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Peter Vermes on the Draft, College Soccer and Academies Replacing the Draft

The Sporting KC coach speaks frankly about many topics as the MLS SuperDraft looms.

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MLS: Sporting KC at Montreal Impact Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, MLS Executive of the Year, Peter Vermes stopped by Extra Time Radio in Chicago as Sporting Kansas City and the rest of Major League Soccer prepare for the SuperDraft on Friday (PV starts at 17:50 and ends at 29:02 if you want to listen). Even though he only spent 11 minutes on the show, he supplied a lot of good information.

Sporting KC are Scouting other Teams Territories

The biggest piece of news for me that came out of this interview has to do with Homegrown player territories. It will come as no surprise that SKC are ahead of the curve when it comes to scouting players outside of their territories (currently SKC have Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma — and though this is old, Brotherly Game has a beautiful visual and story to explain the Homegrown rule).

They have brought players into their academy like Gianluca Busio and Jaylin Lindsey — both of whom are now on the first team but who came from North Carolina to the SKC Academy (the 2018 MLS Academy of the Year — BTW). NC is not assigned to any MLS team, so it’s fair game to everyone. With the opening of Pinnacle in 2018, there is no doubt more players will choose to come to SKC when given the option to go anywhere. But the rules have always been that teams can sign players to their academy from their territory or unclaimed territories. Sporting are going further.

When David Gass asked about recruiting from areas that don’t have academies, Vermes responded and slipped in some news.

“If you look at all the clubs and you look at the last department that we’ve built out, [it] is probably scouting,” Vermes said. “A lot of time what you do is, ‘I’m a coach, so I’ll also scout.’ A lot of times you are doing that within the confines of your environment and your not going out. For us it’s been the last bastion that we’ve had to conquer within our own club.”

“We’ve put an incredible amount of investment and now we’ve got people all over the world,” Vermes continued. “They are our guys. We’re going into all those areas and we are identifying the kids. I’m going to speak frankly, we are doing the same thing even in the markets that are already territories. We are trying to be a little ahead of the curve and trying to make sure we know who the kids are when they are coming out because you never know when the rules might change in regards to territories.

There is a lot to unpack there. But let’s start with the bolded text (emphasis min). Sporting KC are scouting in other teams Homegrown territories. Not because they can sign players from there, but because they might be able to sign players there in the future. Paul Tenorio did some reporting last year for The Athletic (paywall) that said MLS teams are considering removing Homegrown territories. Some people think that would benefit big clubs, but it really could benefit KC above nearly everyone.

Teams like the LA Galaxy who are in one of the most dense, soccer rich areas in the US, don’t play their kids because they have to play their high priced superstars. While Vermes hasn’t shown it much yet, he is looking to play the kids, whether they are KC kids or players they are looking to snag from somewhere else.

“You may not see it in these next 2-3 years but in the next 3-5 years you are going to see a lot of the academy kids that were or are out now in systems become the regular players within MLS teams,” stated Vermes.

He always says he wants to have 11 Homegrowns on the field at once. While teams like the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas lead the way in Homegrown signings and minutes, Sporting are making a shift.

Another bit to unpack from that large quote above is that “we’ve got people all over the world. They are our guys.” A lot of clubs have scouts but they are also scouting for other teams. If this is to imply that Sporting KC has scouts that just work for them, that just look for players fitting the 4-3-3 system that PV wants to play, then that’s really investing in the future of the club.

How the SuperDraft has Changed

Andrew Weibe led the interview by asking what is changing about the draft. It’s a surprise to no one that Sporting KC used to be fantastic at the draft and lately have had a lot more misses than hits. To find the last star they picked you have to go all the way back to 2012. Sporting KC drafted Dom Dwyer in the first round.

Vermes didn’t come right out and say it, but I’d interpret his words to mean the draft is mostly dead, at least in the eyes of his organization. You could see it in his open questioning of why teams were paying so much money last year to move up in the draft.

On ETR he gave a more nuanced answer about Project 40 and Generation Adidas actually improving the draft during SKC’s SuperDraft heyday. He said college coaches were complaining initially that those programs stole their best players but he argued it caused the second tier of players to step up and go to bigger schools and when they replaced the kids getting drafted they had a chip on their shoulder and exceeded other players. Then he started talking academies.

“Let’s be frank,” Vermes started, “the academies were mandated in 2007, those first five years, be honest, nobody was really doing a good job. And to be expected nobody should.” He continued, “early you don’t have any of the resources, you don’t have any of the things that you need, not enough coaching staff, all of that.”

“What I would say in the last five years the investment in the academy has been incredible. Across the board you have incredible staff, education, resources, fields, locker rooms, all the different things that you need — infrastructure. And so with that, what happened is those kids don’t even go to college anymore and [they] are staying with you. [A] plethora of kids [are] staying with academies and going to B-Teams instead of going to college.”

“Back in the day, we built a lot of our team through the draft and college players. I think it’s very similar it’s just that we’re doing it through our academies now and the foundations going to be coming from there.”

In other words, the draft is dead. Long live the SKC Academy.

MLS is Actually Considering Eliminating the Combine

While the SuperDraft isn’t likely to go anywhere, MLS may look to take a page out of MLB’s playbook. Instead of doing the Combine, the league may look to replace it with Winter Meetings because of all the trade activity that occurs when all the teams are gathered in one spot. It’s rumored per The Athletic that those would be held in conjunction with the United Soccer Coaches convention. This could all happen as early as next year.

For his part, it sounds like Vermes agrees that the combine should go away and he takes it further saying even gathering for the draft should go away.

“I think because baseball, basketball, football do what they do [in having drafts], that’s because they are different than us,” stated Vermes. “The academy for the NFL is college football. We don’t have that. For me, and I agree with you, [the draft has] dropped. But it’s dropped because a lot of those kids are in our academies.”

“You should allow it up to the individual clubs because our scouting departments have grown. Let us do our scouting, let the draft just be something that we don’t have to come to a combine, we don’t have to watch all the players, because it’s up to the club to decide how important that is to them. Whether or not that want to spend a lot of money and resources to watch all the college players and know who they all are or they don’t.”

“Some can take advantage of it and some don’t, just like international scouting or any other scouting, I think it should be left up to the club. I think we should use the resources we spend on this towards other things. The amount of money that we spend, and I think MLS spends and our owners and everyone else spends on this event, we could probably hire one or two other staff members that one of them could do all your college scouting for you and know all the players and you could still make all your decisions and just a draft over the phone.”

College Versus Academies

PV has strong thoughts on this as well. He said he thought Academy players were better than college players now when it comes to their transition to MLS and he gave a couple factors.

“First is, they’re not playing a three month season on steroids. From that point of view they’re getting trained like a professional early on so they’re already in the rhythm. A lot of times you’ll draft a college player, you’ll bring him in his first year and by June he’s done. Physically and mentally he couldn’t handle the season because he wasn’t prepared for it. It’s not his fault it’s just what it is.”

“The [academy] kids now are going through a full year training session and we’re spreading out their games. They’re playing 30-something games almost just like an MLS team, over the course of the year, with the proper amount of training and games ratio which is great. At the same time, they also have other resources available to them that you can’t get at the college. All of those things are great.

Vermes makes some strong points. Not the least of which is Academy players are in your system for so much longer. He talked about him and Kerry Zavagnin going to FC Barcelona and the academy and b-team players were more integrated into the team than outside signings, who had so much to do to just learn the system. SKC might not be Barcelona, but they have a system and they implement it across all levels. That interview is definitely worth a listen to catch some candid Vermes comments.