It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees when MLS teams make their roster option decisions at the end of the season. For Minnesota United fans, we’re left not just looking at a halfway blank roster (16 of 30 spots filled, with an offer out to Eric Miller and continued confusion about Sam Cronin’s status), but also dealing with the departures of fan favorites like Ibson and Jerome Thiesson.
But when you look at the rest of the teams, the fact is there’s now a forest of available players. The MLS Players Union listed 694 players contracted to either teams or the league in 2018; pending roster decisions for the Conference Final participants, 179 players had their options declined or had contracts or loans expire, with another five announcing their retirement. For the time being, 27 of those players still have their rights held by their former team due to either loan termination rules or the offer of a bona fide contract. The rest are available through MLS’s limited free agency or through the Waiver or Re-Entry Draft Process.
A primer on how these work: MLS players who are out of contract, over the age of 28, and with eight or more years of league experience gain free agent rights to sign with any team effective 3 p.m. on December 11. The following afternoon is the Waiver Draft, where players with fewer than four years of league experience, players under the age of 23, or players between ages 23 and 25 with fewer than three years of experience can be drafted; players with 2019 MLS options will have them picked up, while players without options can be given bona fide offers. Two days later, players in between the free agent and waiver pools, as well as FA-eligible players who so choose, are eligible for the Re-Entry Draft’s first stage; if a player is picked, either his 2019 option becomes valid or the team must offer him a contract. The remaining players then go into Stage Two of the draft on December 20, where teams can get exclusive negotiation rights by selecting players; if a genuine offer is tendered within seven days, the team holds the player’s rights. If you’re not picked, you get freedom to negotiate a new deal with any team.
Sound confusing? It is.
Here’s the easy way to think of it: depending on player classification, the Waiver/Re-Entry Process sees teams balance their desire for players with the risk/reward balance of another team getting your coveted player and possibly negotiating a cheaper contract later. If you really want a player and like his contract terms, you draft him. If not, you hope he gets through and signs with you later.
Looking to these drafts, what’s at issue for Minnesota United is the need to improve the starting lineup while also patching holes where depth isn’t signed for 2019. Right now, Minnesota has just one goalkeeper (Bobby Shuttleworth), one declared fullback (Carter Manley), and two central midfielders (Collin Martin and Rasmus Schuller). If the goal is to sign starter-level talent in those positions, the Re-Entry and Waiver Drafts might not be a great spot.
The goalkeeping class only features two 2018 starters between the two drafts in Orlando’s Joe Bendik and Vancouver’s Stefan Marinovic. Both rank in the bottom five among regular starters in American Soccer Analysis’s Goals Allowed Minus Expected metric per 96 minutes. If you want to gloss over 2018, there’s more depth at fullback—DC United put both Nick DeLeon and Vytas on the market at $275,000 a pop after each player went from playing over 1600 minutes apiece in 2017 to combining for 1140 in 2018, while Donny Toia was an ignored piece of Orlando’s historically bad defense last year after averaging 2329 minutes per year from 2015 to 2017.
The same goes for the midfield: among the eight available central midfielders who played more than 1000 combined minutes in the last two years, just four met that mark in 2018 (Ibson, Vancouver’s Aly Ghazal and Cristian Techera, and Colorado’s Enzo Martinez), with DC’s Ian Harkes and NYCFC’s Tommy McNamara each getting fewer than 400 minutes and DC’s Jared Jeffrey and RSL’s Luke Mulholland combining for 100 minutes total.
It makes sense that teams don’t take many players in the Re-Entry and Waiver Draft—41 players were picked in the last five Re-Entry Drafts combined, with just eight in the Waiver Draft. Teams don’t give up players for no reason: an option year may be more expensive than the team has cap space for, he may be a bad tactical fit, there could be a younger player blocked by an older one, or the player might just not be worth it anymore at his age or talent level.
With those caveats in mind, there is at least some value out there in players who got cut. Jack McBean took steps forward in his bit role for Colorado this year, scoring twice with one assist in 1132 minutes on a reserve contract. Because he still holds Homegrown rights from coming up through the LA Galaxy, Minnesota could trade to acquire him as a back-of-roster striker similar to how Harrison Heath came in last year, filling one of two spots on the roster restricted to reserve-level HGs.
The aforementioned Donny Toia was once a hot commodity: Atlanta’s first pick in the Expansion Draft in 2016, flipped for a SuperDraft pick that ultimately turned into Julian Gressel. Toia’s drop in playing time was attributed to Orlando’s search for a two-way fullback to attack down the left; ultimately, Mohamed El-Munir accounted for some more shots and key passes, but the same number of goals and assists as Toia provided in 2017. On a $125,000 contract, Toia would function as a left-side only version of Eric Miller.
Strangely enough, another Orlando defender could be a decent value. Similar to Jerome Thiesson, Scott Sutter lost a significant chunk of the season to a knee injury, but came back to post a respectable three goals and an assist in the final twelve games, playing a full 90’ at right back in each. Like Thiesson, he’s a Swiss international but domestic for roster purposes; like Thiesson, he’s comfortable getting forward, plays tidy—six fouls, no cards in over 1500 minutes last season—and can score belters from outside; roughly like Thiesson, he made $225,000 last year. While the Loons might want to get a bigger boost in that spot, Sutter would be a modest upgrade and would be a quality depth piece for a back line.
There’s also the curious case of Real Salt Lake’s Sunday “Sunny” Stephen. Sunny was a rock of a defensive midfielder in his 25 games for RSL this year, but the acrimonious relationship he had with club management—a pay dispute after the 2017 season moved him to hold out of preseason training this year after his request to have his option declined wasn’t honored—finally boiled over to him declaring his excitement to be leaving the team to the Salt Lake Tribune. At $288,000, he’s probably not as underpaid as he thinks; that said, he leads the class of defensive midfielders available, and it’s not all that close.
Ultimately Minnesota United needs to be concerned with a few things: how do you reserve enough cap space, roster places, and international slots to go big on improving the starting XI? With nine senior roster spots to fill, just four international slots, and what my math counts to be roughly $1.75 million in cap space if you use allocation money to get minimum hits for Angelo Rodriguez, Romario Ibarra, Francisco Calvo, and Darwin Quintero, it might make more sense to fill as much of the reserve and supplemental roster as possible with cheap contracts. Minnesota only has two draft picks in January, so the Loons can afford to pick up a goalkeeper like Orlando’s Earl Edwards, Jr., or Chicago’s ex-Loon Patrick McClain on a cheap deal for a potential third-stringer. They can find similar doorstop forwards like Orlando’s Jose Villarreal.
Or, given the state of the talent pool, Minnesota could wait to see who’s available after the drafts wrap up, sign these players on reduced contracts later, and scout for other domestic talent in either USL or in the American diaspora.