told that group of players about it, they were the first outside U.S. Soccer’s think tank to hear.
The first hand that shot up in the room belonged to Brian Dunseth. Before a nine-year MLS career that spanned seven different rosters, Dunseth was a precocious sophomore defender from Cal State Fullerton gearing up for the 1997 U20 World Cup.
Dunseth was ultimately part of the first Project-40 class, which has been Generation adidas since 2005 once Nike dropped out. And in many ways it was an entirely different era.
The offer was hardly glamorous. Dunseth’s MLS paycheck was $776.78 every two weeks, which was barely enough to cover his $1,000 rent. When he arrived in New England in July 1997, team leader Alexi Lalas told Dunseth he was responsible for the balls, the bags, the bibs, the trash, loading and unloading the plane and the bus for road trips, was never to be allowed on the massage table in the training room and, most importantly, was always the first player in the middle in 5v2 drills.
Despite the hardships, Dunseth would’ve made the same decision again. And again. And again.
“It was, I’m getting to play pro soccer,” Dunseth says. “For me, you could’ve said we’ll pay for your food and that’s all we’re going to give you, and I was in.”
The 1997 GA class was, of course, the first in the MLS era. But it also coincided with just the second U20 MNT appearance in a U20 World Cup in eight years, a sweltering mid-summer tournament in Malaysia the U.S. fought through admirably enough under the circumstances. Narrow one-goal losses to Ireland and Ghana proceeded a 1-0 win over China on a 90th minute bolt from Brian West. The U.S. qualified for the knockouts as a third place side and bowed out with a quiet 3-0 capitulation against Uruguay in the Round of 16.
MLS plundered that 1997 U20 World Cup roster with alacrity to cobble together its first two GA classes. Joey DiGiamarino, Esmundo Rodriguez, Carlos Parra – technically the first GA player in MLS history – and Dunseth were all plucked for the first GA class in 1997 (it was called Project-40 under Nike’s banner until adidas took over in 2005, but I’m terming it GA from here out for ease of use). A year later, six more players from that U20 squad were included in the second ever GA class.
In two years, more than half of that 1997 U20 side – the one Gulati first told about the initiative – was folded into the league via the nascent GA program.
The GA initiative was designed for a different era, a different set of players and an entirely different league. The MLS of 1997 was a tremulous skiff, bouncing on the roiling chop in search of young game-changers to steady the uncertainty. As incomplete as the league’s view of its GA candidates is now, it was even blurrier 19 years ago. It wasn’t as if the league’s brand new stable of coaching staffs had enough wherewithal to scout that deeply into college soccer anyway.
GA did its work for a time. It was never meant to catch everyone, but the league was never all that concerned about opening the floodgates to young college players anyway. It was only interested in skimming the top of the pool, or at least one small corner of it. Dozens of the league’s all-time GA college finds – Carlos Bocanegra, Nick Rimando, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey – were plucked in this way.
The league has changed, and frankly so has college soccer. The increasingly irrelevant GA path has not.
Before 2016, GA classes had shrunk for five consecutive years, dwindling from an all-time high of 13 in 2010 to an all-time nadir of five in 2015. Flush with an increasing number of foreign mid-level contracts, primarily from Central and South American players but also from a growing contingent of Homegrowns, MLS front offices increasingly sought out buys in the international transfer market over a college system that fades every so slightly in professional relevance each year.
Part of that is natural, but an equal piece is artificial. MLS has made it terribly difficult and needlessly convoluted for MLS teams to sign college players.
The NBA and NFL both require at least a year of college experience before declaring for their respective drafts, and while MLB accepts high school players, those who’ve entered college have to wait until at least the end of their junior year to dip into the voluminous league draft. Whatever your take on those requirements, each of those leagues represent the global pinnacle of their respective sports. If they do lose players to those rules, they aren’t the ones that matter.
MLS is in an entirely different world. A different galaxy, maybe, even from the one Dunseth and his former U20 teammates occupied. MLS is competing against dozens of leagues that have no such barriers, and college players are more in touch with avenues abroad than ever. Those roadblocks for college players only serve to light the beacons out of the country. Put simply, MLS cannot afford any potential hurdles for players in its back yard. They already have incentive enough to go abroad. Why make the choice easier?
To put it frankly, MLS needs to eliminate the GA initiative entirely. After nearly 20 years, it has outlived its utility. It’s time to open up the draft. To everyone.
