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D.C. United and the MLS Expansion Draft: It's Complicated

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Ben Olsen is going to have some very difficult decisions to make with regards to keeping his most crucial players out of the grabby hands of Orlando City and NYCFC.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Here's the thing about doing an expansion draft piece without knowing the precise rules MLS will be using: You can either forge bravely ahead in the assumption that MLS will just use the old rules - that's what Ben did in round one - or you can hedge yourself against every foreseeable version of the rules MLS could create. We figured that if two of us were going to do these lists, why not use both approaches?

As such, my list is less a raw protected list and more of a priority list for D.C. United. Let's take Bill Hamid as an example. As a Homegrown player, there is a good reason to believe MLS won't count the fact that he got a (deserved) new contract a couple years back against United. However, the previous rules indicate that there is at least some chance his HGP status was taken away by signing that deal. For our purposes with this list, Hamid is protected if he requires protecting. If not, then we just push player #12 onto the protected list. Seems simple, right? Simple for MLS at least.

Let's also remove the guys we know with absolute certainty will not need protection: Conor Shanosky, Jalen Robinson, Collin Martin, and Michael Seaton.

With all that out of the way, here are the players in order of how vital it is for United to protect them:

1. Bill Hamid

No surprise here. Hamid is United's best player now, and how often do you hear goalkeepers get onto the fringes of the MVP discussion? I'll answer for you: Like once a decade. MLS could force United to add Hamid to their protected list, but in doing so they'd be punishing United for devoting resources towards building one of MLS's best academies. There is no good reason to do that, but MLS has done some pretty dumb things over the years. Hopefully, Hamid is in with the other HGPs and this isn't a problem.

2. Perry Kitchen

Again, a no-brainer. Kitchen has USMNT prospects, and not just in the distant future. Never mind the "Wil Trapp is a golden god" hordes; Kitchen is closer to deserving a real call-up today, especially since Jurgen Klinsmann's team is overrun and forced to defend for 90 minutes against anyone that's even halfway decent.

3. Steve Birnbaum

Birnbaum isn't United's third-best player. Rather, this is a function of age and position. Birnbaum is a playoff-caliber starter at 23 years old at a position MLS teams have a difficult time finding quality at. Keep that in mind as we go down the list.

4. Luis Silva

Silva came into his own this year, transitioning from seeing himself as a #10 to embracing a deep-lying forward's role. Silva only got 22 starts, and ended up notching 11 goals. He's just about to hit his prime age as a player. Thanks TFC!

5. Fabian Espindola

Espindola should have gotten more MVP talk than he did, but Felipe's cheap shot tackle robbed him of too much of the season. He still finished the season with 11 goals and 9 assists, and he's not making a ton of money. Any list leaving him unprotected is insane.

6. Nick DeLeon

Plenty of people want more production out of DeLeon, and rightfully so. That shouldn't mean that people want him left unprotected, because he will - you can bet the mortgage on it - get taken if left out there. In Ben Olsen's 442, DeLeon's willingness to defend and his ability to tuck inside to help the central midfielders is what allows our more attack-minded left midfielders to spend more time going forward.

7. Chris Rolfe

At 31, Rolfe is the sort of quality player that ends up headlining the unprotected list due to his age. That is, if he played for some other team. United was never quite the same after he broke his arm, and there isn't enough quality in depth to roll the dice on leaving him unprotected.

8. Bobby Boswell

Boswell will turn 32 just as the 2015 season is kicking off, but 32 is still generally an age at which center backs haven't lost enough in their legs to have a problem. Boswell is the captain, he's in the running for Defender of the Year, and leaving him unprotected would be nuts.

9. Sean Franklin

There are concerns about Franklin's pay, but we should remember that the cap is about to go up significantly (even if the CBA negotiations go poorly for the players, the cap could easily jump up by 25% or more). We should also remember how much trouble United had for the 70 minutes Franklin didn't play in the first leg of the playoff series against NYRB. Franklin is the team's best fullback, and this team needs to maintain the defensive foundation that was undoubtedly the major key to success in 2014. I have seen the arguments that he should be unprotected, and I think they underestimate how big the gap between him and our other fullbacks is.

10. Chris Pontius

This is where things get very tricky, and where the idea of protecting assets becomes more pronounced. Hypothetically, if the surgery Pontius underwent was successful and he then has a full, healthy preseason, we're talking about a nightmare of a player for opponents who can play multiple roles in Olsen's 442 and has never had any off-field issues. The chances of that happening are good enough that I can't bring myself to agree with the idea that he is trade bait. Furthermore, if Pontius is left unprotected, he is without a doubt the first player selected. This may mean I'm advocating for protecting a non-starter, but so be it. I'll roll the dice elsewhere.

11. Kofi Opare

My guess is that this will not be a popular choice, but hear me out. On most other MLS teams, Opare is a starter. He doesn't turn 25 until next October, and acquiring him was a straight-up coup for United. I think he's more likely to be taken than any other player on the roster that I haven't yet mentioned.

It's also about center back depth, which I alluded to earlier. For most of the Kasper era in DC, United has been short at center back. Sometimes, we didn't even have one good one. We now finally have two very good starters, but with Jeff Parke's injury situation a mystery I can't shake the fear of ending up with Boswell, Birnbaum, and Shanosky as our entire corps of center backs.

