Three and a half years ago, Jordan Wilson found himself in the situation countless young Scottish footballers find themselves in every year. The Auchterarder-born teenage defender was told he had no future at Rangers, that after just two years playing full time he wouldn’t be offered another contract. Now, however, his future is a bright one seen through star spangled glasses.
On 13 January, Wilson will travel to Los Angeles to discover exactly what his future holds as one of 67 college players hoping to be picked in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. Unlike anything else in the football world, the draft system is a distinctly American sporting feature. It bridges the gap between the college game and the professional game in gridiron and basketball. MLS is no different.
A University of Kentucky student since 2013, Wilson has one semester left before graduation. But his attention, for the time being, has been stolen by the draft later this month. It’s his opportunity to become a professional football player. His opportunity to join one of the fastest growing leagues in the world.
The path from Scottish football to the American game isn’t exactly a well-trodden one for youngsters such as Wilson, but it is an option more should explore, at least going on what the 22-year-old says about the opportunities afforded to him since making the move Stateside.
“Kentucky’s sporting programme is a household name across America,” says Wilson, and he’s not wrong.
The Kentucky Wildcats American football team play in front of sell-out crowds of 62,000 fans, with ESPN paying $300 million every year to broadcast their games.
The basketball team, also called the Wildcats, have won eight national championships and are the most successful side in Southeastern Conference history.
“They’re one of the biggest schools in the country for sports and they pump a lot of money into other sports, like soccer, because of the money they make through the football and basketball teams,” Wilson says. “For example, we play in a $20m soccer stadium with training and locker rooms, TVs everywhere, lounges, a hydrotherapy room… they’ve got everything you could ever want or need.”
A fundamental flaw of Scottish football is the way it offers little in the way of a safety net for those who drop out of the game every year. Young players who leave school at an early age to join youth academies are robbed of an education that would have provided them with another path in life. That, as Wilson sees it, is the primary difference between youth football in Scotland and in America.
“Back home it’s either one path or the other,” he says. “There’s not really a hybrid, but over here they have that. The standard I’ve been playing in is just as good as it is back home, but they take you in and the educational side is something they really focus on. You’re there for four years so they’re a bit more patient with you. They take more of a personal interest in you and in your development as an individual, in becoming a man and growing up.”
As is the norm for college athletes in the US, Wilson had to achieve certain standards in his studies to protect his place in the football team. The NCAA governing body set a division-wide benchmark of a 2.0 grade point average. Wilson’s coach set his own 2.5 grade point average watermark, with anyone dropping below that suspended for five matches. “The season is only 17, 20 games long, so you’re missing a big chunk of the season,” says Wilson. Anyone charting between a 2.5 and 3.0 grade point average would be required to fulfil additional study hours. “After class you’d have to find a silent room, no headphones, no phones, sit there and log your hours. Otherwise you don’t play.”
So having seen the stark differences between youth football in Scotland and the States, could the college system one day work over here? “It would be a good idea, I just don’t see it happening in Scotland,” says Wilson.
Indeed, it would take an unprecedented concession of responsibility from the clubs, essentially handing the task of producing and rearing talent to universities. “I just don’t think Scottish football would ever fall in line with the US because they see their ways as superior.”
Unjustifiably so, Wilson is keen to stress. While the Scottish system failed him, he is now thriving in the US, not by accident either.
Drafts as sporting events are peculiar affairs. Usually held in the sort of hotel conference room used for AGMs or comic book conventions, club officials huddle round tables, equipped with laptops, phones and every communication device handy, all to determine which players they should draft. It’s a process rooted in American sports’ reliance on statistics.
For the young college players desperate for the scarf of a club to be draped around their shoulders, it can be a rather overwhelming experience. Players are used as pawns, traded between teams for future draft picks or money. So the team Wilson is first drafted to won’t necessarily be the team he plays for. All that’s certain is the uncertainty that comes with draft day.
Not that Wilson seems especially daunted by what he will face. Nor is he especially picky when it comes to a potential destination. “America’s got a really migrant workforce, no matter what the job or industry is,” he says.
“When people come out of college they’ll go anywhere. That’s just the way it is here, so I think to some people the draft is no big deal in that way. It is a big country, though. You could be packing for snow, you could be packing for the beach.”