Tuesday, December 11, brings the 2018 MLS Expansion Draft: FC Cincinnati’s chance to accelerate its roster building for its 2019 MLS debut season by picking five players from the the rosters of the rest of the league. Sort of: there was an Expansion Draft last year for LAFC, so the five teams that lost players in that exercise - Columbus Crew, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, and Toronto FC - are exempt this year.
As such, FC Cincinnati will pick five players from the rosters of 18 teams. No more than one player per roster; so with each selection a team is removed from the draft. All told, 13 teams (perhaps more if Cincy unexpectedly decides not to make a full slate of selections) won’t be touched by the Expansion Draft.
Some teams will pre-emptively protect their rosters by cutting a deal with Cincinnati in advance. There is no official rule allowing teams to duck the Expansion Draft by prior agreement with the drafting club, but what consenting adults agree to do behind closed doors is largely their own business.
Indeed, for an enterprising GM or Sporting Director, an Expansion Draft is an opportunity to perhaps take advantage of an overeager new team with an urgent need to fill out a roster.
Back in 2014, RBNY’s Ali Curtis appeared to grab an Expansion Draft pick for himself: NYCFC picked Sal Zizzo from Sporting Kansas City and flipped him to the Red Bulls so quickly (the deal was inadvertently announced shortly after the draft concluded) that it seemed the deal must have been pre-arranged. In exchange, NYCFC got a season-long loan of RBNY ‘keeper Ryan Meara, but his 2015 was hampered by injury, so he landed back with the Red Bulls in 2016 - all told, Curtis got to build-out what turned out to be a Supporters’ Shield winning roster for 2015 and started 2016 with both Meara and Zizzo in his squad. And the Red Bulls lost no players in the 2014 Expansion Draft.
This year, RBNY may have another pre-arrangement up its sleeve. The team kicked off its off-season with a roster update that included the surprising news that Anatole Abang - a player who has not been given a minute in MLS by the Red Bulls since the summer of 2016 - had been optioned for another year at Red Bull Arena. RBNY is of course allowed to change its mind about any player, and Abang is a talented forward, but there is a whisper - most recently voiced on Seeing Red - that perhaps the decision to hang on to the young Cameroonian was motivated by a long-ago rumor that FC Cincinnati saw something it liked about him.
A team that loses a player in the Expansion Draft gets $50,000 in General Allocation Money as compensation - money that can put toward boosting a club’s salary budget or traded (for example, incoming prospect Jean-Christophe Koffi cost RBNY $75,000 in General Allocation Money).
So renewing Abang’s contract, meaning he is safely tied to MLS for another season, might simply have been a favor to Cincinnati, in exchange for the league’s $50,000 GAM payout and Denis Hamlett being able to sleep easy knowing he has no great Expansion Draft concerns. Or perhaps there is a more ambitious trade lined up with Cincy; or maybe RBNY genuinely realized Abang has something to offer the team for next season and is hoping Cincinnati is no longer interested in the player (if indeed it ever was).
We will find out on December 11.
On December 10, we’ll at least see what RBNY is hypothetically willing to lose: the players the team leaves exposed to the Expansion Draft. Teams can protect 11 players, and there are some automatic exemptions that mean certain players aren’t eligible at all.
FC Cincinnati for its part is giving every impression of managing its Expansion Draft opportunity as intelligently as possible. The team has deliberately kept its roster looking pretty threadbare: just five players on MLS contracts at present. Head coach Alan Koch confirmed to the Cincinnati Enquirer that the team is deliberately holding back on signing announcements, to maximize uncertainty about its roster-building priorities and give the rest of the league the smallest possible chance of guessing what the Cincy might want out of the draft.
The reason for the silence is that we’re about to go play a game where teams will choose to protect or unprotect players. If we’re verbalizing or pointing out exactly who we’re to sign, we’re losing the advantage of going into this mechanism and trying to get the best players possible.
Per the Enquirer, the strategy is paying off. During his interview with the paper, Koch was able to demonstrate in real time that his phone is buzzing with calls from other MLS teams.
There have been some leaks, inevitably: midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin is reportedly waiting to be unveiled; The Athletic and the Enquirer have reported that Vancouver Whitecaps will deal goalkeeper Spencer Richey back to Cincinnati, where he spent 2018 on loan in USL.
