Sigi’s decision to play Sean Okoli was a surprise. I don’t know how many people guessed he’d get minutes, let alone by a decisive contributor, in game one.
Okoli is a Home Grown Player and only just turned buy-me-a-pint years old. All we heard in the preseason was how raw he was. I’ll admit I didn’t expect Okoli to see any significant time this year. Even with Yedlin’s breakout year, I was skeptical of our new HGPs, Okoli and Aaron Kovar. I was more excited and intrigued by Cooper, Marshall, Pappa, even Parsemain.
But Okoli was a stud. Sigi loves attacking wide and crossing it in, and Okoli looked like a demon on the flanks (watch him at he bottom of the video, #13, sheesh he’s fast!). He is a baby Zakuani, I swear that’s who I thought I was watching. Great pace and vision. And he showed boatloads of confidence.
Based off years of only watching the traditional American sports, I was confused by the very idea of Home Grown players. These are players you didn’t draft, you just added them to your team. I saw them like undrafted free agents in the NFL. Not that this is logical, but that is how I saw it. In the NFL, there is the understanding that a top draft pick has a much higher probability of contributing to your roster than a player you didn’t even draft. I was not sold on the potential awesomeness of HGPs.
Clearly I gotta re-wrap my brain around HGPs and the meaning of the MLS Draft.
Here goes: The best soccer players in the United States aren’t drafted, and they don’t stay in college very long. They follow a very different development pipeline.
Once upon a time a player like Yedlin/Okoli would not go to college, but instead attend the IMG academy (like Donovan or Adu) or something of that sort. US Soccer and MLS got in cahoots back in 1997 and created Project 40 (then sponsored by Nike, now called Generation Adidas and sponsored by the Three Stripes), to help usher young talented players straight into MLS. The thought being that our players could develop in our league. It worked great for a while: Tim Howard, Demarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra (just to name a few) were all Project 40 players who cut their teeth in the young MLS. The only problem with this model was that it kept MLS as a developmental league, as Howard, Beasley and Bocanegra all moved on to bigger and better things overseas.
Currently, the Generation Adidas program chooses (with help from coaches and scouts) a class of 8-12 non-senior collegians. These elite players are signed by MLS before the draft. Special contract/roster stipulations exist for the GA players, such as not counting against the salary cap or roster limit. Thus clubs are incentivized to draft them.
The Home Grown Player rule was passed in 2008. A Home Grown Player is a local high school soccer prospect who’s tabbed by the area MLS club to start training with their academy. These players are the cream of the athletic crop. Watched and nurtured from a young age, they were selected by Coach as special and invited to develop in a professional setting with other highly talented individuals.
HGP players join youth academies and they can treat college, not as the necessary next step of development, but as a loan. To use a year or two of NCAA play to show their skills to their senior club. If a HGP gets the nod to join the senior squad, that is the true MLS equivalent of a first round draft pick.
If the Seahawks have a top ten pick, fans are pretty stoked and the team expects a major return on their investment. If the Hawks pick up some undrafted free agent from the CFL or Nowhere State U., fans don’t care much and the team sees him as having an outside shot at the roster, let alone game day snaps.
The MLS Superdraft is 4 rounds and 77 picks. To be eligible to be drafted, a player must have a) graduated from college, or b) be already signed by the league (i.e. have a Generation Adidas contract). Thus the majority of eligible draftees are guys with less-than-alluring developmental prospects. They are players who went to college and slogged through four years and graduated. So the Superdraft amounts to MLS teams mostly sifting through players who’s next-level soccer prospects stultified at the NCAA level.
Not that the draft doesn’t yield prospects (Dylan Remick or Andy Rose, for example), it’s just that you have to flip the traditional American perspective of the draft. Yedlin, Okoli and Kovar are far more blue chip than Damien Lowe, Jimmy Ockford, Andrew Duran, or Will Bates.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the DeAndre Yedlins of the league (though I am guessing he is still an extreme outlier). We should expect HGP to be huge upside prospects, our blue chips. A key play made by a player of Okoli’s pedigree, in retrospect, is not that surprising. Do I expect double-digit assists or goals this season. No. But I sure am excited to see his hustle and potential every time he gets the nod. And after the thrashing U-Dub dropped on the Sounders Reserves, I want to see Darwin Jones trade purple for Rave Green pronto!