Photo: Paul Rudderow
Another MLS Cup, another expansion draft.
For most clubs around the league, that’s what the year’s final match really means. The day after Sunday’s championship game, MLS teams must submit to the league office the list of eleven players they plan to protect in the Nov. 23 expansion draft.
The draft’s rules are largely the same as last year, tweaked a bit to account for the Montreal Impact drafting alone, whereas last year’s draft had two expansion teams. Since this will be familiar to some of you, we’ll condense the rules summary up front before rolling out who the Union should protect and why. (For a more detailed explanation of the rules, click here.)
Expansion draft rules
- Each team protects 11 players. If a player’s contract expires, he can still be protected.
- Montreal will select 10 players.
- No team can lose more than one player.
- Generation Adidas and homegrown players are exempt from the draft.
- Designated players are not exempt and can be exposed in the draft.
- The Union must protect at least three international players, based on their current roster.
The exempt players
Midfielder Zach Pfeffer and goalkeeper Zac MacMath are the only players pretty much guaranteed to be exempt. Pfeffer is a homegrown teenage player in his first full year on the senior roster, and if those guys start going in expansion drafts, moms around the country are going to get pissed at MLS and keep their kids on high school teams. Meanwhile, MacMath is Generation Adidas and is unlikely to qualify for graduation yet due to his low number of appearances this year.
Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Danny Mwanga are the other possibilities, and as of Monday night, the Union had still not learned their fates, according to team spokeswoman Aimee Cicero.
There are very few cases of players remaining GA for more than two years. In fact, there may be only one: former Union goalkeeper Chris Seitz, who played just three matches his first two years.
Mwanga, McInerney and Okugo all surpass that by far.
Mwanga has played in 52 games over two years and should graduate. If he doesn’t, MLS has some explaining to do, since other players have graduated after just one season. Expect the Union to have to protect him.
McInerney has played in 35 games over two seasons, but that’s only translated to 908 minutes on the field. Okugo has played in 26 matches, equaling 1,248 minutes. The Union are likely lobbying for both to remain GA, and they may have a shot, albeit a possibly better one with McInerney than with Okugo due to his slightly younger age and fewer minutes played.
The rules for graduating GA have never been made public, and some (like me) suspect MLS keeps them nebulous to enable exceptions based on individual teams’ situations. The Union are still just a second-year club, which means they’re not yet as secure and stable financially as teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy or Seattle Sounders. That may help the case for Okugo and McInerney.
At least, the Union better hope so, because if not, they might lose one.
The 11 players the Union should protect
You won’t find predictions here on who the Union will protect. Projecting 11 players Union manager Peter Nowak plans to do anything with is like playing the slots in Atlantic City.
So let’s lay out who they should protect and why. Here’s the list:
- Sebastien Le Toux – The team’s best attacking threat is one of the league’s best strikers.
- Danny Califf – Not just the team’s heart and soul, but also its most authentic public voice and back line anchor. He quietly had a terrific season.
- Brian Carroll – Made the back line look great all year. Key to the defense.
- Sheanon Williams – One of the league’s best right backs and still just 21 years old.
- Michael Farfan – The steal of the 2011 MLS amateur draft is the Union’s best one-on-one player.
- Freddy Adu – His price tag could scare off the Impact, but if I’m the Union, I don’t make that bet. His first half-season was unimpressive, but give him a full training camp before passing judgment.
- Roger Torres – Torres has earned a starting spot and is a fan favorite. If left unprotected, you can guarantee he’s gone.
- Carlos Valdes – Played better in the first half of the season but still helped form the core of the league’s best defense.
- Danny Mwanga – The top striker prospect regressed in year two, but injuries and Carlos Ruiz had something to do with that. The Union would be foolish to give up on him.
- Gabriel Farfan – Still developing as a left back, but he has the talent to play somewhere on the field. That said, if Okugo and McInerney graduate GA, Garfan could get nudged out, though I’d personally keep him over Okugo.
- Jack McInerney/Keon Daniel – This may seem a cop-out, but these guys have variables that aren’t determined yet. If Union Jack graduates GA, then he’s protected. If he doesn’t, then Daniel is up next, but his visa problems could mean he’ll never suit up for the Union again. If the Union have given up on Daniel, then mid-season signing Joe Tait could be a surprise protectee if McInerney graduates. (I could list Okugo here, but you’re unlikely to have a situation in which McInerney graduates GA and Okugo doesn’t.)
- Faryd Mondragon
- Justin Mapp
- Kyle Nakazawa
- Stefani Miglioranzi
- Veljko Paunovic
- Morgan Langley
- Ryan Richter
- Joe Tait
- Thorne Holder
- Juan Diego Gonzalez
- Levi Houapeu
- Chase Harrison
- Amobi Okugo (if he graduates GA)
The older guys — unlikely picks
You don’t leave Mondragon and Paunovic unprotected because you want to let them go. It’s basically a calculated risk, placing a bet that Montreal won’t take them.
