It's the MLS offseason, and that means one thing: A series of obscure and/or confusing processes in which a team can acquire players! "The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year," a song commonly heard in the late autumn and early winter, was written about this sequence of player acquisition mechanisms.
The first of these is the Re-Entry
Draft Process, which is exactly like a draft but no longer referred to as one. It came to exist as a compromise between MLS and the Players Union in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. It's not quite real free agency, but it's also a big step up from MLS's old system, which often saw players get screwed as their old club shook down potential new clubs with trade demands on a guy they had long since given up on.
The Re-Entry Process, which I will resolutely refer to from herein as the RED (the abbreviation stays unchanged, dammit), is a two-stage draft where every team in MLS gets a shot at players who were let go by their club after the season. Eligibility on the player side is complicated, but fortunately someone else has already explained it.
Now that you've digested that, let's move away from the legalese/salary cap side of this and look at the bigger picture for United. What is the RED actually going to provide us? A quick look at the list of eligible players underlines the fact that teams aren't going to pick up star players this way. If a team can acquire a respectable starter, they've essentially won the RED. In last year's Stage 1, only three teams took players, and only one of those players - Carlos Mendes - ended up actually signing with the team that took him.
Stage 2, in which clubs can negotiate lower salaries with the selected player, saw more picks but a similarly low rate of actual results. Out of the ten players taken before teams could start claiming the rights up to their old players, only five signed. Oddly enough, the two players to have the biggest impact on the 2012 season were United players who went elsewhere: Clyde Simms (New England) and Marc Burch (Seattle).
The realistic expectation here should be to find a player who was unwanted on the cheap to provide reliable depth. That said, I expect a bit more activity this time around, as a) the pool of talent is slightly better than the 2011 list and b) teams are likely to look at the LA Galaxy, who took several players but only signed a couple, as a model to follow. If the player turns a club down, that club still holds the right to first refusal whenever that person returns to MLS. It's not a great spot to be in if a player thinks they'll only play one season elsewhere then return, but for the clubs it makes sense to have those rights just in case.
With all that in mind, these are the players I want to see United select if they're still available when we pick (17th out of the 19 clubs, so that might be a problem). In certain cases, players I would be interested in have been left off because they're already in talks with their 2012 club and are likely to withdraw (e.g. Rodney Wallace, who our friends at Stumptown Footy believe is in talks to stay with Portland).
5. Paulo Jr.
2012 Base Salary: $65,000
Paulo Jr. is only 23, making him just barely eligible for the RED. He has proven to be a bit erratic with Real Salt Lake, but he's a speedy little player who is capable of both playing underneath a target or leading the line with his runs in behind the defense.
A Brazilian, Paulo Jr. would not be coming to United to play major minutes right away. Rather, he would take up Long Tan's spot on the roster. He makes more than Tan (whose 2012 salary was $44,000), but is also a better and more experienced player. He would also give us a speed option that we don't have at the moment unless we move Chris Pontius up top. Late in games where we're defending a lead, a player like Paulo Jr. would make a good sub. His speed would be a real problem for teams who are tired and not focused on defending, and he would also force defenses to sit deeper (forcing more long balls than build-up play, which makes defending the lead easier).
4. Tony Tchani
Position: Defensive midfield or box-to-box midfield
2012 Base Salary: $105,000 (guaranteed $209,000)
Tchani would be a good candidate for Stage 2, but it might require a trade (yes, you can trade your RED spot; Seattle did it last year to get Vancouver's #1 pick). His salary is high thanks to his original Generation Adidas contract, but he graduated from the program and hasn't yet had the impact he was expected to make. The rumored issues are a lack of intensity in training and a bit of a relaxed attitude towards making the most of his talents.
However, that's a problem that can be fixed by the right coach, and the boss that coaxes the best out of Tchani will have a very strong player on his hands. The Virginia product is an outstanding athlete gifted with size, speed, and quickness paired with a dynamic style of play. Tchani's ability to cover ground helps at both ends, as he can be more of a threat to score goals than a normal defensive/linking midfielder.
For United, Tchani would be fighting with Marcelo Saragosa for a starting job in central midfield. The battle would probably be pretty close if Tchani buys in, but at 23 the Cameroonian would have time on his side. Tactically, the choice for Ben Olsen would come down to speed of play. If he prefers a higher tempo or is expecting a more hectic game, Tchani would fit the bill. If the idea is to try to control possession, Saragosa would have the edge. Bringing Tchani on as a sub would also likely pay off, as his rangy style and his strength would give him a big advantage over tired opponents.
