How do goalkeepers ‘make it pro’ in the USA, and does the system really help produce the best goalkeepers?
Since 1996, talented players from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) have been recruited through the MLS draft, rebranded in 2000 as the SuperDraft.
While some goalkeepers continue to progress through the traditional collegiate route, other talented young players have benefitted from the rise of US football academy systems.
The rise of programs like the MLS Next league and club academies have contributed to the creation of pathways for aspiring goalkeepers.
To an extent, the SuperDraft still has its place. It provides a degree of equality among the MLS teams, as new expansion teams and the worst performers from previous seasons get first picks.
But its relevance has come under scrutiny, and coaches have begun to question whether it is really conducive to sending the widest and best group of goalkeepers into the professional game.
The SuperDraft gives the MLS’s weaker teams a chance to add the best young players and college graduates to their squad. Before the MLS season begins in February, MLS teams can select up to three new players via the draft.
In the 2023 SuperDraft, 360 players were eligible for selection from college teams or via ‘Generation Adidas’ contracts - which will be discussed further in this article. Overall, the teams only selected 88 players.
Expansion teams - new teams to enter the MLS - always receive the first pick. For the 2023 draft, St Louis City SC went first as the newest team to enter the MLS.
Then, the teams that gained the fewest points and finished lowest in the MLS standings in the previous season pick next. These are the teams that finished outside of the playoffs, and they pick in reverse order. This season, DC United picked second as the team with the lowest MLS points from the 2022 campaign.
The stronger MLS teams then get their selections. Teams pick in reverse order from where they finished in the playoffs. The MLS Cup winner picks last, as the strongest previous team in the league. In the most recent draft, Los Angeles FC picked last as they won the 2022 MLS Cup.
Although the MLS SuperDraft exists to prevent one-team domination, its significance to modern football has been questioned.
'Still, MLS pared down the event considerably in 2020, removing it from the convention center ballroom atmosphere at the annual United Soccer Coaches convention and putting it entirely online. MLS and ESPN teamed to stream the first round with analysis and had reporters on site with a few league executives and picks for a shot at a more light-hearted and engaging social-media-friendly event. The second round was then evidently a conference call conducted at lightning-speed, making it seem like most of the picks were pre-determined, or at the very least conducted with very little thought.
What was once the prime stage for preseason wheeling and dealing–the league hotel was notorious for late-night discussions over bar drinks once upon a time–was rendered rather uneventful save for a few minor trades. It stands to reason that many of the picks are destined for beginnings–and perhaps long runs–at USL club affiliates. Such is the state of the draft as it relates to its importance in the roster-building process'.
SI.COM on the MLS Draft
The SuperDraft allows teams to pick players across three separate rounds. However, teams also have the option to trade their pick with another team and this has become more common.
17 of the 29 teams traded their first-round picks in 2023, including St Louis City, who traded their first pick with Charlotte FC. DC United, the second team to pick in the first round, also traded their first selection with Orlando City. By the end of the 2023 draft, over a quarter of the picks were traded across the three rounds.
Ultimately, the increase in trades signifies a change in the team’s approaches to recruitment as the collegiate system appears to be a waning talent pool for the MLS.
Coaching and recruitment staff have less interest in handpicking players from the collegiate system. Instead, staff are looking towards young players in their academies.
“The main benefits of the draft system are very few, to be honest, for the American player”, opines Michael Gabb, Goalkeeper Coach at Creighton University, talking to Goalkeeper.com. Creighton is an NCAA Men's Division I side, the highest standard of collegiate football in the United States, with alumni including five-time MLS cup winner Brian Mullan.
“Only the Generation Adidas players are guaranteed any contracts. The primary benefit is you are guaranteed an extended trial with the club over 2-4 weeks to determine if you can earn a contract. Over 300 players are eligible per the rules of the draft system and only a small percentage get taken. But for a majority of those taken it is simply an extended trial period with the club to allow them to determine if they will offer a contract. Given everyone is in pre-season at the same time it severely limits the potential of being seen by multiple professional clubs should you not be offered a contract”.
The MLS selects the best young talents through the Generation Adidas initiative. Generation Adidas players do not count against the MLS senior roster and usually earn a much higher salary than the league minimum. It was intended to bring the US on a level playing field with foreign leagues who didn't have transfer restrictions. Usually, the players have significant potential to reach a high ceiling in the professional game but are excluded from playing college football as they enter the programme as professional-ready players.
Many notable goalkeepers have had stellar careers by starting with a Generation Adidas contract. These include Tim Howard (1998), Brad Guzan (2005), Andre Blake (2014) and Roman Celentano (2022).
Gabb believes that the initiative does have its benefits, saying that it “has been positive for the goalkeeping world when the talent level has been good enough. Roman Celentano is a perfect example of a young unaffiliated goalkeeper signed after two standout seasons in College. He is then able to be brought in and developed like any other top young talent without impacting the team financially”.
