CHICAGO — As Ernst Tanner prepared for his first MLS draft as Union sporting director, he did his due diligence watching college prospects on tape and at the recent scouting combine.
He came away unimpressed.
So unimpressed, in fact, that the Union traded all five of their draft picks this year to FC Cincinnati for a pile of cash in MLS' allocation money system.
The Union’s top pick was to be No. 13 in the first round, a slot that would have given them a fringe first-team player at best. They also had the Nos. 5 and 13 picks in the second round (29 and 37 overall), and the 13th pick in the third and fourth round (61 and 85 overall).
Cincinnati sent over $150,000 in general allocation money, and will send $50,000 more for the 2020 season based on performance metrics achieved by whichever players they pick.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday night, Tanner said that while he saw a few worthwhile prospects in the draft pool, he didn’t think any of them would be available by the 13th pick. And because he wants to orient Bethlehem Steel’s roster more toward Union academy prospects than college products, he didn’t find much use in the late-round picks.
“We would not have benefited very well from the 13th pick,” Tanner said. "I think it was a good decision we took in order to get a little bit more money for other players, and increase our flexibility in the future.”
Though it’s a headline-grabbing move for the Union to give up on the draft, from a soccer perspective it’s not a bad thing. The caliber of players in college soccer has been declining for years, as most top youth prospects rise through MLS club academies and turn pro as teenagers.
Tanner said when he raised the idea of the trade to the coaching staff, they weren’t just on board, but said they’d talked in past years about the draft’s increasing irrelevance.
“The level of MLS has increased a lot, and I think that the level of university [soccer] has been more or less the same,” Tanner said. “There is quite a big gap. ... There are lots of players who are quite okay for the USL level, but it doesn’t necessarily make us better in the MLS level, and that is something a lot of clubs are realizing.”
For all the Union’s struggles overall, they have been leaders in the move away from college prospects. Midfielder Brenden Aaronson turned down a scholarship offer from Indiana University this past summer to sign a MLS deal. Defender Mark McKenzie and goalkeeper Matt Freese left college early to turn pro. The Union even signed a 15-year-old, Selmir Miscic, to a contract with Bethlehem Steel in September.
That’s how the rest of the soccer world does player development, and Tanner was brought to the Union to install that mentality here.
Toward the end of his remarks, Tanner admitted that punting on the draft entirely is “a little bit unusual, because probably nobody has done it before.”
He paused for a second, then added: “I’m probably here to do it.”