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Bona Fide or Bargaining Chips?

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Boom or bust? Starter or squalor? What does the expansion draft really offer?

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Collen Warner was never naturally a defensive midfielder. He isn’t a great passer like Rasmus Schuller and isn’t tricky like Ibson. He’s not a young prospect like Collin Martin and he’s not a South American to take a flyer on like Maximiano. Collen Warner isn’t anything special, but he is versatile, versatile enough to play in 42 games over the last two years for Minnesota United, or two out of every three games. For a team with so much turnover, that’s a significant chunk. In terms of appearances for midfielders, he’s behind Ibson (57) and above Schuller (34). That’s not a bad return for a guy deemed expendable by Houston in the 2016 Expansion Draft.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever a new team enters the league, there is an Expansion Draft. The new team or team gets to pick existing MLS players to start to build out their roster. The current teams get to select 11 players to protect in addition to their Homegrown* and Generation Adidas players. The rules have changed based on the year, but in the most recent iteration, LAFC was given five picks and no team could be picked from twice. Minnesota and Atlanta had the same rules, alternating picks for five rounds. As recently as 2014, New York City FC and Orlando City FC were given 10 picks each and teams could lose multiple players. With the number of expansion drafts that have occurred and the rate at which the league is adding new teams, the rules may likely go through another iteration by the next edition of the expansion draft.

*They don’t have to be your Homegrown players as Martin and Harrison Heath qualified for the Loons in the 2017 Expansion Draft.

With 11 spots to protect players, teams can essentially protect a starting lineup, plus their young players. Teams with more depth are more likely to get players taken as their 12th man is likely a higher standard than a less deep team’s 12th man. Teams entering the league need players, but they can’t really be competitive with a handful of backups, depth players, and vets on bloated contracts. The players left unprotected aren’t generally enough to build a team. Finding a workhorse journeyman like Collen Warner is a great thing for a new team, but even the most optimistic of Loons fans would be hard pressed to call him a crucial player. ‘One man’s trash may be another man’s treasure’, but ‘One team’s benchwarmer may be another team’s starter’ isn’t exactly sound roster-building advice.

Since 2011, there have been four expansion drafts with six teams represented and 45 players changing hands. “45” and “changing hands” are used loosely here because that number is just the tip of the iceberg. Players can be drafted and then immediately traded back to their original club for xAM, international slots, Superdraft picks, a protected player, or anything else GMs are creative enough to come up with. Sal Zizzo was drafted by NYCFC in 2014, and immediately sent up the road to Red Bull New York in a deal that had been decided pre-draft. Laurent Ciman was protected by Montreal, but LAFC got him by trading two of their expansion draft picks, Jukka Raitala (from Columbus) and Raheem Edwards(from Toronto). Raitala is still in Montreal, but Edwards was traded to Chicago for $400,000 TAM.

Everyone in the Ciman trade, LAFC, Montreal, and Chicago probably feel like they came out ahead, that’s how trade works. Even Columbus and Toronto got a little bit of cash out of the deal from the league for losing players. That kind of trade is not uncommon for expansion picks. Of the 45 players selected over the four drafts, 26 were involved in trades of some sort. That number is skewed somewhat by the 2011 and 2014 drafts as players could be at their new clubs contributing and then be traded years later. When looking at players with under 10 appearances for their new club, that number is still 20. 20 players were drafted by new teams and immediately dealt for other assets before contributing a reasonable amount. Five other players with 10 or less appearances ended their tenure with their new clubs by being cut/not having their contract renewed. That leaves just 25 players who contributed more than 10 appearances for their new clubs.

There are some success stories for expansion draftees. Tommy McNamara has to date 89 appearances for NYCFC. Collen Warner went on to have 66 appearances for Montreal Impact in his first experience with the expansion draft before ending up in Minnesota by way of Houston. Some teams figure it out. Montreal and NYCFC averaged 32 and 28 appearances for each of their 10 players picked in their expansion drafts. After those two, however, there is a sharp drop. LAFC has gotten an average of 13 appearances from their players, hindered only by an injury to Marco Urena. They set themselves up nicely by having three of their picks feature heavily, and trading two more for a starter in Ciman. Minnesota, Atlanta, and Orlando City fared much worse.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Los Angeles FC Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The most successful picks in Orlando were, Pedro Ribeiro, Lewis Neal racking up 25 and 23 appearances respectively. Both are outliers in Orlando though, with their average coming in at just under seven games per draft pick. The only player the Loons have left is Collen Warner. His 42 appearances plus Mo Saeid’s four mean MNUFC just ekes out Atlanta with an even nine games per pick compared to Atlanta’s 8.8. Atlanta’s games come from Mikey Ambrose, a 24 year old defender who has spent most of his time with the reserves or injured, and Alec Kann, the 28 year old backup goalkeeper, and a single game from Zach Loyd, a centerback who was cut at the end of last year.

The expansion draft isn’t the main roster building tool for new teams, and after looking though the last four drafts, it looks like it isn’t even a good roster building tool. Results range from bona fide starters like many of New York and Montreal’s picks, to busts who couldn’t even be traded, like Zach Loyd. GMs entering the league don’t know how to successfully evaluate the talent of players who aren’t superstars in MLS. Many players are traded for other assets because teams don’t want players that are benchwarmers for their rivals, they want something else: money, international spots, younger players to build a franchise around. LA went big with Urena and Blessing and had a moderate degree of success. Blessing has five goals and six assists, but Urena just scored his first goal last weekend. New York and Montreal went smart and got players they could rely on, but everyone else dropped the ball.

If MLS continues to expand at the current rate, there are going to be a lot more expansion drafts and a lot more funky trades. New teams want assets, not players. They are being forced to uproot players they don’t want and don’t need to in order to trade them or pay them until something better comes along. If the league really wants to grow, the expansion draft doesn’t need to be a part of it.