There are only three games left in the 2018 MLS season, which means we’re rapidly approaching the seemingly annual ritual of an expansion draft. This time around, FC Cincinnati is coming into the league, which for D.C. United means trying to figure out how to best keep Cincy from snapping up any Black-and-Red players. Sure, you could argue that the expansion draft now no longer has enough utility to justify teams losing players they weren’t interested in losing, but that’s a lost cause. MLS loves its drafts, so there will be a draft.
Unlike years past, there are some modest differences to take into account. While most of the rules for this year’s expansion draft are the same, Cincinnati will have one new wrinkle to deal with when they’re on the clock come December 11. MLS is treating last year’s LAFC expansion draft and this year’s edition for FCC as if they’re they same event, which means the five clubs that lost players to Los Angeles last year (Seattle, Kansas City, San Jose, Columbus, and Toronto) are exempt. However, because this is MLS, the same logic is not being applied to LAFC, who will have to create a protected list. I know this doesn’t make sense, but that’s what they’re doing.
Since United has to create a protected list, we got talking as a site about what we feel they should do. The short version of the rules, from a DCU perspective, are simple: United can protect eleven players, of which a minimum of three must be internationals. Homegrown players Chris Durkin, Ian Harkes, and Jalen Robinson are ineligible to be selected.
(As a quick reminder, players on loan still have to be protected, as do players out of contract or whose option has been declined. Also, for your reference, United’s current internationals are Yamil Asad, Bruno Miranda, Joseph Mora, Junior Moreno, David Ousted, Wayne Rooney, Ulises Segura, and Zoltan Stieber)
In our group discussion, everyone very quickly agreed that Luciano Acosta, Yamil Asad, Paul Arriola, Steven Birnbaum, Russell Canouse, Bill Hamid, and Wayne Rooney are definitely players to protect. I’ll let Ryan break the rationale for each down really quickly:
Acosta: The team wants to keep him long-term, any offers made for him in the past have the team asking for a bunch, makes sense.
Asad: The team spent a ton to get him and presumably want to make the loan permanent.
Hamid: Would you leave a guy under contract like Bill unprotected this time, and a local kid to boot? Nah son.
Canouse: Recently some jerk rambled about how good he is and how valuable he is to the team, given contract and salary, a no-brainer.
Arriola: A lot was put into acquiring him and making him a DP and he had an offensive resurgence, 100% keep.
Birnbaum: The team has stuck with him through form and injuries and he chimed in with a solid 2018.
Rooney: Come on.
That’s the spine of the team, plus two attacking wide players coming off of a season that saw them combine for 16 goals and 16 assists. Other than Rooney, the oldest player in that group is Hamid (28), and four of them are under 25. Given that they accomplished this season, that’s a group you want to keep around for a few years. Acosta and Rooney also chalk off two internationals, meaning United is only obliged to pick one more. That’s a big change from years past, when United had to deal with the set of rules for teams with fewer than three internationals. The team is better, and assembling our list is simpler. What a time to be alive!
With that out of the way, let’s get to everyone’s thoughts on the final four spots on the list:
For me, the no-brainers to protect are Acosta, Arriola, Asad, Birnbaum, Canouse, Hamid, and Rooney. That makes seven out of eleven players, with two of those being internationals. To fill the third international slot, I’m protecting Joseph Mora, tied for fourth on the team in successful tackles per 90 minutes (2.3.) With three spots remaining, I’m protecting 10-goal scorer Darren Mattocks.
Now is when things get more difficult. I’m leaving Zoltan Stieber exposed, since his nearly $1 million salary should be prohibitive, along with the international midfield duo of Ulises Segura and Junior Moreno because I don’t think it would be difficult to replace their production. My final protected players are Kofi Opare, because the team will need center back depth, and Bruno Miranda, who is also an international but he’s cheap and has potential. And now I hold my breath and hope that none of them are selected.
Joseph Mora: Unless the team has an upgrade for the position on the mind, he’s the de facto starting left back in 2019. Your 3rd international player to protect, he’s signed for probably another two years, he learned his first year of MLS after the season started, he should continue to improve.
Junior Moreno: International player #4 is a guy who spent all of 2018 in MLS and experienced similar growing pains, though his chemistry with Canouse, once the two were paired, was a sight to see. After Canouse (89%), Moreno’s 87% pass accuracy was tops on the team in comparable minutes. He doesn’t bang the body like Russ, but makes his plays generally and is slightly more precise in getting the ball upfield.
Ulises Segura: I’m comfortable protecting international player #5 if nothing else for the sake of versatility and workrate.
Darren Mattocks: I make this call for a couple of reasons: you’re going to need someone to spell Rooney for longer periods of time. So you’re going to need a guy with the understanding of this and some talent to boot. If Darren Mattocks thinks he can start elsewhere he and his contract demands are welcome to find it, though, with the wonderfully wacky world of MLS roster rules and contracts, I’m relatively certain his deal may have an option on it at the end of the year, but the team is (within the scope of the draft) able to protect Mattocks and not pick up the option.
