Trophy with Cory Bent's profile picture crudely pasted onto it.

CPL–U Sports Draft Part 5: How can the draft be improved?

“The best players in the CPL for the money, for the quality, and for all those variables considered, have come out of U Sports.”

Carmine Isacco, Former York9 Assistant Coach (source: The Northern Tribune).

About the series

In Part 1, we learned the rules for the CPL-U Sports Draft. In Parts 2, 3 and 4, we looked at the success (minutes played) of draftees based on draft order (nope), team (HFX farts in Forge’s general direction), and playing position (too early to tell). Now it’s the finale, where we take a step back and explore ways the draft could be improved. Ideas are fun. And so is the draft. So let’s have some fun squared.

The five parts of this series are:

  1. What is the CPL-U Sports Draft?
  2. Does draft position matter?
  3. Which clubs succeed at the draft (and which one fails)?
  4. Which player positions get drafted (and which ones succeed)?
  5. How can the draft be improved? 7 ideas from people smarter than me *YOU ARE HERE*

Changes made in 2020-21

Developmental Contracts can now be renewed.

If agreed to by club and player.  So if a club drafts a player and signs them to a Developmental Contract they no longer have to re-draft him the next year to retain him as a player, if they both agree to a renewal.  This avoids another Gabriel Bitar situation, with Cavalry drafting him in 2018, signing him to a Developmental Contract, then having to draft him again in 2019 to sign him again on such a contract.

The rationale: this gives incentive for longer-term investment in young player development.  Clubs could draft an 18-year old, sign him to a Development Contract, and work with him over a couple years to become a CPL player, and maybe sold for profit.

“With this rule, we could see CPL clubs take a player every summer for potentially several years. Maybe over two, three years he proves to the team he should be a full-time. … We could also see teams say to an 18-year-old ‘hey, go to this university program and we’ll bring you on’.”

Aaron Nielsen, CPL’s head of domestic scouting (source: CPL article by Marty Thompson).

The verdict: THIS IS GREAT!

This seems to be a win for U Sports players and clubs. When clubs could only retain U Sports players for a year, they’d often go for older players who could help them right now. Now that Developmental Contract renewals are possible, clubs might take a chance drafting younger university students to sign and develop.

This rule change doesn’t get talked about much, but I think it’s a great improvement.

Draft change ideas

Some suggestions are good.  Some are bad.  Let’s look at their pros and cons.

1. Change draft order from snake format to worst-to-first

The draft is currently two rounds. The first round goes in the traditional worst-to-first format, so last season’s last-place team gets first pick, 2nd-last gets 2nd pick, and so on. The second round, however, is the opposite (first-to-worst). The proposal would change the order of the second round of the draft to be the same as the first round: worst-to-first. This would give higher draft selections to teams that fared poorly.

Idea source: several people have suggested this, including former Edmonton FC Head Coach, Jeff Paulus.

Proposal pros:

  • Simpler. Especially for new fans who are familiar with other leagues’ drafts.
  • Helps bad clubs get better (improves league parity).
  • Gives better draftees more playing opportunities. Last-place teams generally provide more opportunities to win a roster spot – they’re last for a reason. With a worst-to-first draft format, a player with the quality to be selected early in the second round would go to a weak team that might actually play him. First-place Forge will still draft someone that they won’t play, but that draftee will be a later-round pick than now (thus presumably not as good a player), so it’ll be less of a shame that their opportunities are limited. Ok, this pro reason is pretty weak, but it might make a tiny difference.

Proposal cons:

  • None?
  • So far there isn’t much of a difference in player quality from higher to lower draft positions, based on draftees’ playing time in the post-draft seasons (see Part 2 of this series on draft order versus playing time). This isn’t a con of changing the draft format, but it suggests the benefits of changing it might not be huge.

Verdict: The snake draft format made sense for the first year of the league, to provide similar draft opportunities to all clubs. But now? As Paulus puts it: “it makes no sense.” Changing the format would align CPL with other leagues’ drafts, help bad clubs get better young players, and could give slightly-better playing opportunities to slightly-better draftees. Would be an easy change to make too – I’m surprised they haven’t already.