Mondragon is a 40-year-old goalkeeper in the twilight of his career. While he played well much of the season and proved a terrific leadership presence, his shortcomings as a shot-stopper were also exposed down the stretch. He would make an adequate keeper for a team with a good back line, but for one that might be porous, it could get ugly. Proven keepers like Donovan Ricketts and Zach Thornton will probably be available to Montreal, so there’s little reason to spend a coveted draft pick on a guy likely to retire in a year or two.
As for Paunovic, there’s even less reason to spend a pick on a guy who just came out of retirement, turned down other MLS clubs before signing with the Union, and might choose to retire again instead of uprooting to move to an expansion club.
With Miglioranzi, his difficult season simply didn’t merit protection. He’s unlikely to draw Montreal’s interest, and even if he does, his minutes could be replaced by Okugo.
Two who could go — Justin Mapp and Kyle Nakazawa
If Mapp had two feet, he’d be a regular on the national team. But his right foot is pretty useless. He’s had some great games, but he’s had more where he totally disappears. He’s had enough time to prove what he can do for the Union, and the reality is he’s a decent player who nonetheless is very replaceable. That said, he’s still a solid player who would contribute immediately to an expansion team, and if left unprotected, he’d be a logical pick for Montreal.
As for Nakazawa, there are a lot of things to like about him. He’s young, he hustles, he’s a solid defender, and he’s terrific on free kicks. But he had trouble cracking a crowded midfield lineup after midseason, and he doesn’t appear to be in Nowak’s plans anymore. It’s time for him to move on. He deserves a shot at regular playing time somewhere.
Okugo?!?! F&%$ me!!!
The Union better hope Okugo and/or McInerney don’t graduate GA, because they’re going to have a tough time protecting both.
Look at that protected list above. Those first nine spots are basically non-debatable. (OK, you can argue Adu, but, well, whatever.)
That leaves Garfan and the final spot open. Let’s say all three 2010 GA draft picks graduate GA and require protection. Mwanga has to be protected, and so does McInerney, because there’s no way Montreal passes on them.
So who would you keep: Garfan or Okugo?
Many of you would surely say Okugo, and honestly, it’s almost a coin flip. But you do have to flip that coin, don’t you?
Realistically speaking, Okugo isn’t going to start on this team with Carroll entrenched in front of him. If he does, it creates a weaker Union attack due to the lack of a central playmaker. We’ve seen for two years that, unless they play three legitimate attacking players in the midfield with two forwards (regardless of formation), the Union don’t produce much offensively. Further, Okugo’s skill sets are more common than those Garfan brings to the table. Yes, he’s likely to become a very good defensive midfielder one day, but the U.S. tends to produce more of those than creative players on the flanks.
Garfan is simply a more unique player with a more uncommon skill set. He played out of position most of the year, but if he develops defensively to the point where fullback becomes a position he’s comfortable with, he could become a legitimate national team prospect. He has good attacking instincts, great ball skills, and a fierce temperament that translates well to defense. He might belong in the midfield in the end, but he’s worth taking a chance on. Lastly — and while this shouldn’t be a factor, it’s not unreasonable to consider — letting him leave in the expansion draft could alienate his brother, one of the cornerstones around whom the Union should build their attack.
The other guys
The remaining players on the roster combined for one appearance and 10 minutes of play. It’s unlikely any will be protected, though based on Tait’s body of work in the Premier Development League, he’s the most likely to draw notice from Montreal.
The bottom line
The Union will probably lose someone, and there’s a good chance it’ll be someone good. Everything is contingent upon whether Mwanga, McInerney and Okugo graduate Generation Adidas. If even one of them maintains GA eligibility, then the Union are in a much better position. But if all three graduate GA, the Union have some very difficult decisions to make when crafting a protected roster. In all likelihood, it would come down to choosing between Garfan and Okugo, unless the Union were willing to gamble that Adu’s high salary would chase away Montreal. Any other player on the protected list above would get snatched up by Montreal if made available.
The other big variable could be a trade. Last year, the Union traded for Brian Carroll the day protected rosters were due, and it made Andrew Jacobson expendable and bumped Shea Salinas off the protected list to Vancouver. That narrow trade window will open again this year, and don’t be surprised if Okugo is dangled as trade bait for allocation money if he, McInerney and Mwanga graduate GA. Okugo has trade value and tons of potential, but Carroll’s presence could keep him marginalized. If the Union believe they’ll lose him in the draft, it makes more sense to trade him before that happens.
But then, that would be logical. And this year, no 11-man list of Union players has ever been logical.
What do you think?
Who do you think should be protected? Who did I get wrong and why? Did I miss anything? Post your thoughts and your own protected list below and start the debate.
Also, look for Adam Cann’s post later this week, as he puts PSP’s player ratings to good use with a unique and very different look at the draft.