Even the casual MLS fan is aware of the fact that the league has some entirely unique quirks. I'm not even sure how many drafts there are any more, and I'm a borderline obsessive follower of the league (example: I have no fewer than five spreadsheets containing MLS information open right now, and they don't include anything about the league standings, stats, or the playoffs). It says a lot about the complexity of player acquisition in this league that the Expansion Draft rules don't seem that complicated. Compared to the new Re-Entry Draft, the Expansion Draft coming up on November 24th seems as complicated as a Michael Bay movie.
In short, existing teams will submit a list of eleven players that cannot be picked by the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Homegrown and Generation Adidas players cannot be selected and do not take up a spot on a club's protected list. If a team has a player selected, they are allowed to add someone else to their protected list. If they lose a second player, the expansion clubs can no longer select anyone else from that team. Given our horrible record this past year, we will probably not end up in that situation.
Understanding the rules is one thing, but successfully applying them to best protect your club's interests is another. Teams that have, for example, gambled on leaving a veteran unprotected have been burned more than once. Real Salt Lake's decision to leave Jason Kreis unprotected was based on the idea that newcomers Toronto FC wouldn't take a forward approaching the very end of his career seemed sound. However, TFC went ahead and took Kreis anyway, astutely noting that Kreis was the face of the RSL franchise at the time. In the end, RSL traded over $100,000 in allocation money to get Kreis back after having chosen to protect superstars like Willis Forko, Cameron Knowles, and Jafet Soto.
Read on for my thoughts on who United should protect and why:
Before I get to my protected list, it's important to note that we have three players that cannot be selected thanks to their Homegrown status. Winger/forward Andy Najar, goalkeeper Bill Hamid, and center back/defensive midfielder Conor Shanosky are the future of D.C. United, and thankfully MLS did the right thing and ensured that clubs will not have to worry about keeping their academy products. It's also worth mentioning that United must protect at least three foreign players, though this really isn't going to be an issue unless something very bizarre happens.
With those three out of the way, it's time to get down to business. In no particular order, these are the players I would protect if I were in charge:
1. Julius James
James is one of the few players who can definitively say he improved this season. Despite being stuck on the bench early in the year behind slow veterans like Carey Talley and Juan Manuel Pena, James kept plugging away and did well when given a chance. By the end of the year, he was clearly our best defender. James is never going to be a skillful distributor out of the back, and his decision making can be iffy, but his overall athleticism, bravery, and knack for last-second heroics are real assets. If DC signs a new center back in the offseason that can come in and be an indisputable starter, I'd give the other center back role to James over Dejan Jakovic at this point.
2. Dejan Jakovic
Speaking of Jakovic, I think he is a must for the list. The fact that Vancouver will be eager to take any decent Canadian players makes this one a no-brainer. While Jakovic didn't make any appreciable progress this season (something quite frustrating considering the obvious potential there), it's hard to blame him given the turmoil, injuries, and generally bad play surrounding him. Any central defender at Jakovic's age with his speed, size, and skill on the ball is worth keeping. Hopefully under a new coach, he can make the kind of step up that James did. In Jakovic's case, that means less ball-watching and being quicker to get the ball off his feet.
3. Jed Zayner
It might seem absurd to start off with so many defenders when you consider how weak we were in the back, but it's a young group that will likely blossom under the right coach. I've made no secret of my admiration for Zayner during his limited time here. He's a versatile, no-nonsense defender that can play anywhere in the back, and for about $61,000 against the cap we won't find a better value. Zayner's never going to make the all star team, but he has the quality to be a reliable starting outside back on a good MLS team. I also think his dogged approach to 1v1 defending would appeal to Portland coach John Spencer, who has said he wants a blue-collar team.
4. Chris Pontius
This is a pretty straightforward selection. A healthy Pontius would be welcome on any MLS roster, and would start nearly everywhere. He's a rare combination of speed, skill, size, and strength, and he's obviously capable of moments of brilliance. While his finishing early in the 2010 season was a big letdown, the painful hamstring injury he was fighting through probably played a big part in that. Leaving Pontius unprotected would be a worse decision than signing Franco Niell.
5. Clyde Simms
Simms had a down year this season, there's no doubt. While there were stretches early in the year that he appeared to be one of our only competent players, it was all in all a step back for Simms before he was forced to the bench by a sports hernia that, without our ridiculous injury situation, would surely have resulted in surgery much sooner than it did. Still, a lot of what went wrong this past year was not his fault; in fact, our midfield's ability to maintain and regain possession was often what kept us from getting routed (as opposed to merely beaten 1-0 or 2-0). Given the lack of veteran options here, Simms is a must on this list.
6. Rodney Wallace
This one is also pretty easy. Wallace's speed and his endless running are valuable, whether it be at left back, left midfield, or even the defensive midfield role he played on and off in 2009. He's still quite raw, but at just 22 he has years of what should be sustained improvement ahead of him. It was no secret that Wallace struggled defensively at left back before fracturing his fibula while blocking a shot, but his ability to overlap both added to our attack and forced opposing right midfielders to play more cautiously. Wallace produced two assists in eleven league matches, which is a pretty good total for an MLS outside back (that rate of production in 2011's 34 game season would mean six assists, which would be among the best in the league for defenders). The Timbers and Whitecaps would both tear your hand off if you offered them the chance to pick Wallace up.
7. Santino Quaranta
Tino is now the unquestioned heart of D.C.United. While his numbers this past season (2 goals and 2 assists in MLS play, plus another goal in the US Open Cup) were well below expectations, his ability to hit crossfield balls to Najar was a crucial part of our most effective means of attacking opponents. No reasonable United fan would leave Quaranta off their protected list. With better forwards and better coaching (it has to be better, right? Right?!) in 2011, Quaranta's production will almost certainly go up.
