The MLS Expansion Draft is today, with Atlanta United and Minnesota United getting a chance to add five players each from other MLS rosters. It’s a weird mechanism - you know, like all the others in this league - but it’s also kind of fun to watch. It forces existing teams to tell us up front who their most valued players are, and lets us do things like laugh at NYCFC for being forced to protect Mix Diskerud because of an almost inconceivably bad contract.
However, the thing there is that we’ve only got so much to watch from our own team. D.C. United fans can speculate on who should be protected, or whether the sloppily-written rules indicate one thing or another, but it’s all purely defensive. United would have a hard time jumping into this process and turning it into a way to make an addition (though they have done it before, by getting Portland to take Dax McCarty and then immediately sending them Rodney Wallace in exchange).
The entire SB Nation network already did a mock draft (including mock protected lists), but we wanted in on the fun now that the real lists have been made public. As such, we decided to take on the roles of Atlanta and Minnesota. We went so far as to consider the personalities behind each expansion teams. After a coin toss saw Steven Streff opt to draft as Minnesota (leaving me with Atlanta), here’s how we decided to approach things:
Jason (Atlanta): Defensive players. That pretty much sums it up. “We” have already put together an offense built around $8+ million signing Miguel Almiron, former Premier League striker Kenwyne Jones, and promising young Argentine winger Hector Villalba. There’s also that rumor that Brad Guzan is on the way in goal. Meanwhile, Michael Parkhurst is the only natural defender on Atlanta’s roster (which is already 14 players strong!).
“We” will also be looking for value, because Atlanta is going with 3 designated players and, if the rumors are true, using TAM to pay down Guzan. There’s already not all that much cap space available, and being careless during the expansion draft could lock Atlanta in a roster filled out by senior minimum salary players. Finally, comfort on the ball is going to be important, particularly in central positions.
Steven (Minnesota): Question: What are positions of need for Minnesota United heading into the Expansion Draft. Answer: Yes. Thanks to our friends over at E Pluribus Loonum, this is what United's roster looks like before the Expansion Draft.
Bare bones to say the least. So Minnesota will attack this draft looking to add experience all around the field, in order for Adrian Heath to begin to assemble a side that is capable of competing in MLS right away. Lucky for us, there's plenty of players who fit that mold. Minnesota will sign some players from the side that competed in NASL in 2016 to help fill out the squad, but the plan on Tuesday is to pick players that will start on opening day in 2017. The strength of the players available in the draft tended to favor the defense, so that was the focus early on for Minnesota. United will likely add at least two forwards via other player acquisition mechanisms, but there was still one name that the Loons will have to think long and hard about during the course of the Expansion Draft.
And with that in mind, let’s start fake-picking players!
Pick #1 - Atlanta: Jared Watts (Colorado Rapids)
I took a long, hard look at Steven Beitashour of TFC, but Atlanta might not be in the position to spend $230,000 a season on a right back. So instead, I went for Watts, a starter on one of the stingiest MLS defenses of all time who made just under $70,000 this year. Watts is comfortable on the ball for a center back, and is capable of playing the anchor midfield role Tata Martino is likely to feature in a 433. He’s a perfect fit.
Pick #2 - Minnesota: Clint Irwin (Toronto FC)
This was a no-brainer. Minnesota need a capable backstop for their inaugural MLS campaign, and Irwin checks all the boxes. The 27 year old keeper has played in 108 MLS games, so he has relevant playing experience and is on the right side of 30 years old. Irwin missed three months due to injury in 2016, but he's been reliable ever since breaking in with the Colorado Rapids back in 2013. On top of that, his guaranteed salary in 2016 was just $107,625. Welcome aboard.
Pick #3 - Atlanta: Donny Toia (Montreal Impact)
Toia is a strong one-on-one defender capable of playing both left and right back. The 24 year old only played 17 times for the Impact this season, but he had 31 appearances (29 starts) for them in 2015. Toia is not the greatest attacking fullback of all time, but he’s dogged, tough, and is capable of being a day-one starter for ATL.