Donald Wine II
Protect: Bill Hamid, Wayne Rooney (I), Luciano Acosta, Russell Canouse, Paul Arriola, Darren Mattocks, Steven Birnbaum, Yamil Asad (I), Joseph Mora (I), Ulises Segura (I), Junior Moreno (I)
I think from this group, these are the best 10 to protect. Hamid, Rooney, Acosta, Canouse, Arriola, Birnbaum, and Asad were obvious choices for me. I think you protect Mora because his production on defense was crucial to our success down the stretch this year. With Chris Durkin exempt from the draft, as is Ian Harkes and Jalen Robinson, I also protect Junior Moreno for cover in case we get an offer for Durkin we can’t refuse. In the case of Mattocks and Segura, I protect them over Nick DeLeon, who I love as a player. I think if Mattocks or Segura is exposed, one of them is absolutely taken, whereas I don’t think Cincinnati will opt for DeLeon coming off an injury-riddled season.
Adam M Taylor
The easy ones are Rooney, Acosta, Arriola, Birnbaum, Hamid, Canouse, and Asad. That leaves one more international that has to be protected. I’ll go one better. With offers coming once again for Chris Durkin — even if the team is talking like they’ll hold onto him till at least the summer — Junior Moreno gets protection. As does the only natural left back currently on the roster, one Joseph Mora.
Two more spots. I’m not inclined to protect any other CBs, knowing that only one of Fred Brillant (expensive, older) and Kofi Opare (injured) can be taken, but neither likely will be. Stibi fills a necessary spot in United’s roster, but his salary and international status make me think Cincy will leave him be.
FCC do already have a DP striker, and as much as I love Fanendo Adi’s game, fast he ain’t, making Darren Mattocks a potential pick. So the Jamaican international gets protected.
The last spot I think goes to Nick DeLeon, who is exactly the type of versatile player on a mid-range contract number that good expansion teams find space for. I know I’m a big NDL stan, but I really didn’t think I’d be protecting him. But, I think he’s a bigger risk to be taken than Ulises Segura -- who occupies an international roster slot -- and we saw the repercussions of losing depth at right back over the course of the year, so Nicky it is.
Unsurprisingly, I’m also protecting Rooney, Acosta, Hamid, Arriola, Birnbaum, Canouse, and Asad. After that things get a little trickier, and I think I fall somewhere between being practical and being soft.
The practical side of me says to protect Joseph Mora and Darren Mattocks. Mora really stepped up in the back half of the season and will be crucial to a strong defense next year. Mattocks is a needed backup for when Rooney can’t score in literally every game (or can he?!), and I think if he were left exposed there’d be a decent chance of FCC taking him.
The softer side of me says we’ve got to throw Zoltan Stieber and Nick DeLeon in there as well. It’s true that Stieber’s international spot and salary are probably enough to keep him safe regardless, but I want to make double-sure we hold on to him because I think he’s pretty great and would be super bummed to lose him. Nicky—I just can’t risk letting another team have him. He’s ours and that’s how it is.
I’ll start by protecting Mattocks. I know the vibe out here is that Mattocks may not be satisfied with his role here, but that’s all the more reason to protect him. Plenty of teams could use a tall speedster who just scored 10 goals in barely more than half a season’s worth of work. Whether they want to use him or trade him, Cincy would be very interested in Mattocks if he’s out there.
I’ll go with Mora next, fulfilling the international requirement. MLS teams are always looking for left backs, and Mora just recently got his first caps for Costa Rica. If he’s not on the list when the conference call begins, he’s probably not on United’s roster when it ends. I’d also protect Moreno because a) he’s quite good and b) you keep the option of being able to at least listen to legit (i.e. multi-million dollar) offers for Durkin on the table, and having more options is far more desirable right now than being boxed in.
This is where it gets tough. FCC would be tempted by Oniel Fisher and Kofi Opare as inexpensive starters, but both have long-term injuries that could dissuade interest. Nick DeLeon has great MLS experience and can play all over the field, but he’s played fewer than 20 games in each of the last two seasons. Ulises Segura is certainly an MLS-caliber player, but is he going to draw enough interest to protect? Finally, Zoltan Stieber’s talent would surely see him selected if not for his $999,999.96 salary.
In the end, I’ll go with DeLeon. That’s partially out of respect for his service to the club, and partially recognizing where United has redundancies and where they don’t. If Opare is selected, United still has Frederic Brillant. If Segura or Stieber is picked, the other will still be here. With Fisher possibly out for a big chunk of next season, losing DeLeon means having to either trust defenders Ben Olsen wasn’t willing to field very often or yet another hunt for a right back.
In other words, we ended up being unanimous about Mora and Mattocks. From there, Moreno made four lists, while DeLeon was on three. There were also nods for Segura (twice), Opare, Miranda, and Stieber, and there will probably be arguments made on either side of this list’s bubble from the moment it comes out.
Let us know in the comments how you’d sort your list out!