Atlanta United and Minnesota United will be joining MLS in the near future, and that means two things: more teams with “FC” in their name for some reason, and an expansion draft. As we’ve done whenever a new team joins the league, SB Nation Soccer is conducting a mock expansion draft. Dirty South Soccer (Atlanta) and E Pluribus Loonum (Minnesota) will post the results on Tuesday, and we’ll make sure to flood your social media feeds when they do.
As part of the proceedings, we’ve been tasked with assembling a list for D.C. United. In past years, this meant planning an initial list of eleven and then thinking about who to withdraw from consideration if/when the Black-and-Red had a player selected. That won’t be the case this time around: Once a team loses one player in this year’s version of the expansion draft, they’re off the board. The draft has also been cut in half, so each team will only select five players. In other words, at least two playoff teams won’t suffer any losses.
Before we get to our full list, let’s list the players that aren’t eligible to be selected. United’s selection of homegrown players - Chris Durkin, Collin Martin, and Jalen Robinson - are automatically protected. So too is Generation Adidas midfielder Julian Buescher. There’s also a significant requirement as far as internationals go - the full draft rules are here - that will have a significant impact on our list.
We’ll go in alphabetical order, and briefly explain our thought process for each player.
Obviously. Here’s hoping United’s now-permanently-transferred playmaker is here for a long time. United is obliged to protect a minimum of three internationals, and Lucho is one of them.
Aguilar is the second international, and the first that probably wouldn’t be on this list otherwise. United’s acquisition of wingers in both the offseason and the mid-season windows has left Aguilar buried on the depth chart. However, since we are obliged to protect three internationals here, I’m choosing the cap-friendly University of San Francisco product.
No surprise here. United just signed Birnbaum to a long-term deal. The plan should be to make “Birdbomb” a cornerstone of this team, much like Acosta.
A potential challenger to Sean Franklin’s starting position at right back? I don’t think we’re quite at the point to treat that position as up for grabs, but DeLeon is a credible back-up there, and a more than credible option in central midfield or on either wing. United has finally gotten to the point where DeLeon can be the club’s top utility player, and he would probably draw interest from, at the very least, Adrian Heath and Minnesota.
I don’t have to explain this one, do I? Well, there is one detail to nail down: once Hamid signed his current contract, he no longer counted as a homegrown player as far as roster and salary cap purposes go. That means he does have to be protected if United wants to keep him around. And United wants to keep him around.
The third (and, spoiler, final) international we protected. At this point we’re down to either Kamara or Kennedy Igboananike, and that’s where age and salary come in. Igboananike was slightly ahead of Kamara at the end of the season, but Kamara is five years younger. More importantly, Igboananike’s $901,666 salary is a natural deterrent. Kamara, at $59,750 guaranteed, is an obvious choice.
Kemp is a steadily improving American left back who adds plenty going forward, and he’s entering his prime years as a player. Have you seen the other non-international left backs in MLS? Shooter is one of the first names on this list.
Mullins put up 8 goals and 2 assists in 1,048 minutes since coming over via trade in mid-July. His play as a target man is a crucial part of United’s change from toothless to capable of scoring 2-3 goals every week. He’s 24 years old. So yeah, he’s on the list.
Internationals aside, Neagle is the only non-starter to make my list. However, United’s leading scorer in 2016 merits inclusion here because of the wide range of things he does for the Black-and-Red. Neagle is a playoff-caliber starter on either wing in the 4141 formation, and he’s arguably the best back-up to Mullins on the roster right now.
We’ll get into why Neagle got in ahead of some members of the starting lineup once we finish our list.
Nyarko was able to shred opposing fullbacks all season long, creating on the dribble, with his underrated eye for a diagonal pass, and his knack for making dangerous runs off the ball. He’s arguably the best defensive winger in all of MLS. On a per-90 basis, Nyarko had his most productive season in statistical terms. Sure, he turns 31 next month, but he’s awesome. United would be crazy to make him available.
The English-born green card holder with one cap for Ghana left the evil side of the Atlantic Cup rivalry and immediately hit the ground running. In 971 minutes, he put up 3 goals and 6 assists; throw in his time with the Red Bulls, and he had 4 goals and 10 assists in under 2000 minutes in 2016. That more than mitigates the fact that he’s 32 years old.
You could make an argument that the one spot United could afford to lose a starter is on the wings, but expansion drafts aren’t about protecting your starters. They’re about protecting the players that are most likely to be taken. Atlanta isn’t in the market for a right winger (they already signed Hector Villalba), but Minnesota would probably throw a party if Sam were unprotected.
What about the unprotected players?
Andrew Dykstra, Kennedy Igboananike, Chris Korb, Luke Mishu, and Alvaro Saborio are all longshots to be picked, for various reasons. It also seems unlikely that either expansion side would select Charlie Horton (he’s a recent US under-23, remember) or Travis Worra, especially with Atlanta strongly linked with a move for Sean Johnson. Even if Minnesota were to decide to use a pick on one of United’s goalkeepers, that’s a loss DCU can handle.
It seems fairly safe to rule out Chris Rolfe and Marcelo Sarvas as well. Rolfe’s playing career is still in real question, and the expansion sides aren’t going to roll the dice on using a pick on a player who ends up retiring. Marcelo, meanwhile, is a) about to turn 35 and b) on a contract that guarantees him $425,000 a season. Good player, but expansion teams are put off by both of those things.
That leaves five players: Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin, Jared Jeffrey, Kofi Opare, and Rob Vincent. Boswell probably falls in with Marcelo, though being a year younger and playing a less physically demanding position, his chances of being selected seem slightly higher. Sean Franklin is out of contract, but the main thing here is that expansion teams generally avoid fullbacks over the age of 30. Minnesota has already signed both of the first-choice fullbacks from their NASL side, too, so he’s likely safe.
Jeffrey and Vincent are both pretty similar. They’re in their mid-20s, they’re solid MLS role players in central midfield, and both are very cap-friendly. It wouldn’t be entirely shocking if United lost one of them here, but it still seems less than likely. If it weren’t for the international requirement, choosing between them would probably be a major decision here.
That brings us to Opare, who had a rough 2016 but is still probably the most attractive player United will leave unprotected. At 26 years old, Opare has shown across multiple seasons that he can be a viable long-term starter in MLS. Expansion teams usually end up struggling at the back; landing a good center back makes a ton of sense.
Opare represents a low-risk, high-reward pick in the expansion draft. Grabbing Opare makes sense for both clubs, who collectively have zero center backs. Ultimately, though, I think United can more easily replace him than they can someone like Neagle. For one, Ben Olsen probably needs to rotate Sam and Nyarko throughout 2017, not to mention maintain competition for their spots. Even if Neagle is stuck as DCU’s first sub all season long, it’s hard to overstate how valuable he was in that role.
That’s how I see things, anyway. How about you? Hit us with your list in the comments!