MLS Re-Entry Draft: Selecting First, D.C. United Has Good Options In Stage One

Jeff Gross

MLS's offseason began the moment Lovel Palmer's penalty kick struck the crossbar last weekend, but the first big event is the Re-Entry Draft on Thursday afternoon. With the first pick, D.C. United has some legitimately interesting options to strengthen a roster that badly needs the help.

While MLS clubs have been having their playoff games and rubbing it in our faces, D.C. United has been quietly biding its time awaiting their first real shot at acquiring much-needed talent. Well, there was one move made today, but forget that for the moment because it disrupts my narrative. MLS's Re-Entry Process - which we will be calling the Re-Entry Draft from here on out because that's how we were introduced - is scheduled for Thursday at 3pm EST. Like all glamorous MLS traditions, this will be done via a conference call that we can't listen in on.

The rules for the RED are fairly complicated, which isn't a surprise since this is MLS. They can be found just beyond halfway down this page. Essentially, a player's age and length of service translate into what a team has to pay him if they select him in the first round of the RED. The second round, which is far more likely to be a busy one, allows teams to re-negotiate rather than take a guy at a locked-in price. Teams that pick someone in the first round get to pick again after the rest of the league has either selected or passed. Once everyone opts to pass, Stage One ends.

Today, we're focusing in on players United should consider in the first stage, where the price tags are set. Generally speaking, very few teams take anyone in Stage One: Two were picked in 2010, three in 2011, and just one in 2012. That's out of 65 total opportunities for teams to pick, or a hair over 9% of the time. It makes sense, as a player whose salary is too high for one team is probably a player whose salary just doesn't make sense within MLS's salary structure.

However, that's not to say that there aren't decent values out there. Teams that are changing their head coach, for example, may be giving up cheap but useful players as part of a total reorganization. In other cases, a team that has little cap space might be rolling the dice on a veteran not being picked by anyone else in order to keep that player at a price they can work. United has plenty of cap space and even more allocation money to expand the budget, so there's theoretically more room to bring in a starter that some other team's circumstances is forcing out.

Before I start naming names, I should clarify one other common question: Each player listed below has two salaries. The first is base compensation, and the second is guaranteed compensation. The reality in terms of how much a player will cost against United's salary budget is somewhere in the murky middle due to things like "annualized bonuses" and other phrases that are not soccer or fun. Our friends at SB Nation's Toronto FC blog Waking The Red have the best breakdown of this discrepancy that I've seen. Basically, just treat these numbers as a guide and assume the actual cap hit is somewhere between the two figures.

With that out of the way, let's go shopping:

Ramon Nunez
Age: 28
2013 Salary: $65,000/$75,000
Position: Attacking midfield, left midfield, right midfield, and possibly withdrawn forward

United needs attacking skill and creativity. Everyone knows it. Ben Olsen listed "guys that can provide the last pass" second to a goalscorer in MLSsoccer's season postmortem. Well, here's a guy who can do just that, and he's available for basically peanuts.

Nunez is a Honduran-born, Texas-raised green card holder capable of providing real creativity in the middle or playing from either wing. He's good enough to have picked up 44 caps for Honduras, including all three games in the 2010 World Cup, but is probably more of a guy that gets on the Catrachos shortlist but not the actual roster for this summer's tournament.

Nunez has experience in England and with Honduran powerhouse CD Olimpia to go with his six MLS seasons (which, combined with his age, means United would have to take him at his 2013 salary). More importantly, he'd be - at worst - legitimate competition with Luis Silva and Nick DeLeon for starting minutes. Even if Silva takes the next step and DeLeon is at his 2012 best, Nunez would still be a regularly-used sub as well as a guy that can get us results in the CONCACAF Champions League and the US Open Cup. At this price tag, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better value.

Like any player in the RED, there are issues with Nunez that can't be ignored. First, he's only about 5'6", which is small for MLS. It's the main reason why he had to learn to play on the flanks after coming onto the scene as a #10. He's made that adjustment, and I wouldn't be concerned about it.

Secondly, he didn't see many minutes on a struggling FC Dallas team last season. I'd chalk this up more to Schellas Hyndman's preference for size and power from his wingers as well as the presence of David Ferreira than I'd blame Nunez for it. The acquisition of potential star Mauro Diaz - a similar player to Nunez - was also a big factor.

There's room within United's locker room and on the field for an attacker who dials up his own number more often.


