For soccer players who want to play professionally, the path differs greatly from other major sports in the United States. Most global soccer players develop through academies sponsored by billion-dollar clubs and sign pricy professional contracts at young ages. In the United States, athletes who want to play professional football, basketball, or hockey have to enter their respective professional leagues through entry drafts - often after completing at least a year of college competition.
Major League Soccer exists in a unique intersection of the two cultures. The MLS has the Superdraft, an annual three-round draft consisting of college players and international talent, creating a process for signing players to their rosters like the large clubs in the rest of the world. The Superdraft ensures that there is a pathway for college players to have a chance to play professionally. During the 2020 MLS season, there were 271 players who spent at least one year playing college soccer in the league.
What is the MLS Superdraft?
The MLS Superdraft is an annual draft that allows each MLS team to sign the best collegiate players who have recently graduated or opted to turn professional. It typically takes place in January and the draft order is based on the previous season's regular-season points totals. Each club has a selection in each of the three rounds of the draft.
The MLS Superdraft was first introduced in 2000 and replaced the former two different drafts that the league used to use: The MLS College Draft, in which players who had completed their undergraduate degrees were picked, and the MLS Supplemental Draft, in which all other players were selected.
Is there only one professional soccer league in the United States?
While MLS represents the top domestic professional league, there are other professional leagues in the US as well. United Soccer League has the Championship and League One as fully professional league, while League Two is a semi-professional league. MLS announced MSL Next Pro as a development league for 2022 that also features professional players as well. That means there are more opportunities to play soccer professionally in the United States than just in MLS.
Recently, some Superdraft players have made waves. Daryl Dike was drafted fifth overall in the 2020 Superdraft by Orlando City out of the Univesity of Virginia. Since then, he has been called up by the United States Men's National Team, spent part of a season in the English Championship with Barnsley, and secured a permanent transfer to West Bromwich Albion in the English Championship.
Atlanta United burst on the scene as an expansion side that immediately became a contender and indeed lifted the MLS Cup in 2018. A key part of that championship side was 2017 Superdraft pick Miles Robinson out of Syracuse University. He has established himself as a top defender in MLS while also securing a spot on the USMNT depth chart during their 2021 Gold Cup campaign, scoring the game-winning goal against Mexico. He has also earned multiple starts during the World Cup qualification campaign.
Robinson was not the only member of the 2017 Superdraft for Atlanta United as they selected Julian Gressel in the second round. During the 2018 MLS season, he chipped in four goals and 14 assists during their run to the championship. He played college soccer for Providence University before being drafted.
In 2022, the new expansion side Charlotte FC selected midfielder Ben Bender of the University of Maryland. He featured prominently in Charlotte's first victory, a 3-1 defeat of the New England Revolution, adding a goal and the assist on the game-winning goal. He also provided the assist on the franchise's first goal against Atlanta United.
While the stars in MLS may have taken other paths to join the league, college soccer is still a viable pathway for players to play professionally. It may not be as straightforward a path as in other major sports in the US, but college soccer is still an important aspect of the sport in the states.