To approach this from another angle, the good teams in MLS always have one more center back that can play minutes in big games (e.g. LA sending in Tommy Meyer this past Sunday when Leonardo got hurt). The teams that miss the playoffs do not (e.g. Portland, TFC). This has been true in MLS for a long time, and is anecdotally one of the indicators of whether a team will be successful or not that I look to first.

Does this mean United would lose a fullback? Yes, probably. And I'm OK with that. Looking around MLS, it's a lot harder to build a starting-quality center back than it is to build a capable fullback.

12. Eddie Johnson

Leaving EJ out of my top eleven - and thereby potentially leaving him unprotected - was the hardest decision I had to make here. Hopefully MLS won't put United in the same bind.

My rationale for putting him this far down the list is that the expansion sides already have designs on what to do with their Designated Player slots, and I doubt either team has "Hope for one to be in the expansion draft" in their plans. I do think there's a risk here with regards to Orlando, who may well want to have a big-name Floridian on the team. After deliberating on it, I think the chances of that happening are still lower than the odds of Pontius or Opare being snapped up. We also have to acknowledge that EJ ended the season as our third-best forward, even if he did manage 6 goals in his last 12 appearances of the season.

There's an important thing to note here: If Johnson's DP deal included a no-trade clause, United is obliged to protect him. We have no idea if that's the case, but it's important to keep in mind.

13. Chris Korb

The problem with expansion drafts when you're a good team is that a guy like Korb is in real danger of being taken. However, between the emergence of Kemp and the offseason settling-in period that Inkoom will have, I'd say Korb is a guy United can afford to move on without. I don't like the prospect of losing him,  but I'd rather keep the above 12 players.

That said, if someone like Kemp is taken, Korb is absolutely the player United should add to their protected list (in the past, teams that had someone picked have been allowed to immediately remove a player from the expansion draft pool).

14. Davy Arnaud

Arnaud would be much higher up this list if not for the fact that he'll be 35 next June. It's a tough spot to be in, because Arnaud's endless running and his smart positioning were crucial for United's central midfield being only rarely overrun in a league where three-man central midfields are more and more the norm. However, Arnaud's age and salary are probably also the things that will keep teams from taking him. There's a risk involved here, but not a huge one. Expansion teams have generally avoided guys in their mid-30s (save Montreal and Brian Ching, but there was the whole "club legend" thing involved there).

15. Taylor Kemp

Kemp is a young left back whose career trajectory is quite favorable, so there's a severe risk that he gets selected. However, Orlando City has already signed their USL-PRO left back Luke Boden (a player they rate perhaps too highly, but he's still an MLS-quality left back), and NYCFC already has Jeb Brovsky on their books. I could see NYC being interested in Kemp for his overlapping ability and because Jason Kreis has turned some lesser players into capable defenders, but losing Kemp isn't a disaster if we keep Korb and/or if Inkoom can take up a fullback's role after a full preseason.

16. Samuel Inkoom

Speak of the devil, Inkoom is an interesting player here. On one hand, we're talking about a guy who a) hasn't hit his prime, b) has UEFA Champions League experience, and c) has played in two World Cups for a high-quality team. Expansion teams would be drooling over that resume. On the other hand, though, is the fact that Inkoom didn't play much in MLS and his CCL success was against teams that wouldn't hack it in USL-PRO. Neither expansion team has much of a book to go on here in terms of Inkoom's ability to succeed in MLS.

I quite like Inkoom's game, but I think we can leave him unprotected and get away with it.

Everyone else:

As has already been noted in two pieces that ran here yesterday, United may be obliged to protect several international players that we wouldn't normally expect to have on our list. Based on past expansion drafts, that may leave United with no choice but to protect Inkoom and one out of Kyle Porter and Nana Attakora. In that instance, I'd go with Porter. However, I regard that old rule as a foolish one for MLS to carry on with given that it punishes the teams that favor domestic talent - you know, one of the things MLS says it wants to do - over teams that just pursue international journeymen. It would really suck to lose Johnson or Opare while being forced to carry some guys that might not make the 2015 roster, but all we can do to prevent it is hope.

As for the rest, I'll break it down by position:

GK - Both teams already have a keeper in place, and there are rumors that Orlando is focused on working English contacts to find someone to start games while Tally Hall completes his ACL rehab. The chances that we'll lose Joe Willis are low, while the odds of Andrew Dykstra - who is still months away from being able to play - departing are even lower.

Defenders - We can afford to leave Parke unprotected, and with Opare on the roster we can also afford to shop Parke and/or offer him a lowered salary. It's harsh, but that's the business of MLS. Attakora would probably be better off finding a new club that can give him playing time.

Midfielders - Teams might have interest in Jared Jeffrey, and though he's a young player with potential it wouldn't be a huge problem if he left. His best position doesn't exist in Olsen's 442, and he's not going to be good enough to force a formation change any time soon. Fears of Lewis Neal being taken by Orlando due to his past with them are probably unfounded (he played there for all of one season), and at his age and status within the squad there's no point in protecting him. He's a good player, don't get me wrong, but he's also a player we probably won't be losing via the expansion draft. Alex Caskey? He's going to have a hard time making the roster during the preseason as is, so if an expansion side wants to take him it might be for the best.

Forwards - David Estrada and Conor Doyle are useful players, but there's no way I'm protecting them. Even if it turns out that, say, Johnson wants to pursue a career in Mexico (he rejected an offer from Toluca before coming to DCU), we have other players that would be more vital to protect. I hope they both stick around, but not enough to think about them for spots on the initial list of eleven or as the player pulled out of the pool.