Slim Pickings? Analysis of the 2007-2014 MLS Superdraft

With this analysis there is an accompanying web app containing data on all 266 draft picks from 2007 – 2014. You can access that web app here.

On January 16th 2016, the MLS Superdraft will take place for the seventeenth time. The team currently holding the first pick is the Chicago Fire, with MLS Cup winners Portland Timbers due to pick last in the first round. Here’s the order of first round picks for the upcoming Superdraft.


In this analysis, I’m going to look at what sides have picked well in the draft, those that haven’t, and look back at how the players in each draft pick position have done previously in terms of seasons spent in MLS –measured through seasons in the league pay-roll. This analysis takes place from the 2007-2014 seasons, as that’s the total amount of salary data available and it’s too early to tell whether 2015 draft picks are a success of failure after just one season of data.

In this piece I refer to something called Career Efficiency. Career Efficiency is a very basic metric I’ve devised to see how long a player has played in the league after being drafted, compared to the number of years available to play. The scale is between 0 (none of the years available played in the league) and 1 (all of the years available played in the league). For example if a player has played in the league for 7 seasons, and there were 8 available his Career Efficiency is 0.88 (7/8).

I could have used minutes instead, but by using years on the payroll of the league you get a better overview of whether a player is still MLS-quality or not – with the thinking going that they will get cut early on if they are not up to the standard. Also there are a lot of factors that go into why a player is not playing – injury, suspension, not in the team, international duty, etc. – but that player is always being paid and therefore a drain on resources.

A player may have a low Career Efficiency because he’s not good enough for the league and is therefore cut. Equally, he could have moved abroad and therefore no longer plays in the league but extracts a fee for the team he is leaving. An example of this would be the recently retired Bakary Soumare – who has a Career Efficiency of 0.67 because he played a few seasons abroad. In a later analysis this sort of indicator could be added to determine the reason for a players low or high Career Efficency, but to start I’m going to keep it simple.

Round 1 Vs. Round 2

The easiest analysis that can be done with this data is to compare the Career Efficiency of a pick in Round 1 compared to Round 2. For a Round 1 pick, the drafted player historically plays 0.79 of seasons available. Comparatively, a Round 2 pick only plays in 0.49 of seasons. A Round 1 pick is more valuable here – which makes sense logically – but there are still some undervalued players that drop down to the second Round that have a 1.00 Career Efficiency (i.e. play in all of the seasons since being drafted).

For example, US Men’s National Teamers Brad Evans and Graham Zusi were picked 15th and 23rd respectively in the 2007 and 2009 Superdraft’s – making both of them second round picks and each with more than 25 caps for their country. These are just two guys – but a great example of talent overlooked by those picking earlier and great inspiration for players getting picked in the second round.

So are first round picks more valuable? I’d say yes. This isn’t busting any myths – but if you are looking for a player who is likely going to stay in MLS for a longer period of time you’re more likely to find one with a first round pick.

Are there any picks that buck the trend?

In any draft in any sport, there’s always likely to be a reason why a higher profile pick turns out to be a dud on a smaller scale – but are there any picks that repeatedly return players that perform above/below expectation? Taking a look at the graph below, picks 18 and 19 differ massively from the general downward trend.

correlFrom this chart the number of picks is mapped to the size of the point. Picks 27-38 have all come with the expansion of the league, so there are only a few of these. There is a pretty strong downward trend apart from a couple of higher placed picks in the second round towards the late thirties – however I’m putting this down to sample bias now considering such a small number of players have gone here in the past.

Pick 18 historically has a terrible average Career Efficiency of 0.19 compared to pick 19’s surprising 0.83 Career Efficiency average. That easily makes pick 18 the worst pick in the draft whereas pick 19 is just as good as picking 9th.

Why could that be? For a start, both of these picks have happened eight times each in the sample between 2007-2014 – so it can’t be down sample bias. Secondly, both picks have had time being either the last pick in the first round, or the first pick in the second round. Below is a screenshot of the Round 18 then Round 19 picks, taken from the app.



Potentially it is down to the teams picking at these positions. LA Galaxy had three picks at 19 out of the total eight – with every single player achieving a career efficiency of 1.00 Looking at pick 18, New York Red Bulls have had a quarter of the picks achieving either a 0 or 0.33 Career Efficiency (although Tim Ream left the league for £2.5million – making him a success under different criteria).

It could just be that this is an anomaly in the data – but the opposite nature of the successfulness of the picks makes me think otherwise.

Going into the 2016 Superdraft –Red Bulls pick again at 18th whereas Columbus Crew get the 19th pick. It’ll be interesting to come back to this in a couple of years time to see why this trend has continued.

How good is my team at picking?

This is probably the question most fans want to know. Evidently this is just measured in Career Efficiency and not in terms of minutes or value added from a pick or any other measure, but can show if a team is good at picking players that play many seasons in MLS or play very few. To me a player that doesn’t play many seasons is a wasted pick – I’m sure you’ll agree too.

The graph below shows the Average Career Efficiency per Team. The colour shows the number of picks – with the more red the greater number of picks and the more white the fewer.

CEPortland Timbers, Montreal Impact and Chivas USA (RIP) all have had the lowest number of picks in the sample (which is 2007-2014, remember) picking just eight players each. Portland and Chivas perform(ed) just above the league average, with an average Career Efficiency of 0.65 each. Montreal lag slightly behind them, with an Average Career Efficiency of 0.63.

The best team in the league – despite only picking ten times – is Vancouver Whitecaps. They have an average career efficiency of 0.83. This seems like a product of good due diligence on potential draft choices and a focus on growing the team through the draft. It also helps that 7/10 of their picks in the sample have come from the First Round – which as mentioned at the start has a higher Average Career Efficiency anyway.

The worst team at picking is Chicago Fire – with a Career Efficiency of just 0.525. Their picks have been split equally between the First and Second Rounds, so there’s no skew coming from too many Second Round picks. With them having the #1 pick this year (which historically means you’re getting a player with a 0.88 Career Efficiency) I’d try and use this pick as leverage to get some tried and tested players or cash from another team in the league – unless they feel they can use the pick effectively.

If I’m an MLS GM, what does this mean?

Looking at the historical performance of MLS Teams in the Superdraft, you can gain a slight edge and insight into how good another team is at finding talent. I’d try and use this information to maximise the value my draft pick brings – whether this is trying to trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps who seem to be great at bringing in talent, or doing further research to see the reason for the anomaly’s at the 18th and 19th draft picks.

Going back to the efficiency by pick – the 3rd pick in the draft has the highest Average Career Efficiency – 1.00 – meaning all players picked here have gone on to play 100% of their available years in MLS. This is likely down to the players in the first and second picks moving to play abroad – so I’d say that each of these picks holds equal value in years playing in the league or through getting a fee from transfering the player abroad.

Furthermore, if you’re stuck with a pick in the second round only, like the Houston Dynamo, there’s still a chance you’ll get a decent player. Looking historically, the Dynamo have picked above average (0.76 Average Career Efficiency) and have a pick at 26th that usually yields a player with an Average Career Efficiency of 0.5 – marginally above the second round average of 0.49.

Finally, with so many teams now having USL affiliates – the second round is a great opportunity to draft players and get a view of them for another year at a level more accessible (games on Youtube) and better than college soccer.

Once again, with this analysis there is an accompanying web app containing data on all 266 draft picks from 2007 – 2014. You can access that web app here.

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