8. Branko Boskovic
Designated Players must be protected only if they have a no-trade clause in their contract, but that doesn't concern me. I'd protect Boskovic with or without such a clause. While he obviously didn't adapt to his new surroundings as quickly as anyone would have liked, he's clearly got loads of skill on the ball. Given a full preseason and some better options to pass to going forward, I think Boskovic could easily become one of the better attacking midfielders in MLS. For those frustrated with his play in 2010, I'd like to point out that it took David Ferreira (the presumptive 2010 MLS MVP) about half a season to find his footing for FC Dallas. Now, he's virtually unstoppable. They're very different players, obviously, but the point is that patience pays off in these situations.
9. Troy Perkins
Perkins would be the firs to tell you that his 2010 was a huge letdown. When United signed Perkins, he was widely considered to be one of the top five American goalkeepers, and until Marcus Hahnemann regained the starting job at Wolves there was a chance that he could have made the World Cup squad. Then our first ten games happened, and Perkins went from being just off Bob Bradley's roster to riding the D.C. bench behind a teenager. However, Perkins did rebound from this over the last third of the season, playing solidly for the most part (including strong efforts in our shock 1-0 wins at Colorado and Toronto). Perkins will have to step up so that his play down the stretch is his baseline, not his peak.
10. Pablo Hernandez
This is where it starts to get tricky. To be blunt, D.C.'s roster doesn't have eleven players that absolutely must be protected. We're not Real Salt Lake or Los Angeles, where we're going to definitely lose a player that could start. At the bottom of our list, it's less about who the best player is and more about who the Timbers or Whitecaps might grab.
Hernandez did not score in league play despite numerous chances, and his only goal in any competition for us was a penalty kick against Columbus in the Open Cup. However, he also showed a lot of creativity, a good first touch, and our offense clearly improved thanks to his ability to hold the ball up thanks to his combination of size and skill. We never heard much from Hernandez in the press because his English is limited, but he struck me as a player low on shooting confidence (hardly unique for a United player in 2010). Given a clean slate to start next season, I think he'll come around. I'm not saying he'll be a world-beater, but it's not like we'd be keeping him at the expense of losing someone like Brian Carroll. Hernandez is a young forward with plenty of skill, and Dave Kasper indicated that we were looking at him while Tom Soehn (now Vancouver's technical director) was still here. I feel like Hernandez would get selected unless there are some unexpectedly talented forwards left off the rest of the league's protected lists.
11. Marc Burch
If you've been reading this blog for a long time, you're probably surprised by this last pick. I've made no secret that I doubt Burch's ability to be a solid left back, and his $81,000 salary is enough money to get a reasonable starter or oft-used sub in MLS. However, it always seemed to me that Soehn held Burch in high esteem when he was coaching here. Meanwhile, Spencer's talk of having a team of tough, aggressive players would point to him also being interested in Burch, who is known for bringing some bite to the game. I don't see Burch as a starter for us next year, or even a regular sub. At best, he's our 2nd choice left back and a 4th choice center back. This is entirely about preventing other teams from taking a player they might like for nothing. If they want him, they can give up something for him, right? Even getting a 4th round draft pick in 2012 is better than just letting him go for nothing. Out of the remaining players, I think Burch is the most likely to be picked up, so I'm giving him my last spot.
As I said before, we get a chance to protect another player if we lose someone. Since that's not something we have to lock in before the draft, it will likely be a pick based on who we just lost. For example, if Vancouver takes Devon McTavish, we would probably protect Jordan Graye in response to ensure we maintain some depth at outside back. Here are the players worth considering if we lose someone:
Carlos Varela: There are rumors that a couple of Swiss clubs want to bring him back home, and he's 34 (not an appealing age for a winger). On the other hand, Varela showed some quality in limited minutes and has experience that will be hard to find elsewhere on the league's collective unprotected lists. Making him our 12th protected player would depend on what other teams have left out there, as well as whether he wants to come back here or if he's going back to the Swiss league.
Devon McTavish: McTavish is a solid role player and is by all accounts a great guy in the locker room and the community. He's also versatile, and seemed like a player Soehn had a lot of trust in. The main reasons I took Burch instead were a) left back is a harder position to fill than right back or right midfield and b) I don't think Spencer will be interested, meaning that there's less of a chance he gets picked. If I had to bet on who we'd protect first
when if we lose someone, I'd put a few bucks on that player being McTavish.
Stephen King: I came very close to protecting King, but ultimately he's not going to start over Boskovic or Simms, and Kevin Payne already said he wants to add another central midfielder as well. A confident King would be a good player to have around, especially with Boskovic likely to continue receiving calls from Montenegro as they attempt to quality for Euro 2012. However, if we've already got two people ahead of him, a hypothetical third on the way, and a quality reserve like Brandon Barklage on the comeback from injury, I can't see protecting him over Hernandez or Burch. However, I also think King is the player we are most likely to lose first if my list ends up being exactly right (which probably won't be the case).
With respect to the remaining players on the roster, there is little danger of them being picked. Pena is going to retire, Kurt Morsink struggled all year long with turnovers, Barklage is returning from his second serious knee injury in two pro seasons, and the trio of Barry Rice, Jordan Graye, and Junior are all long-term projects that are almost certainly going to be fixtures in our reserve lineups next year. Adam Cristman is an adequate reserve forward, but I strongly doubt he'll be taken considering the other players available and the fact that Portland already has a big target man in youngster Bright Dike.
I'm interested to know how everyone else out there thinks DCU should handle this. There are certainly plenty of options for those last spots, and on another day or even at another time tonight I might have chosen differently. Post your lists in the comments and we'll have ourselves a debate.