A year from now, Marcel Zajac could have been a hot topic at the MLS SuperDraft.
He would be in his senior year, getting ready to leave the University of Akron, a program that regularly produces players who go high in the draft.
This year, as a junior, he was already ranked at No. 87 on Top Drawer Soccer’s rankings of the NCAA’s top prospects. Another great year and he would have likely moved up that ladder. At least two MLS clubs had already shown an interest in Zajac, and he spent a week training with the Columbus Crew.
So, why would Zajac decide to take a different route?
Instead of returning to Akron for his senior year, Zajac decided instead to sign with Forge FC of the Canadian Premier League last week. He decided not to wait a year for the draft to see where it took him — he’d go pro in 2019 and play for coach Bobby Smyrnioits, who also mentored Zajac in League1 Ontario with Sigma FC.
“I chose to leave early,” said Zajac. “We (Akron) had a great season and, for me, I thought I could use that momentum to play professionally … I trained with the Crew for a week, and they liked me. There was definitely some interest, so it was a very real possibility for me to have gone into the draft.”
Akron has also played friendlies against the Crew in the past. The Ohio connections are strong.
Zajac added he had the support of his NCAA program to make the move. And he plans to finish school eventually. But, he thought about his prospects if he stayed in the U.S. And he didn’t like the odds.
“If you look at past drafts, the players don’t get a lot of regular minutes in MLS,” Zajac told CanPL.ca. “They end up going to USL, and they get lost in the process. I think, for me, it’s better to go and establish myself as a professional in a national league. It doesn’t mean what I think will work for me will work for everyone.”
Do the numbers back Zajac’s theory? Let’s take a quick look at the history of Akron draft picks.
Akron is to soccer what Kentucky or Duke are to basketball, a soccer factory that regularly produces players who go early in drafts. But it does not mean that the school’s top prospects are guaranteed golden tickets onto the rosters of MLS clubs.
In 2018, Akron’s Joao Moutinho went first overall. He played 14 games for LAFC and then was traded to Orlando. Second-round pick Niko de Vera spent all of last season in USL.
In 2017, Akron’s Jonathan Lewis went third overall. He spent most of last season with Louisville of the USL.
Richie Laryea, another Canadian, was taken seventh overall by Orlando in the 2016 draft. He’s played in more USL matches than he has MLS matches since he was selected and signed.
In 2015, Saad Abdul-Salaam was taken in the first round and spent his first three seasons in MLS with Sporting Kansas City. He was with Phoenix Rising of the USL last season.
What’s more, 321 players were taken in MLS Superdrafts from 2015-18. Of those, only 30% have got into MLS matches so far. More than two-thirds have yet to play in an MLS game.
And, looking at players taken from 2015-17, the chances are only one in five that you’ll stay with an MLS club for a second season if you’re selected outside of the top 10.
PLAYING THE ODDS
Zajac believes the odds are even slimmer for attacking players coming out of American colleges than it is for defenders. As an attacker who scored 11 times and added eight assists in just 19 games — 15 of them starts — he doesn’t think he’d have as good a chance coming out of the SuperDraft as a big centreback would.
“For attacking players like me, that’s where MLS teams use the Designated Players, or they bring in international players. It’s more the defenders who get drafted who can get the chance.”
Zajac believes he’s on a better path if he does well in the CPL. He thinks if he distinguishes himself with Forge FC, he’ll have a better shot attracting the attention of MLS and international scouts than he would if he was playing in USL.
And Smyrniotis did a great job selling the Forge FC vision; that the team wants to play possession-oriented, attack-minded football, that it wants to give a player like Zajac the chance to be creative on the pitch alongside Kyle Becker, Chris Nanco and Tristan Borges.
And he won’t have to worry about prospect rankings and mock drafts.
He’s taken control of his future.