ORLANDO, Fla. — As the Major League Soccer combine took place this week at Orlando City Stadium, the familiar question of "What school is he from?" was replaced by the increasingly necessary "Is he foreign?"
The 2018 MLS draft talent pool is loaded with international players, a product of the growing internationalization of college soccer. With more and more top young Americans reaching the professional ranks via MLS homegrown deals and moves to foreign leagues, college soccer has suffered a drain of top-level local talent and has helped fill that void with an ever-improving caliber of foreign players.
International players are nothing new to the college game, having been a part of the landscape for decades, but the caliber of those players is growing. The 2018 MLS draft pool bears that out, with six of the seven Generation Adidas signings — the draft's top underclassmen — being foreign players, while several of the draft's top seniors are also internationals. For MLS teams, which have a set number of international player slots (eight per team, with variations due to trading of slots), this could be a problem.
"The better [foreign players] will be taken, but to be totally honest there will be some really good players who aren't drafted simply because they're internationals," New York City FC sporting director Claudio Reyna told Goal. "There are some players who could find a spot in the league, but teams aren't ready to use an international slot on them because they're not ready. It certainly puts all the clubs in a tricky situation, and I don't think that's going to go away because more and more kids are coming here from foreign countries like Spain and Germany, and they're good."
Reyna added: "The college game is becoming a pathway for international players, more than before. Take the University of Virginia ... UVA was not that school I remember when I watched them play this year, and seven or eight are internationals."
When Carlos Bocanegra came through the 2000 MLS draft, he was one of 11 Americans selected in the 12-player first round. Now, as Atlanta United's technical director, he sees a much different looking group of prospects preparing for the 2018 MLS draft.
"The landscape is changing. A lot of the good kids coming up through the academies are being signed to a homegrown contract or they're signed to a USL team through the club," Bocanegra told Goal. "It's just the evolution of where we are as a country with this combine and draft."
Bocanegra acknowledges the challenges teams are facing when considering foreign players in the draft, but he also knows firsthand the value that can come from selecting the right international player.
"For me, I like to just look at the top players, and afterwards worry about whether they're foreign or not," Bocanegra said. "With [Julian] Gressel, we thought about it and we had availability with our roster construction. For us, last year he was the most pro-ready guy at that pick, and it ended turning out that he was."
Foreign players in the MLS draft not only have to compete with the other players in the draft, they must also compete with worldwide talent for one of the league's precious 184 international roster spots, many of which are filled with high-priced talent.
"The league and NCAA and everybody needs to think a little more about this part because as more TAM (targeted allocation money) comes in, a lot of it is being used on foreigners, so foreign spots are going to become even more crucial to have," D.C. United coach Ben Olsen told Goal. "Sometimes it's tough to pull the trigger on a foreign college kid because of that.
"That's short-term stuff though," Olsen added. "If you think a [foreign draft pick] can make an impact right away, then it's worth that. If not, maybe you have a USL 2 team and you believe in a year or two they can contribute so they're worth a spot on that roster. There's creative ways to deal with it."
As teams find more success in securing green cards for foreign players and create their own USL affiliates, there are more ways to get the increasing number of foreign players onto MLS rosters. Some teams would like to see the league create more international slots, or even some specific slots for foreign college players. Any such changes would have to be approved by U.S. Soccer, and the climate for such a change — shortly after the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup — isn't a very good one for a shift in policy that would seem to benefit foreign players and hurt Americans.
For now, MLS teams must manage with their eight international slots, which are being made more valuable by an influx of money into league salary coffers. With MLS teams now having upwards of $4 million in targeted allocation money to spend on players, along with the three designated player slots, it's possible for teams to fill all eight of their international roster spots with players who cost $1 million or more in salary. In other words, in some cases foreign draft prospects are not only competing against each other for draft position, they must also indirectly compete with increasingly better prospects on the global transfer market.
"Whenever you're looking at international players here, you're comparing what you see with international players you've gone and looked at," Los Angeles FC coach Bob Bradley told Goal. "When you go and look at foreign players, there's in some cases a question mark as to whether you're going to be able to get them. In this particular case, if you're impressed, the business of bringing them here is already finished."
Bradley's LAFC is faced with the tough task of having to decide whether to use the top pick in the 2018 MLS draft on one of the highly-rated foreign players available such as Portuguese defender Joao Moutinho, Ghanaian winger Francis Atuahene or Spanish forward Jon Bakero, select the best-rated American they can like defender Tomas Hilliard-Arce or forward Mason Toye, or potentially trade out of the top spot.
On the surface, it would appear the U.S. player development system needs to do a better job of developing talent in order to have the draft be once again dominated by American talent, as it was for so many years. Several league coaches and general managers don't see things that way, and actually believe that the growing number of top foreign talent in the MLS draft is a positive sign.
"I actually think that it wouldn't be a good thing (to have the draft be filled with Americans) because then it would mean we're not getting the American kids into the pro game at an earlier age to get them in those environments," Bocanegra said. "I think this is a good sign that you're not seeing as many American players in this combine and in the draft because they're going the homegrown and USL route, and they're in that professional environment at an earlier age."