Update (Jan. 2022)

They did it! The CPL announced they’ve changed their 2022 draft format from snake to worst-to-first. This is great to see – thanks CPL for making this change.

2. Restrict the draft to Canadians

Right now, any student athlete at Canada’s U Sports universities is eligible for the draft, whether the student is Canadian or not. Not only are international students eligible for the draft, they’re also classified as domestic players while they’re signed to Developmental Contracts. The proposed idea would restrict the draft to Canadians, and presumably also remove domestic status from international students who sign Developmental Contracts (or maybe even restrict Developmental Contracts to Canadians).

Idea source: Jeff Salisbury (fan and co-host of The Cynical Challenge vidcast). Source: YouTube (38:30-38:58)

Proposal pros:

  • Consistent with “the whole concept of the league being by Canadians, for Canadians, with a focus on talent that can push for the national team.” (Jeff Salisbury).

Proposal cons:

  • Would hurt U Sports recruitment. Most of this blog series has focused on what the CPL get out of the draft, but U Sports has their motivations too. The basic argument is that by enticing international students to come to Canadian universities, Canadian student athletes will benefit from higher-caliber soccer. The chain of logic goes like this:

Chain of logic: how can international students help Canadian recruitment?

  1. Universities recruit young players from abroad to come to their university and play on the men’s team. The draft is a selling point: if they’re good enough, they might get drafted and play Division 1 pro soccer with CPL in the summers.
    • For example, Cape Breton University actively recruits international student soccer players, with the draft being a selling feature. They get a lot of international students, they produce a lot of draftees, and they win a lot of titles (for more on their strategy see this CPL article by Charlie O’Connor-Clarke).

“I heard about the CPL-U Sports and how you can pursue education while also playing professionally in the CPL, so that really persuaded me to come to Canada.”

Jamie Watson, a Scottish fullback hoping to sign a Developmental Contract with HFX Wanderers (source: Northern Tribune article by John Jacques).
  1. With quality international student athletes, the quality of Canadian U Sports soccer would improve.
  2. With stronger U Sports soccer, the best Canadian high school soccer players might choose to stay in Canada for university, instead of going to U.S. NCAA schools like they often do now (for discussion on financial incentives in U Sports recruitment, see this 24th Minute article by Duane Rollins).

Jeff Paulus lays it out well in this segment of The Cynical Challenge podcast.

* UPDATE 2021-06-04: I’ve learned of an additional reason for Domestic status of non-Canadian U Sports athletes. For non-Canadian players who are good but maybe not good enough for the CPL, the league can encourage them to go to school and play U Sports so they can show they’re good enough. It’s helps the league compare foreign players to known entities in Canada as a measuring stick of their quality. Thank you to the source who shared this with me.

Verdict: I understand the logic of the idea of restricting the draft to Canadians. But those benefits to U Sports are compelling. I prefer the status quo – let’s continue to allow international students at U Sports universities to be considered domestic.

3. Spice up the draft broadcast

OneSoccer carries the broadcast, streaming on their subscription platform and on YouTube. But it’s only pseudo-live. The draft itself happens behind closed doors, shortly before the live broadcast kind of re-does it in a tl/dr condensed way.

The broadcast has the feel of a live draft; the host hands the virtual mic to each team to announce their selection, and up pops a graphic about the player. But it’s a façade. The 2021 draft broadcast lasted one hour – its video is on YouTube here.

The broadcast is professional, as expected from OneSoccer. But it isn’t as exciting as other leagues’ drafts. There’s no live look to the player as their name is announced, surrounded by their family. It’s just a lone host and teams’ coaches announcing their picks … it’s bland. And it’s like watching a game after it’s happened – just knowing that it already happened makes it less compelling.

The proposed idea is to broadcast the draft live rather than on delay. And add more highlight reels, interviews with draftees, panel discussions, etc. Personally, I’d love a panel that would include Kwesi Loney (Carleton University men’s soccer Head Coach) and Jeff Paulus (former FC Edmonton Head Coach, heavily involved in Alberta teen soccer).