3. Conor Casey
2012 Base Salary: $400,000
There are knocks on Casey, to be sure. He's had plenty of injury problems; he's slow; he's not really an elegant player; and obviously, that's a huge salary to accept for a guy that was just cut loose by the Colorado Rapids.
However, at a lower price - that means taking him in Stage 2 and talking him into a 50% or higher pay cut - Casey would give us something a lot of United fans want: An alternative to Lionard Pajoy. Casey is not as fast as Pajoy, nor does he possess Pajoy's ability to beat people on the dribble. However, he is a more experienced player - think Bundesliga and USMNT - and has a far better scoring record (52 goals in 121 MLS matches, which is close to the "one goal every two games" ratio you look for in a striker). If Olsen wants to replace Santos in the "strong in the air, physical bastard" category, Casey is the best player available in the RED.
That said, it would be vital to give him the most thorough physical possible before signing him. If any of his old injuries are not fully healed, we should steer clear.
2. Ike Opara
Position: Center back
2012 Base Salary: $100,000 (guaranteed $185,900)
We don't really need a starting center back, but we do need a center back who can contribute regular minutes thanks to Dejan Jakovic's history with hamstring strains. Opara has had his injury problems as well, and might never be the player people thought (and in some cases still think) he'd be, but he's still a US u23 starter with a ton of potential. Opara has the size you want in a center back, and pairs it with great speed for a big man.
So why is such a player even on this list? Opara is believed to have graduated from the Generation Adidas program, which means that San Jose was going to have to carry a six-figure salary for a player who wasn't going to start over Victor Bernardez and Jason Hernandez. Further, Frank Yallop has the option of moving Justin Morrow into the middle from left back if he needs to fill in for someone centrally.
With Emiliano Dudar having his option declined and likely requiring a significantly higher salary than Opara's base to stick around, Opara is a quality alternative. At 23, he'll continue to improve, whereas Dudar is on the wrong side of 30 and takes up an international roster spot.
1. Khari Stephenson
Position: Throughout central midfield
2012 Base Salary: $190,000
The only reason Stephenson is in the RED is the emergence of Rafael Baca and Sam Cronin as San Jose's top midfield pair. At almost any other MLS club, Stephenson would have been a starter, likely playing the #8 role. That's not to say he can only function in one spot, however. Stephenson can play as a true attacking midfielder, as a deep-lying playmaker (the role he had the last time United fans saw him up close and personal, in May's 5-3 loss at Buck Shaw Stadium), and even as a back-to-goal target forward. That versatility would go a long way within this United squad. Flat 442? Diamond? 4231? He can function in multiple spots in each of those alignments.
Yes, Stephenson's age - he turns 32 in January - is an issue, but he looked fit whenever he played last season. I see him as a player who can step in and start right away over Saragosa, who did well down the stretch but is rather similar in approach to Perry Kitchen. Stephenson would add some creativity and passing range to our midfield, and at a strong 6'1" would add size to a team that is middle-of-the-pack in that department.
Plus, he has the long-range shooting ability to do things like this. And this. With Santos possibly gone and Branko Boskovic definitely gone, there's room on the roster for someone with a cannon for a leg, and Stephenson is more than qualified in that department.
How much do I want us to pursue Stephenson? Before San Jose said he was being waived, I was going to include him on a list of trade targets within the league. Unlike most players on this list, Stephenson is a guy capable of starting and doing well on a top-tier team. I'd be OK with taking him in Stage 1 and paying his 2012 salary; signing him at a lower rate would be even better.
- Marvell Wynne (CB/RB, $250,000 base/$326,667 guaranteed). He'd compete for a starting job, and if Andy Najar is sold or if a Canadian side goes crazy with an offer for Jakovic, we'd be able to plug him in without missing a beat.
- Corben Bone (AM, $100,000 base/$161,200 guaranteed). This isn't just a nod to Travis Clark's #FreeCorbenBone hashtag. The 24 year old came out of college as a highly touted American playmaker, then promptly got buried on the Chicago Fire bench while our old enemies brought in Sebastian Grazzini and later Chris Rolfe. At a lower salary, he'd be worth a roll of the dice.