Navigating The Soccer Trial Period (2018)

 

Players trying to break into the MLS, must understand the American soccer landscape before undertaking the effort of trying to be selected by an MLS team. There are only a few team spots that are available, and these slots are highly coveted by the thousands of unattached players.

The late months of the year bring the conclusion of professional soccer in the United States. The USL, NASL and finally the MLS have all concluded their championship playoff games, with the respective champions being crowned. It is at this time that the "signing period" commences in earnest with most teams finalizing their plans for the 2018 season. Diligent scouting departments within MLS teams have already identified their targets for the 2018 season, and contracts or verbal agreements have already been made with these players.

With all this activity taking place, it is important to note that most teams will only a few roster slots available for new players. Out of these few spots, one or two will go to MLS SuperDraft picks (who would then be sent to affiliated USL clubs), others will go to free agents, and foreign acquisitions. Lastly, with the increased Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) in the MLS, significant efforts will be made to identify new designated players.

The MLS has a predefined pathway for amateur players that focuses on the MLS SuperDraft (less so) but with an increasing emphasis on the respective club academies and reserve teams (USL) of the clubs. Amateur or unknown players outside this pipeline will have great difficulty breaking in. Furthermore, the market in the United States has been further constrained a contracting employment market for soccer players, with the instability of the NASL, and the demise of one USL team (the Rochester Rhinos).

Thus, for soccer players emerging from the amateur soccer structure in the United States, breaking into professional soccer is a non-trivial endeavor that must be carefully charted. A student-athlete who desiring to play in the MLS after college, would have had to be a top performer in NCAA Division-1 soccer for the prior three or four years. MLS teams typically scouts only at the NCAA D-1 teams, and only these players meeting these criteria receive an invitation to the MLS Combine. There are a few cases of players entering the MLS SuperDraft list from outside the NCAA D-1 candidates, but these cases are rare.

It is therefore incumbent amateur players and free agents, to carefully consider their strategy for getting signed by a professional team. Talented players who have made the conference tournaments and the NCAA Division I tournament, should expect to find themselves in strong consideration for the MLS Combine List.

Foreign Players - For foreign players, hoping to play in the United States, an excellent player CV is absolutely essential, highlighting these past seasons performances, great video clips and strong references with connections to a team can get your videos in front of important eyes. If you have mostly played in a lower tier league, there will need to something that stands out on your CV or video. The cost of player VISA processing for a team is expensive (upwards of $3000 or more), thus a team must have a good reason to justify investing in a foreign player.

Foreign Student Athletes (on an F-1 Visa) - Every year there are outstanding foreign student athletes emerging from the NCAA or NAIA soccer divisions. These players face the same obstacles as foreign free agents, but have the benefit of having a limited residency (but not working) permit through their F-1 Visa. For such players, it is very important to apply for the 1-Year Visa (work experience) extension upon graduation, if pursuing their soccer ambitions within the United States. Such players should also explore opportunities in their home countries or regions where they can work legally.

American Student Athletes - Talented players, whose teams are not playing NCAA Division I soccer, or whose teams did not make the Division I conference tournaments or Division I playoffs will struggle to make the MLS SuperDraft List and the MLS Combine invite list. For players who fall in this category, it will be important to have a CV that highlights aspects such as a consistent playing record, a very attractive Premier Development League (PDL) or the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) career with good U.S. Open Cup performances, and most importantly excellent video.

The critical period all for players seeking to play in the United States, are the months of December and January. Preseason will kick off in February and by then it will be too late. Real options beyond February are playing overseas, playing with a team playing in the U.S. Open Cup, or playing with a good domestic amateur team in the PDL or NPSL.

Lastly, while the pay-to-play combine landscape is widely viewed with derision, attending at most two combines that have USL, NASL and MLS coaches in attendance can be helpful to build up name recognition with the coaches that attend these events. The down side to these combines is that they can be expensive, and there is very little tangible return immediately after attending such events. However, they can help to put your name on the map for coaches unfamiliar with who you are.

Here is a check-list for players attempting to get signed by a professional club:

  • If you are a student athlete graduating in May, find out from your Compliance Officer if attending the MLS Combine will invalidate your scholarship for your final semester.
  • Understand the implications of signing with a Players' Agent.
  • Have a budget (air travel, hotels, combine fees) for all your activities.
  • Maintain a regular training regimen.
  • Make a list of one or two player combines.
  • Formulate a Plan-B if you do not have any interest by early January.
  • Playing Premier Development League (for a team that competes in the US Open Cup)
  • Playing overseas.
  • Be open to playing in a good amateur league if you are not selected by a professional team.