BALTIMORE — When MLS brought its college player draft to the United Soccer Coaches convention 17 years ago, a seed was planted that grew into a strong relationship.

The convention added a marquee event with flash and glamour to America’s largest annual gathering of soccer minds, and showcased tangible proof of the pathway from youth soccer to the pros.

The league turned the week into more than just a gathering of youth club, high school and college coaches. It became a marquee event on the American soccer calendar, and gave the league a useful shot of free publicity in the dead of winter, with a further boost from pro women’s leagues adding their drafts to the party.

As MLS teams got better at developing players through their own youth academies, the importance of the college draft diminished — as did the quality of players in it. So there were few complaints when the league did away with the stage show form of it this year.

But the move left a hole in the convention.

The draft was the only day all year when all of the league’s coaches, general managers, sporting directors and other notable executives gathered under one roof. Those in-person interactions had genuine value for all involved.

MLS’ major presence at the convention also helped foster goodwill between the league and youth clubs that compete for prospects. In addition to the draft itself, coaches and league staff offered speeches and seminars. And there were countless small interactions in hallways and hotel bars, which is where the real business got done.

Union goalkeeper Andre Blake was the No. 1 pick at the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, which was held in Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke / AP
Union goalkeeper Andre Blake was the No. 1 pick at the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, which was held in Philadelphia.

There were questions about what MLS would do to keep up that good will. Answers came in the weeks before the convention, when the league set up a series of events for its Youth Affiliate Network. That entity was designed to be a national umbrella for clubs that have ties to their local MLS teams.

“It’s an opportunity to really position them, give them that opportunity, show behind and peel back the curtain a bit on some of the work that's going on behind [the scenes] at MLS clubs and the MLS league office as well,” said Gordon Bengtson, the league’s senior director of youth development player relations and competition. He led the launch of the youth affiliate network last September.

Bengtson took the job in July of 2018, after working at the USL, U.S. Soccer Federation and youth soccer entities in Florida and North Carolina. So he has been through the trenches.

“It's a great opportunity and a really engaged group of individuals that are committed to developing the next American elite, world-class player,” Bengtson said. “We want to make sure that we're adding value to that dynamic.”

New Jersey Youth Soccer CEO Evan Dabby appreciates the outreach. He has also been on both sides, having worked in some big roles for MLS from 1998 to 2014. His old jobs required plenty of political skills, and his current one requires even more.

“Anytime you get that many people from the soccer industry together, there's good things that happen," Dabby said. "Whenever you're here, there's opportunity, and if there are more folks, there's more benefit."

United Soccer Coaches CEO Lynn Berling-Manuel lamented the “sizzle that’s gone” and the “connectivity between the levels of the game” that the draft helped foster.

Still, she saw MLS’ move coming just like everyone else did.

“The relationship with MLS continues to be very good — they’ve been enormously supportive in many ways,” Berling-Manuel said. “But they have a business to run and I get that. [Commissioner] Don Garber personally has come forward a number of times saying, ‘We want to support you, we want to support the event.’”

As it turns out, the rest of the convention hasn’t been too affected. While nearby bars might not be as full, the NWSL draft brought its own big crowd. Most important to convention organizers, the seminar rooms and exhibit hall are packed again. Berling-Manuel said the number of registered convention attendees is close to an all-time record.