Pick #4 - Minnesota: Zach Loyd (FC Dallas)
If Irwin was safe, easy pick, then Loyd represents some risk. His talent is undeniable. Capable of playing in both the center of defense and as a fullback, Loyd would be an ideal person to help build a solid back line. There's a big but though. Loyd suffered a concussion in June, and didn't make another appearance for Dallas in 2016. That's a red flag, no way around it. But if he can get healthy, this will be a smart pickup.
Pick #5 - Atlanta: Chris Duvall (New York Red Bulls)
Like I said to start, Atlanta needs defenders. Duvall - a Georgia native - makes it three in a row. Duvall is used to playing in a front-foot, high-pressure system, so Martino shouldn’t have too much work to do to get him up to speed. Duvall has never been able to fully lock down a starting job with the Red Bulls for a full season, but this year (20 starts, 25 appearances) was his best yet. He’d be the right back for Atlanta, but can play center back in an emergency too. Like Watts and Toia, Duvall’s salary ($63,000) is very appealing.
Pick #6 - Minnesota: Mohammed Saeid (Columbus Crew)
We've made two solid picks defensively, but now the Loons need some help further up the field. In comes Saeid. The Swedish-born midfielder played two seasons in MLS, both for Columbus, playing in 25 games in both 2015 and 2016. He plays centrally, and is capable of playing several roles. He hasn't scored a MLS goal, so don't expect that to change in Minnesota, but he tallied five assists this year, so he's more than capable of contributing offensively in addition to his defensive work.
Pick #7 - Atlanta: Kofi Opare (D.C. United)
Bad news, good United fans. Atlanta entered this draft with Michael Parkhurst as the only full-time defender on the roster, and a Watts-Parkhurst center back pairing is a little light. Opare will provide real competition as he looks to bounce back from a disappointing 2016 season, and he’ll provide the aerial prowess Atlanta needs. With Parkhurst looking like he’s already begun to decline physically, Opare is also a potential starter in 2017. If Martino can repair his confidence, Atlanta will be very pleased here.
Pick #8 - Minnesota: Jack McInerney (Portland Timbers)
Sorry Atlanta, you can't have him. He's a Loon now. This might be committing too many resources to one position, but Jack Mac's 43 career MLS goals are too much to pass up. Minnesota will likely sign Christian Ramirez from their NASL squad, and pick Jeremy Ebobisse with the first pick in next month's SuperDraft. But neither of those players have MLS experience, which McInerney, even at the age of 24, has bags of in 7 seasons. He's bounced around, and he hasn't always been known as the best locker room guy, and a $270,000 salary with worthy of pause. But we want goals, so we want Jack.
Pick #9 - Atlanta: Collen Warner (Houston Dynamo)
Warner’s last reported salary guarantees him $174,444, which is maybe a hair above I’d want to spend on anyone in the expansion draft. However, Warner is an ideal fit for Atlanta’s needs. He didn’t get much attention this year because the Dynamo were terrible, but Warner quietly put together a consistently solid season as Houston’s #6. Whether he plays that deep role again for Atlanta (there’s competition in the form of Irish midfielder Chris McCann), or perhaps as a ball-winning #8, Warner would be a capable regular entering his prime as a player.
Pick #10 - Minnesota: Je-Vaughn Watson (New England Revolution)
Minnesota have gone relatively young for the most part up until this point, but the Loons cross the 30 year old threshold here with the final pick in the Expansion Draft. There's plenty of experience, but you can't go wrong with Watson, even at the age of 33. He's the utility guy that every team needs. At his age, he won't be a 30+ game starter, but Minnesota won't need that anyway. The Loons will be able to lean on the Jamaican for spot starts, at several positions throughout 2017. Not the sexiest pick Minnesota could have made here, it's a selection that will help the team out in the short term.
That wraps it up. Steven’s picks are all feasible as starters for the Loons, while Atlanta gets the capable, high-value defensive players they absolutely needed. However, there are a wild number of possibilities here. Let us know in the comments what you’d do differently!