Finally, there are concerns about whether he's enough of a team-first player, but it's another thing I wouldn't worry too much about at this point. If anything, United had a lack of selfishness in 2013 that saw many attacks die because no one was willing to be the man and take the big risk. In my opinion at least, there's room within United's locker room and on the field for an attacker who dials up his own number more often. As long as it's not a constant refrain or public bickering with teammates or coaches, I can live with Nunez showing a bit of ego.

Calen Carr
Age: 31
2013 salary: $90,338/$94,588
Position: Forward, right midfield

I was just supporting the idea of United pursuing a trade for Carr, so obviously acquiring him for nothing also strikes me as a wise move. Carr has legit speed and was a starter for the Houston Dynamo in last year's stretch run and playoffs, where his off-the-ball play was a big part in their shift from mid-table to contender. He can also jump very high (note: that celebration came after scoring in last season's MLS Cup). United's attack was lacking in fast players who can also think and strike a ball with accuracy and reliability, so a guy like Carr addresses a need towards the top of the roster rather than at the bottom.

Carr is available for two reasons: First, Omar Cummings emerged very late in the season as someone resembling the 2010 version of himself for the first time in three years. Second, Carr tore his ACL during MLS Cup last season, and by the time he was cleared to practice in August the Dynamo were having success with Giles Barnes up top. With Oscar Boniek Garcia on the right and Cummings rounding into form, there was no opportunity for Carr to get minutes once he began training at 100%.

Carr has already recovered from one ACL tear in 2008 as well as a lengthy concussion problem without losing any of his speed or leaping ability, so it stands to reason that he could do it again. Not all injuries are the same, of course, and recovering in your 30s is a lot different from doing so at 26, but this is an issue United can investigate. If Carr hasn't lost his burst and is training without fear of hurting his knee, he's a very interesting prospect.

Ryan Guy
Age: 28
2013 salary: $48,510/$48,510
Position: Right midfield, forward, right back, central midfield, left midfield, basically anywhere but center back

Guy is a Swiss Army knife of a player who often fought his way onto the field for Jay Heaps even amongst better competition. He has few weaknesses, decent speed, and is quite possibly the least expensive veteran that's still capable of contributing on a good team in MLS. He'd also be the club's first Guam national teamer (Guy is US-born, so there's no international roster spot issue) for those interested.

There's no arguing that Guy is a sexy move that will set hearts aflutter in Lot 8. I think it's best for United fans to see him as another potential LEWIS NEAL!: He's smart, he's a great pro, and he won't let the level drop off much when he plays. Teams with badly congested schedules need a few options that can fill in all over the field without letting the level of play drop off a cliff, and Guy is that kind of player.

David Horst
Age: 28
2013 salary: $70,000/$70,000
Position: Center back

I've seen Horst's name come up a few times amongst the fans of bad teams who can't defend, and it makes sense. He's a powerfully built 6'4" center back who can dominate games in the air, something that most bad defensive teams lack. At $70,000, his salary is a pretty good value. He lost his job with Portland after a leg fracture, which is just plain bad luck. What's not to like?

For one, Horst is more of a lumbering CB than most are comfortable with in the modern game. He's not slow, per se, but he lacks agility and quickness. Partnered with Dejan Jakovic or Ethan White, this isn't really a problem, but what if United acquires a great organizer who happens to be slow (someone similar to Nat Borchers, for example)? You can't pair that new guy with Horst and afford to high-press, which is something United struggled with this season. If you defend deeply, you have further to go when you're in possession, and the game gets harder.

Still, if United isn't interested in the center backs available in the Superdraft, Horst is a reasonable second-choice player available to a team that started a career left back in the middle for most of 2013.

Brandon Barklage or Dan Gargan
Age: Barklage is 27, Gargan's 30
2013 salary: $65,000/$71,429 for Barklage, $88,000/$88,000 for Gargan
Position: RB/LB/RM for Barklage, RB/DM/LB for Gargan

More or less the same player. Both guys are ultra-competitive, brave, and physically strong (even if not particularly big). Neither is particularly fast and both have the occasional positional issue, but I'd rate both as slightly better than Riley. Barklage started for the Red Bulls for much of the season over Kosuke Kimura, while Gargan backed up Steven Beitashour in San Jose while also making a couple appearances at left back in non-MLS play.

Given that United would have to start Taylor Kemp at left back (or move the newly-acquired Davy Arnaud to right back and play Chris Korb over there) if we had to play a game tomorrow, bringing in a cheap right back and lining up with Korb on the left might not be the worst idea. In both cases, I'd look at it as an inexpensive and temporary solution. I know it won't be popular, but this stage of the RED is about finding guys who can do an OK job on the cheap rather than finding a long-time starter. Arguably the best players to go in this stage of the RED are Maicon Santos and Danleigh Borman (who ended up turning down the offer he got anyway). Grabbing one of these two would, judged against the rest of MLS in three previous REDs, be a success.

