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Let's talk some more about who D.C. United should protect in the MLS expansion draft

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With NYCFC and Orlando City ready to pull players from the existing 18 MLS teams shortly after MLS Cup, we revisit D.C. United's roster to ask who Ben Olsen should protect and who he should risk losing in the expansion draft.

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

We've touched on it a couple times since the end of D.C. United's 2014 season a couple weeks ago. First, Ben told you who he'd protect, then Chest dove past such complications like "protected list rules" and gave us a power ranking version of United's roster. Since those posts dropped, we've learned more about the actual rules surrounding this year's ceremonial poaching of players. Key points:

  • Teams can protect 11 players.
  • Homegrown players on the supplemental roster cannot be selected and do not require protection, so the likes of Collin MartinJalen RobinsonConor Shanosky and Michael Seaton are safe from prying fingers. (Generation Adidas players are exempt from the draft, too, but we don't have any on United, so that matters less.) Unfortunately, Bill Hamid is on the senior roster, so United has to decide whether to protect him or expose him to the vultures in the Bronx and central Florida.
  • International slots matter. Teams with more than three players taking up international slots effectively must protect at least three of those, and other teams (such as D.C. United, who apparently have two international players) may expose no more than one. So United will have to protect one of Samuel Inkoom or Kyle Porter.
  • Teams can lose no more than two players in the expansion draft, and once a team has seen one player taken, they get to pull an exposed player back and protect him.

So, right away, our first two protected spots are spoken for. It would be idiotic and suicidal to expose Hamid, and whichever of Inkoom and Porter gets protected (it'll be Inkoom), that's spot #2. Nine spots left. In the interest of minimizing suspense, here's my complete list.

  1. Bill Hamid
  2. Samuel Inkoom
  3. Perry Kitchen
  4. Steve Birnbaum
  5. Luis Silva
  6. Nick DeLeon
  7. Fabian Espindola
  8. Bobby Boswell
  9. Chris Pontius
  10. Chris Rolfe
  11. Kofi Opare

I think numbers 1 through 7 are basically beyond debate (even if Inkoom is there only by virtue of his sole competition being Porter). The last four guys on the list have some questions, but their case is stronger than my yet-to-be-named omissions. As I will now argue.

Last Four In

Bobby Boswell

Pro: He's our captain and a finalist for Defender of the Year. He was one of only a handful of guys in MLS to play in all 34 games in 2014. He was the lynchpin to United's revamped back line this year, leading the Black-and-Red to the league's co-best goals against mark. He's too vital to risk losing, so whatever the marks against, Ben Olsen will need to protect his captain.

Con: He's on the wrong side of thirty, and at a guaranteed salary north of $230k, the DP-happy expansion clubs might favor roster flexibility and pass on a player even of Boz's obvious quality.

Chris Pontius

Pro: When he's healthy, he's an MLS Best XI-quality player who can play any attacking position on the field. He's United's longest-tenured player and knows what Benny wants from his guys as well as anybody. Ultimately, Pontius was an All Star Game MVP just two seasons ago, and he showed glimpses of quality this season after losing most of the year to injury and having little time to build chemistry on the field with the overhauled roster. He's a weapon that's hard to come by in this league without burning an international roster slot, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do next year, with a preseason under his belt.

Con: He's never healthy for a full season, having missed almost all of 2014. When he returned, he showed obvious rust, which he may or may not be able to knock off. His guaranteed compensation is over $380k, which will be a lot for an expansion team to stomach, even if the league is covering some portion of it under one of its mysterious programs (which they may or may not be doing, because MLS).

Chris Rolfe

Pro: He was the final piece of the puzzle that was United's attack this season. Or the last little bit of tuning to get the engine humming properly, if you prefer that metaphor. His ability to play wide midfield or withdrawn forward or even lead the line at a high level was pivotal this year. His movement and easy understanding with teammates unleashed Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva to reach higher heights than they might have without the magic headband on the field with them. He's famously healthy in his eating, and he looked good in the playoffs on his return from injury, so even at 31, there's reason to think he's got at least a couple years left in the tank, upping the risk that one of the expansion teams takes him.

Con: We thought the same thing about even more hardcore healthfood nut Dwayne De Rosario having some time left before he dropped off, and look where that got us (though DeRo's MVP year came when he was 34). Rolfe is another guy earning more than $200k in guaranteed compensation, so like Pontius and Boswell, he may be overlooked by Orlando and NYC, who will try to keep some flexibility as they build their rosters.

Kofi Opare

Pro: I should say at the outset here that Chest convinced me on this one. Opare could be a starter at centerback for a lot of teams in MLS - he could arguably start for three of the four teams left in the MLS Cup playoffs (the fourth being the Galaxy, from whence he came to DC). Central defense, mind you, is a pretty important position on the field, and one where it is increasingly difficult not to overpay for quality. Opare is pulling a criminally low salary at less than $50k. So, Adrian Heath or Jason Kreis would be able to get themselves an opening-day starter at CB who eats up no cap space at all. Basically, Opare is gone if he's exposed - so let's not expose him and instead keep him around to be Boswell's heir presumptive or at least an asset we can get value for.