“It’s been fascinating to watch how maybe the league has outgrown it in some ways,” Dunseth says. “With the academy structure setup and the infrastructure for individual teams, top to bottom developing their own youth as opposed to kind of going through the college system, I think you kind of see two significant breakdowns. I think it’s the idea of identifying kids from 12 on up and teaching them the philosophical ideas of what the club is about, what formation they’re about, and bringing them through the system and keeping an eye on them.
“That’s versus now I think kind of identifying late bloomers, so to speak, through the college draft. I think it does have a place, but I think in the near future we’re going to see less and less of Generation adidas. I think we’re going to start to see it die out as a true barometer of the league’s growth.”
In August of 2014, Ludwig Ahl arrived in Charleston, S.C. hours before UC Santa Barbara’s season opener against the College of Charleston. Ahl landed softly in American soccer, a little known 20-year-old Swedish freshman bundled off from AIK Stockholm’s club setup. All of 5-foot-6, Ahl hit college soccer like a careening freight train, scoring four times and assisting on four goals that year despite joining the team in a new country literally the day the 2014 college season began.
Given the rapidity of his arrival, he became the totem for the college soccer most never see.
Ahl was a frank revelation, a diminutive attacking midfielder who could carve statues of marble from midfields of splintered rock. But the system was not set up to serve players like him. He of course had no MLS Homegrown attachment, and after his freshman year MLS only took five GA players for the ensuing draft. It’s doubtful MLS HQ even knew who Ahl was.
It ultimately didn’t matter. Ahl left after one season of college soccer, whisked back to his home country to sign a pro deal with Nykoping (which, ironically, is the current home for former Columbus Crew midfielder Romain Gall). MLS created an absurdly narrow passageway for talented young college players like Ahl, so it’s no surprise that the lion’s share of his cohorts leave before they’re ever even identified.
Nothing about college soccer is ideal. But make no mistake, its reputation has been largely founded on the narrow sliver of players MLS presents to you, not necessarily on the players who are actually there. Ahl is merely one of many, a whisper barely heard. Ghanaian sophomore Geoffrey Acheampong, who just signed for Bastia in France, was on the same college team.
MLS had long leaned on the premise that college players who declare for the draft and then weren’t drafted would have forfeited their NCAA eligibility. As Brooke Tunstall reported in 2014, that isn’t true. Players in sports other than football and basketball have a do-over, essentially, allowing them to go undrafted once and still return to college soccer afterward provided they don’t hire an agent.
The excuses, it would seem, stem purely from MLS’s side of the fence.
I think one reason why MLS refuses to open up the draft is because it’d be a clerical challenge for a benefit they are likely unprepared to embrace. The draft is only four rounds, and throwing an indeterminate amount of players of wildly variable talent into the pool for selection could flood the system. Would teams even know the scads of new players they’d be selecting from? College soccer is an enormous beast. Is MLS administratively prepared to make all of college soccer’s thousands of players draft eligible overnight? As is, not even all seniors are immediately eligible for the draft. There’s a back room selection process that is still opaque in the public purview to this day.
But if MLS is wedded to the near-term notion of a draft – something it should ultimately take pains to dismantle – the league needs to make the latter rounds relevant again. And it cannot do that via a meager selection of underclassmen and junior GA players coupled with seniors who weren’t good enough for a GA deal in the first place. That’s not to say seniors aren’t worthy of MLS. But that is to say that signing promising 18 and 19 and 20-year old college players is far more palatable than 22 and 23-year olds. Those few years are, believe it or not, wildly important, given that they get the requisite playing time.
As is, more than 90 percent of picks in the third and fourth rounds – and especially the fourth – are purely academic now. Few (if any) will still be with the club that drafted them after a year, let alone playing for the first team. A player approaching his mid-20’s should, ideally, be ready to go out of the box. Indeed, there were 20 picks in the fourth and final round of the 2016 draft. Five of them were passes. If all 15 of the players taken that round reach 500 career combined MLS minutes, color me shocked.
And it isn’t as though the draft is all that large. There are only 80 picks. If that isn’t enough of a message that clubs don’t value the draft’s depth, well, then MLS isn’t listening.
There is no “fix” here, because college soccer itself isn’t good enough to fix anything on its own. But there is the matter of simply making everything better by removing the barriers for young college players to join MLS other than through a contrived system that outlived its utility more than a decade ago. Because as we’ve established, MLS cannot afford to close doors.
Not now, not ever.