Statistically, however, Generation Adidas has seemingly not favoured goalkeepers. Since 1997, only 21 goalkeepers have received Generation Adidas contracts out of 248 players included. On 11 occasions, goalkeepers have been included in the 27 editions.
The best US-based goalkeepers today generally have more entry points to join a local club than solely going through the college and draft system, which can be the first step on a pathway towards a professional team. More conventional routes of scouting and youth contracts are becoming more frequent.
In the past, some goalkeepers had to pull together their resources and lean on their contacts within the game to get a chance of playing in the MLS.
Former goalkeeper Brad Knighton began his football career in the collegiate system. Knighton played football for the University of North Carolina, where he was coached by former New England Revolution stopper Aiden Heaney.
In 2007, Knighton was not picked in the MLS draft and failed to secure a professional contract. But Knighton was advised by Heaney to send a videotape of his best highlights to New England coaches Stevie Nicol and Paul Mariner.
Knighton’s spotlight video impressed the coaching staff. He was invited to pre-season trials, offered a contract with the club and spent 12 of his 16 playing years representing the New England Revolution.
A combination of resourcefulness, solid advice and having the right contacts gave Knighton his chance of breaking into the New England Revolution squad. However, his route had little to do with thorough recruitment or a clear pathway.
However, speaking to the Bet Musket in January 2023, Knighton acknowledged the change in MLS Team’s priorities regarding player recruitment and explained the new pathway for young goalkeepers.
“Our goal now is to get as many academy kids through the pathway as possible, through the second team and into the first team, and getting them first-team minutes.” Knighton said.
The days of sending hopeful VHS tapes and utilising scouting connections have diminished in professional US soccer. In recent years, talent identification and promotion through academies have become more prominent.
Gabb, however, does see benefits of the college system compared to the UK academy system.
"College soccer is a blend between U20 and U23 academies all looking to identify and secure the top talent that was released by professional clubs before their first full contract, or that these players have dual ambitions to be able to play soccer and get an education. The goalkeeping position has shown that top talent can be developed very quickly in the likes of Donnarumma, Casillas, and even the American Gabriel Slonina. It has also shown that goalkeepers can take time to develop into elite players like Matt Turner who played at every level of American Soccer and arguably wouldn't have developed without the college route and lower divisions.
“Because there are numerous college programmes, approximately 200+ with about four goalkeepers per team, only in Division One, you open the door of development for 800 more goalkeepers with less pressure at times. These goalkeepers can develop for one or two years before getting more meaningful games and can mature in all aspect of their development. So a goalkeeper that slipped through the cracks or maybe wasn't physically developed as he ends his youth career now has time to develop and gets meaningful games”, he explains.
The growth of the MLS Next League - a league that provides competition between elite clubs from under-13 to under-19 level - has provided a wider talent pool and wider national access to football.
In the 2022 season, the MLS Next league had 133 affiliated clubs, and 590 teams, which gave access to over 11,000 youth players across the US.
Many of the teams are linked to MLS clubs, and there is a clear progression pathway to the MLS Next Pro league, where teams compete in the third tier of the US soccer system.
Teams like Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union, Inter Miami and Toronto FC have second teams competing in the league. In addition, players can progress directly to the senior teams on a professional contract without having to wait for the MLS SuperDraft.
One notable goalkeeper to benefit from the system is Chelsea’s Gabriel Slonina, as Gabb mentioned.
In August 2022, Slonina joined Chelsea from Chicago Fire for an estimated $15 million. The 18-year-old goalkeeper worked his way through Chicago Fire’s ranks and became the club’s youngest-ever player to receive a professional contract, aged just 14.
Slonina then became the MLS’s youngest goalkeeper aged 17 after making his debut in August 2021. To cap a meteoric rise to the top level, Slonina received his first US Men’s National Team (USMNT) cap in January 2023.
Slonina’s pathway is clear evidence of an MLS team putting resources and faith into their young talent and seeing results from the approach.
Ultimately, this change in recruitment structure, and the rise of organised youth leagues, that are linked with professional clubs, could challenge the collegiate pathway. High-standard facilities, coaching and resources for young goalkeepers, who have been somewhat marginalised in the traditional systems, could benefit more than any other position.
While the MLS SuperDraft might provide parity for elite clubs, the emphasis on youth football in the US can level the playing field for young players. As a result, goalkeepers can see tangible evidence when players like Slonina commit to a pathway to a professional first team without the need for a college background.
Gabb believes, meanwhile, that changes need to be more systemic.
"Education [for coaches] is too expensive and not available for enough coaches, especially young coaches just starting out. Same can be said for the mentorship aspect. Overseas, there are goalkeeping departments and development pathways for coaches similar to players. Most often here, coaches are thrown into the deep end and expected to swim and figure it out without much support. That leaves our goalkeepers with experimental coaching and not elite levels under a development plan.
"I would say MLS Academies and others with more resources have done an excellent job of developing this, but we need more".