Con: Protecting him means burning a precious list spot on a guy who might not get higher than fourth on the depth chart next year if Jeff Parke is healthy. That means we're exposing some players - some starters - we'd really rather not leave out there.

First Five Out

Davy Arnaud

Pro: He was vital to United's 2014, and I mean that in as literal a sense as possible: DCU failed to win a game in which he didn't start in the center of the park. He's been taken in an expansion draft previously, and he's been captain on every team he's ever been on except for United - that leadership is the kind of thing expansion teams need to succeed in their early years, and it would be enough to warrant guaranteed protection if not for...

Con: His age. At 34, it's tough to say exactly how much longer Arnaud will keep playing at a high level, so it seems worth the risk to expose him, especially since he doesn't seem like one of the top two candidates for selection on any version of United's exposed players list.

Taylor Kemp

Pro: He's young, he's cheaper than cheap (unreasonably so, in fact, even less than Opare, but that's a different post), and his learning curve is looking better every day. He pushed Chris Korb out of the starting XI and delivered the first-time inch-perfect cross to Nick DeLeon's head on the biggest stage he's yet appeared on. He should be a building block for the future at left back, the only question is whether it will be in Black-and-Red or else City Blue or Lion Purple.

Con: There are other guys who are more vital to the team, both now and for the future, who Ben Olsen needs to protect more. I don't like leaving Kemp out in the wind, but there's nobody above him who I would take out to save him (except for Inkoom, which isn't an option due to international roster rules). It's a risk, and Kemp would probably be the guy I'd pull back if somebody else goes before him in the draft, no matter who that guy is. But the fullback position isn't where I want to spend my protection chits; more on that in a second.

Sean Franklin

Pro: He's an All-Star fullback and has quality in all phases of the game - defense, transition, possession, attack. His ability to overlap (and underlap) helps United keep some width going forward when Nick DeLeon comes inside to help in the central zone, and the team was clearly better with him on the field this season. In his one year in DC, he's already won the team's Humanitarian of the Year award.

Con: At a position that has become somewhat commoditized - meaning there's relatively little effective difference between the best player and an average replacement starter compared to other positions on the field - his salary just under $300k is an awful lot to justify against the cap. That goes both for his continued place on the team and for his chances of being selected by Orlando or NYC, as both will be looking to spend money on their spines and in attack rather than at the fullback position. Leaving the 29-year-old exposed is a calculated risk, but one that is worth taking so that we can protect a guy like Opare, who is more likely to hear his name in the expansion draft.

Chris Korb

Pro: He's shown he can be a playoff-caliber fullback and can play on either side of the field, which is pretty handy when you have as many matches as United will next season. He's got speed to burn and has learned how to hit a decent cross that doesn't scrape the moon on its way in. He's a much better 1v1 defender than any fullback on the team not named Sean Franklin - the gap between him and Kemp is in laugh-so-you-don't-cry territory - and, admit it, you'd miss the low socks if he were gone.

Con: Not as young as all that anymore - at 27, he's just about reaching his top level - basically, he is what he is at this point, which is a borderline starter. That's precisely the type of player a contender should be improving on whenever possible, even if it is exactly the type of player we've seen taken in expansion drafts past.

Eddie Johnson

Pro: At his best, he's a force in the air and with the ball at his feet - there's a reason Ben Olsen and Dave Kasper traded so much allocation to get him and sign him to a DP contract, even if he didn't always live up to it in 2014. For a DP, he makes a very reasonable salary, and as a Florida native he'll hold special interest for Orlando City, who will be looking for somebody to finish the chances Kaka will be creating. He's also finally saying all the right things since the season ended, and his production improved when he started to look like buying into the Bennyball system; which is to say that next year could see him fight his way back into the starting XI and break out for a boatload of goals.

Con: He's a DP who ended the season starting from the bench. As the season developed, it became more and more clear that he's not the best fit for Benny's system, at least when an unbenchable-in-2014 Fabian Espindola is on the field. With Fabi showing no signs of slowing down next year, that DP salary hit could be put to better use elsewhere on the roster (*cough*getanumbereight*cough*). And if EJ is left exposed only to be passed up by both expansion teams, we could see him lose both his confidence in himself and his trust in Ben Olsen and be an even worse head case next season. Protecting Eddie means leaving somebody more vital to the team at risk of moving to bluer or purpler shores, and that's just too much to bear.

* * *

So that's where I stand. It's a little different from Ben's list and a little different from Chest's list. It's probably at least a little bit different from your list, too, so let me hear it in the comments. Where did I get the calculus wrong, and what would you do differently?