Scouting college players isn't as simple as it should be for MLS clubs.
Timing plays a factor in making things considerably more complicated. The college season dovetails with the vital fixtures of the MLS regular season, forcing most of the scouting responsibilities onto assistant coaches and limiting the amount of time any member of the technical staff can spend planning for the future without detracting from the week's preparations. When coaches squeeze the required scouting excursions into the schedule, minuscule budgets and the aforementioned time constraints generally restrict the missions to local and regional ventures to watch regular season games, selected post-season conference tournaments and carefully chosen NCAA tournament games. In addition to in-person scouting, coaches wade through endless reels of game tape culled from college matches across the country.
The current system places significant and disproportionate emphasis on important events – the ACC tournament, the Final Four and the MLS Player Combine – and favors some clubs over others simply by virtue of their geographic location and by their willingness to expend extra dollars on a technical director or a scouting position. While some clubs have worked the grapevine of college coaches in order to procure recommendations and mined talent regardless of the restrictions, the current ad hoc method can only prove so effective across the board. Most players are caught by the system, but some inevitably slip through the cracks.
Scouting talent doesn't have to be this difficult or this haphazard. MLS can improve the process substantially by borrowing from the NHL and instituting a central scouting service to help evaluate talent for the SuperDraft.
The concept is just as simple as it sounds. The NHL started its central scouting service in 1975 to serve its member clubs. Twenty-nine scouts – including eight full-time staffers and fifteen part-timers just to cover the U.S. and Canada – blanket North America and Europe and search for NHL prospects wherever they can be found. The service grades prospects on publicly-available criteria and issues two player ranking lists during the season. In addition to its player evaluation services, the central scouting service also offers weekly injury updates, supplies teams with game tapes and invites 100 top prospects to Toronto for medical and fitness testing.
A scaled-down version of the NHL's central scouting service would enhance the evaluation process considerably by improving the flow of information and rounding out the scouting procedures undertaken by the clubs. Often ignored areas – high-level youth club tournaments, non-DI colleges and smaller DI conferences – could receive more thorough inspection in the hopes of finding a player or two who might slip through the cracks. At the very least, the service could facilitate more opportunities to obtain knowledge about out-of-region major college players, provide different perspectives on the notable prospects already on the radar and build a bridge to younger talent until clubs can start to reap more consistent rewards from the academy initiatives adopted over the past few years.
As an additional bonus for a league trying to generate buzz around its draft process, a central service would provide ample debate fodder. By judging and ranking talent and posting its lists to its Web site, the NHL central scouting service starts the discussion on the annual entry draft. Once the rankings are released, the general media disseminates them to a wider audience. A few independent sources do similar work in MLS – Buzz Carrick's 3rdDegree.net and Joe Mauceri's Pro Player Pipeline are the most thorough – but the current cottage industry could earn a wider audience with a MLS-branded initiative.
Despite the apparent positives for a thorough, centralized scouting service, there are certain drawbacks that might preclude its creation. Chief among them is the significant cost involved to adequately staff and supply a service primarily used as a secondary source. Spending the required amount of money on a central scouting service would almost certainly require financial cuts in other player-related areas, an exchange that MLS may not deem cost-effective. There is also the significant question of whether any expenditure is merited considering the small rosters and the correspondingly brief four-round SuperDraft. The bulk of the scouting money would go toward improving the accuracy of third- and fourth-round draft picks, an area in which teams have experienced relative success over the years.
While those factors certainly build a substantial case against the concept, the institution of a central scouting service would provide benefits that exceed the significant financial considerations involved. A league-sponsored initiative would reduce the disparities between clubs and increase the flow of information in an area in which good intelligence is hard to accumulate. A central scouting service wouldn't supply all of the answers, but it would hand each club a valuable tool to aid in player evaluation.
Most of all, it might make life just a little bit simpler for coaches and personnel men around the league. After all, isn't wading through an arcane player acquisition system, developing the players already in the side and trying to win enough games to stay employed a hard enough task without trying to scout every potential professional player across the country on a meager budget?
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for
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