*****

So, those are the relatively safe bets. If United is feeling saucy, there are three names the Black-and-Red could go for that would qualify as high risk/high reward types:

Steve Zakuani
Age: 25
2013 salary: $135,000/$233,000
Position: Left winger, right winger, second forward

MLS fans everywhere have come to react to Zakuani negatively due entirely to a commercial you couldn't avoid if you watched highlights or any other video content on MLSsoccer in 2013. However, Zakuani should probably be known better for being an electric winger who scored 10 goals in 2010 but has struggled with repeated injuries since his gruesome broken leg back in early 2011. His production before that injury saw him either score or assist 28 goals over 64 appearances, or roughly a pace that would get him to 15 combined goals and assists in a 34 game season.

The risk with Zakuani is clearly his injury history since coming back from the broken leg. His 2013 was essentially entirely lost to injury, as he had two separate hernia surgeries. I don't need to tell you how chronic injuries have plagued more than one DC United player in recent years, and bringing in another one seems reckless.

If (Omar) Cummings can make a comeback after his 30th birthday for Houston, surely Zakuani has a chance of being the same game-changer he once was.


However, Zakuani is still only 25, and it's not like 2011 was an eternity ago. If Cummings can make a comeback after his 30th birthday for Houston, surely Zakuani has a chance of being the same game-changer he once was. With his speed and dribbling ability, a healthy Zakuani would provide United with the kind of threat we failed to replace when Andy Najar left for Anderlecht.

Like I said, high risk/high reward.

Kevin Alston
Age: 25
2013 salary: $145,000/$194,000
Position: Right back, left back

This would be a great feel-good story, as Silver Spring native Alston just won the Comeback Player of the Year award for overcoming a leukemia diagnosis early in 2013 to get back on the field before the season ended for the New England Revolution. By all accounts he's free and clear and will be playing in 2014, which is pretty amazing.

That said, great stories won't win games for United in 2014, and the risk with Alston is twofold. First, is he truly healthy? The Revs preferred Chris Tierney - a skillful but hardly outstanding defender - over Alston at left back even when both were fully fit. Alston barely played even once he was cleared to do so, and was regularly an unused substitute instead.

The other side of the problem is that Alston hasn't really developed since making the 2010 All Star game. There's a reason that the Revs went out of their way to draft Andrew Farrell #1 overall last year before anyone knew Alston had leukemia. He's only 25, so it's not like he's definitely done getting better, but there's a chance that Alston is more or less a finished product.

At his salary, United would need to be getting a top 5 MLS right back (or left back), and Alston probably can't provide that. On the other hand, is there a better option that's this easy to acquire? I've been beating the drum for years about Costa Rican Jose Salvatierra and Honduran Brayan Beckeles as being good enough to do well in MLS, but to the best of my knowledge both are under contract (read: not free). Is it worth it to overpay in this case? It's a tough call, but in my mind it's probably not the best move. However, it's not a move that would outright offend me given that Alston is young, fast, tough, and a local. Maybe the club motivates him by telling him that he's playing 2014 to keep that salary for 2015?

Fabian Espindola
Age: 28
2013 salary: $150,000/$150,000
Position: Striker, second forward who drifts wide, left winger

At this salary, I'd normally be saying Espindola is a player United should grab. He's only 28, and he's been a regular at Real Salt Lake and whoever won the Supporters Shield this season, if they awarded it...which they shouldn't have. United's attack badly needs a fast player who constantly provides danger, even if Espindola isn't necessarily the world's sharpest finisher. His non-stop running would fit Ben Olsen's preference for strikers who pressure defenders, and he's an awkward player to defend for any team.

The problem? There's a rumor that his 2014 option is nearly half a million bucks. If that's true, or even if his salary is half that, it would mean United would have to overpay to some degree to take Espindola in stage one. Fans will never get to see the actual chunk Espindola would take out of United's cap, but the club will.

Unless that rumor is just entirely off base, it's hard to justify pursuing Espindola at a higher price. He's a very good player, but his strike rate over the past three seasons is basically a goal every three games. Throw in the fact that he's streaky and picks up roughly one injury per season, and it seems realistic to assume that his two most productive seasons - 10 goals/3 assists in 2011, 9/7 in 2012 - are the best we can hope for. Those are good numbers at his current salary, but for the non-DP max that he could well require to take Thursday it's just not good enough.

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