Idea source: Ben Steiner (The Third Sub podcast ep 72, 21:16-30:22)

Proposal pros:

  • Making fans happy and excited is a pretty core objective for sports leagues and their broadcasters.
  • Emotional engagement with fans. When fans are emotionally invested in players, they’ll care more about the club and the league. Seeing draftees celebrating with their families, and watching profiles of draftees’ life stories … you get to know them a little, and want to cheer for them.

Proposal cons:

  • Resources. Live broadcast, highlight reels, panels … these things take organization, time, and money.
  • Would it be boring? The live draft would last longer than the current delayed-and-condensed version. Do fans really want to hear all that? For example, this year FC Edmonton took a timeout prior to the final pick of the draft. Which seems like a bit much to me – it’s the final pick, just get on with it. The pseudo-live broadcast skipped the timeout; we only know there was a timeout because Head Coach Alan Koch said so on the Newsroom podcast (Jan. 29 2021 episode, 21:30-21:50). Do fans really want to sit through that?

Verdict: Spice up the draft broadcast please! North American fans love drafts. I love drafts.

The biggest step would be going live. The added time involved with a live broadcast (the wait between selections) would allow the additions of highlight reels, panel analysis, etc. With the pandemic, people now expect events to be available as live broadcasts. The league should strive to meet that expectation.

4. Make an award for draftee of the year

Awards are fun for fans, and build resumes for players. Why not create a year-end award for best performance by a player drafted the previous year?

Idea source: Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic in The Third Sub podcast (ep 72, 19:50-20:02). Note, he didn’t actually advocate for such an award to be created, he was just asking his podcast guest (U Sports journalist Ben Steiner) who he thought would win the “Cory Bent award,” if one were to exist, for best rookie from this year’s draft.

Trophy with Cory Bent's profile picture crudely pasted onto it.

Proposal pros:

  • Fun for fans.
  • Pads resume for the award recipient – something they or their agents can point to as evidence of the player’s quality.

Proposal cons:

  • Could cheapen the rest of the awards, which are more noteworthy.
  • Cost: the trophies for the league’s other awards are friggin beautiful. If they made this award’s trophy of similar quality, and gave one away every year, it would be an expense.

Verdict: Sure – low cost, low benefit. It wasn’t even proposed as a real suggestion, but I kinda like it anyways. I’d probably make lots of awards if I ran the league. You know in the Grammys how there’s so many niche awards they don’t even show them all? I want that for CPL. And if this award might help winners’ chances of advancing their careers within the league and beyond, that’s great.

5. Restrict some roster slots to U Sports players

Right now, Developmental Contracts count toward clubs’ 23-man roster limit.  But Developmental Contract players are only available until mid-August, when they return to university.  Why should a club spend a roster spot on a player who’s only going to be available for part of the season, when they could just sign a pro player instead?  This is pretty much what Hamilton Forge do (see Part 2 of this blog series), signing very few draftees and instead relying on veteran depth.  A successful strategy for Forge, but not good for the development of U Sports players.

* UPDATE 2021-06-04 *
I’ve learned that it is in fact possible for players on Developmental Contracts to play until the end of the season. According to Oliver Gage, the Director of Football for the CPL, if both player and club agree then Developmental Contracts can last all season (tweet below). Therefore, there isn’t as much risk to the club in signing a draftee to a Developmental Contract – the player might be able to play all season.

That’s interesting to learn – thank you to Oliver for sharing this information. And it might encourage clubs to sign more U Sports student athletes than if they were only available until mid-August.

But I do wonder about fair compensation for labour. U Sports limits Developmental Contract wages to $10,000 – $12,000 for players to maintain U Sports eligibility. If season-long Developmental Contracts are worth the same as summer-long Developmental Contracts then I guess the extra labour is provided without extra pay? Which doesn’t seem fair. But it’s a way for U Sports student athletes to play more in the CPL. So there are pros & cons.

