And even more so in a Salary/Roster cap league. Mistakes cost more in MLS, a bad pick wastes money and a roster slot. For MLS the ability to scout talent from college, from the lower US divisions and internationally is the ability to discover players and get them at value. It is the ability to find a player like Darrius Barnes for New England, Zach Scott, or Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.
Great scouting matters in this league as much as any. And yet in today's Seattle Times chat GM/Owner Adrian Hanauer said the following
We currently have one full-time scout, which is one more than any other MLS team (Kurt Schmid). We also have an extensive network of agents and scouts who we feel provide us with a competitive advantage. But this is definitely an area in which we may invest more resources in the future.
This is also one of the areas within MLS' single entity structure where the Sounders can capitalize on their larger income stream compared to the other clubs in the league. This would be in addition to his stated goal of developing the Sounders Academy.
But I also have to wonder about the lack of full time scouts. Sure, it costs money and is difficult to coordinate in a global game, but I have a baseball background as a journalist (if you call producing sports radio journalism), and I was stunned at the lack of full time scouts - particularly with the MLS SuperDraft just over a month away. So I tried to delve a bit deeper into scouting philosophically, especially when I discovered that there is not a common "tools" system for soccer, and a high level of usage of part-timers and agents for scouting data.
When I want to talk scouting, I talk to a guy who turned his passion and desire to be one into a full-time job covering baseball prospects first at his own blog (Prospect Insider), and also with ESPN's MLB insider - Jason Churchill. Baseball I feel is the best analog for MLS concerning scouting because college (and high school) talent is not ready to play immediately (more in baseball, but still for MLS as well), and because international scouting covers dozens of countries.
Creating a system and organizing the dozens of scouts is one of the most important roles in baseball, and for the G-14 it is as well. Scouts for the G-14 scour lower leagues within their home nation, rival leagues at the top of Europe and earn air miles like Tiger earn Trojan reward points. While baseball mainly uses the "Five Tools" for its non-pitchers Jason takes a more holistic approach as to which tools to use.
I think it depends on the scouts you have. For baseball, the tradition is five tools graded on a 20-80 or 2-8 scale
As for what I prefer... whatever is the most effective way to display on paper what that player is about today, tomorrow and long term is the best way.
Every scout would have their own way, though the template is pretty much the same for all 30 clubs.
What this makes clear is that while the Sounders are likely to grow their scouting operation they must go at it systematically. Concentrate on what skills/tools are of importance to both the General Manager and Coach, and have everyone in the Scouting operations use the same systems even though they may be judging vastly different talent levels. But MLS offers a challenge that Major League Baseball does not, it is a sell on league, not a destination league, and so where some MLB teams might look at a talent that would peak at minor league talent, it would be key for an MLS staff to discover those guys and employ them. Sure, they may not have what it takes to go to the EPL, but they might just be able to maximize their performance here in the USA and Canada. When Jason talks about "today, tomorrow and long term" that means something different based on the age and level of the prospect.
It depends on the level of the player I'm watching. It would be different for a prep player than for a 23-year-old in Triple-A, for example.
For the high school player, you're really only looking 5-plus years down the road. What he is right now doesn't mean a whole lot, though his performance will most likely do the talking in that regard.
For that talent in the upper minors, it's about whether he can take that next step or two and turn his minor league success into big-league success, and if the tools are there, are the intangibles there to back them up?
Track record is also something to take into consideration.
I add that in because a guy that rolls out a .900 OPS as a 22-year-old in AA and has the same tools as another player who has been doing it throughout his move up the latter, isn't going to grade out the same way because he simply hasn't been doing it as long and would generally be considered less reliable.
When Churchill talks about high-school players, and the minors it is key to remember that right now there is no Reserve League for MLS prospects to show their skill level, and to prove that performance matters. It is also notable that Jason points out that a track record of success at lower levels can mean as much as the physical tools/skills that are displayed.
As MLS teams try to decide between Andre Akpan and Teal Burnbury, it would behoove them to not put too much faith in local coaches and part-time area scouts, as both of these may not have the interests of the Major League team at heart.
College coaches tend to have a lot more experience and can serve as a bird dog of sorts, pointing a scout in the right direction. Coaches are also going to be far less objective of their own players.
Part time scouts are typically inexperienced, but like any talent evaluator, you have to learn who to trust and who not to trust, based on the track record they build over time.
It's amazing, though, how many scouts are in their first few years in the business that I wouldn't use at all. If I can't crosscheck their information with two or three others, I don't trust the eval.
These are the same concerns that an MLS General Manager must have as well. Sounders are a step ahead here in that they have more than just asst. coaches, the technical director and head coach at their disposal. Certainly having those is also a key, but depending on people who are not employed by the club to give the best knowledge for the club opens up influence to poor decision making processes, particularly the influence of someone who is regionally strong, but lacks overall context.
MLS is still at early stages in its growth, it doesn't need MLB's large, maybe even bloated scouting structure (Area Scouts, Regional Coordinators, Cross Checker and Scouting Directors), but for an MLS team that wants to be not just good, but declare itself a regional power and famous around the world it is key for Sounders FC to continue to find talent evaluators that find not just hidden gems but undervalued talents who can spend time with the MLS side during their peak years. This will mean more than the General Manager, Technical Director and Coaches, but full-time scouts. As long as there is a draft there will likely need to be someone whose sole responsibility is to find players who within three years will be rotational players on the MLS side. An enterprising MLS side could also likely dedicate a full-time scout or two to the mining the lower levels of CONCACAF play, and maybe dedicate a few others to a region or two throughout the world.
While DC United mined Latin American talent quite well for their first decade, it is time for Sounders FC to take the next steps and start professionalizing talent evaluation in America. MLS will always have some wonky rules for signing talent (allocation, draft, discovery, designated player, free, transfer, etc), but if agents and local coaches are acting as more than a general compass the league will stagnate. For a team to create a "Sounders way" it needs evaluators who are fully committed to that way.
Sounders FC have 1 full-time scout right now, while that is infinitely better than the zero for the rest of the league, it is only a small start to the future of the Rave Green.