Anyways, back to the proposed idea of restricting some roster slots to U Sports players.

What if we created a special allotment of roster space dedicated to U Sports players? Like, every team could have a maximum of 21 pro contract players PLUS up to three Developmental Contract players.

Idea source: Greyson Knutson (formerly involved with UAlberta men’s soccer) on The Cynical Challenge podcast (ep 2, 43:30-44:43).

Proposal pros:

  • Incentive for clubs to sign U Sports student athletes.  They’d be like a roster bonus.

Proposal cons:

  • Complicates roster rules for fans. Especially when combined with CPL’s secrecy about roster rules.  Confusing secrecy is annoying (just ask any MLS fan/critic).
  • Might result in slightly fewer pro roster slots.

Verdict: I love this idea.  Having some roster slots devoted to Developmental Contracts would provide incentive for the Forges of the league to sign and develop U Sports players.  I think this would benefit the league and U Sports players.

It seems like this idea might become a reality for 2021. Valour Head Coach Rob Gale mentioned the league might allow extra roster slots for Developmental Contracts this year, due to the number of games in a short timeframe this season. Source: this interview with Winnipeg-based journalist Ed Tait; hat-tip to John Jacques of The Northern Tribune for picking up on this tidbit.

6. Allow trading of draft picks

It happens in the NHL, MLS, and other drafts.  Why not CPL?

Idea source: Ben Steiner on The Third Sub podcast (ep 72, 24:26).

The rationale: Trades are exciting, and excitement is good. Makes for an especially fun draft day.

Proposal pros:

  • Easy way to add some excitement for fans.

Proposal cons:

  • It might hurt local opportunities for some university players. Clubs often select local players in the draft, which benefits both parties. If a team tends to trade away its draft picks (like Philadelphia Union does in MLS) then local opportunities will be less evenly spread than they are now. It’s a win-win if draftees live near the club that drafts them. Forcing every team to make draft picks spreads opportunities across Canada.

Verdict: Nah. Trading draft picks adds a little excitement, but could hinder local opportunities for some U Sports players.

7. Get rid of the draft

Whoa! This whole article is about how the draft is already good but could be improved … I bet you didn’t expect it to finish with an idea to just poubelle the whole thing!

What if we got rid of the draft, and allowed U Sports players to sign Developmental Contracts with whatever club they want? Undrafted U Sports players can already sign a Developmental Contract with any club – this would just extend it to be like ALL players are undrafted (because there’d be no draft).

Idea source: Greyson Knutson (formerly involved with UAlberta men’s soccer) on The Cynical Challenge podcast (ep 2, 43:30-44:43).

Proposal pros:

Proposal cons:

  • Drafts are fun for fans – non-drafts are non-fun.
  • Getting drafted is a nice line on a player’s resume – it’s evidence of a player’s perceived value. Even if they don’t sign with CPL, getting drafted might slightly improve a player’s valuation by clubs in other leagues. Getting rid of the draft would eliminate that opportunity.
  • Could lead to disparity among clubs.  Maybe the best clubs sign the best U Sports players with promises of exposure and great coaching and training.  Or clubs with lots of universities nearby would attract quality U Sports players, while Valour would not.  On the other hand, I could see players also wanting to sign with lackluster teams, where they might have a greater chance of breaking into the starting eleven.  Hard to say how it would shake out, but it would likely involve less parity than a draft where each club picks two players.

Verdict: I want to keep the draft, just because it’s fun.

End of the series

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Let me know your feedback – I’m new to all of this so happy to hear what you enjoyed or didn’t. My future articles will probably dive into CPL player analysis. And remember, #RecognizePFACan players’ union.

  1. What is the CPL-U Sports Draft?
  2. Does draft position matter?
  3. Which clubs succeed at the draft (and which one fails)?
  4. Which player positions get drafted (and which ones succeed)?
  5. How can the draft be improved? 7 ideas from people smarter than me *YOU ARE HERE*

Let me know your thoughts on the article @JayFitzSoccer.