But even with the leaked players added to the list, FCC only has seven players on paper right now: the team has needs at every position.
We can hope that Denis Hamlett’s call was one of those received favorably by Cincinnati, and therefore the Expansion Draft holds no anxiety for RBNY.
Absent information about any deal the Red Bulls might have made and given the club must submit a list of protected players anyway, here’s Once A Metro’s guess at the way the team’s roster might be presented to FCC:
Predicted RBNY 2018 MLS Expansion Draft players lists
|Anatole Abang (INTL)
|Vincent Bezecourt (INTL)
|Cristian Casseres (INTL)
|Michael Murillo (INTL)
|Fidel Escobar (INTL)*
|Andreas Ivan (INTL)
|Daniel Royer (INTL)
|Kaku (DP, INTL)
|Bradley Wright-Phillips (DP)
|Hassan Ndam (INTL)
|Florian Valot (INTL)
|*Players out of contract per 2018 roster update
Hamlett need make no decisions at all about the exempted players. Expansion Draft rules state Homegrown Players on the back-end of a club’s roster - the Supplemental/Reserve Roster spots - are automatically protected. So Alex Muyl, Derrick Etienne, Evan Louro, and Ben Mines are safe from Cincinnati. So too would be Tyler Adams, but his transfer to RB Leipzig has already been announced, so it is assumed he won’t be part of the draft. Kevin Politz has technically been released by RBNY, per the latest roster update, but he too was a Homegrown player on the low-end of the team’s pay scale. Players in a similar position for last year’s Expansion Draft - such as Arun Basuljevic - were protected, so we assume Politz will be too.
Jean-Christophe Koffi should land on RBNY’s roster in January. Since he wasn’t on the team’s 2018 roster, it is assumed he won’t be part of the Expansion Draft. It should be a moot point anyway: his Homegrown Player rights transferred with him from D.C. United, and he too would most likely be automatically protected were he part of the Red Bulls squad.
Players effectively released by RBNY per the team’s roster update are still included in the Expansion Draft. That means the Red Bulls will need to protect Tim Parker, regardless of whether they reach agreement on a new contract with him before the draft.
On does not imagine the team is trying to retain Parker just to allow one of its other starting defenders to slip away to Cincinnati for no more than $50k in return - so expect Aaron Long, Kemar Lawrence, and Michael Murillo to be protected also. Indeed, OaM expects Hamlett to protect the entirety of what was RBNY’s preferred starting lineup by the end of the post-season: add Luis Robles, Sean Davis, Daniel Royer, Kaku, and Bradley Wright-Phillips to the list. With Muyl automatically protected and Adams gone, that accounts for the 2018 starting XI.
It also only leaves two spots open on the protected list.
Vincent Bezecourt, Florian Valot, and Kyle Duncan are coming back from season-ending injuries. Hamlett should feel pretty secure leaving them unprotected, since Cincinnati is unlikely to burn a selection on a player who is still recovering from significant injury. The team chose not to option or renew Aurelien Collin, Ethan Kutler, Carlos Rivas, Fidel Escobar, and Marc Rzatkowski - so it presumably is not minded to protect any of them from the Expansion Draft.
Anatole Abang might the core of RBNY’s whole strategy for this draft, so if he isn’t put out for Cincinnati to select, it would rather defeat the point of that exercise. And if there is no deal lined up, it still is hard to see the Red Bulls protecting a player they exiled on loan for two years.
Connor Lade might be the valuable back-up RBNY has, since he can cover about four positions, including both full-back spots. But he is fundamentally a back-up and he will be 30 by the end of next season - the Red Bulls can take the chance he turns 30 in Cincinnati.
Brian White made steady progress in his rookie year, winning promotion to the first team in the summer as RBNY sought to bolster attacking options on the MLS roster. But with six appearances (and one goal) in MLS, he is hardly a regular at the first-team level, let alone a starter. Nor for that matter is late-summer arrival Andreas Ivan, who is at least paid at the level of a starter - $240,000 base salary in 2018, per the MLS Players Association. But he and White can both be expected to have something to prove in RBNY’s pre-season camp, assuming neither is picked by Cincinnati; we assume Hamlett will take that chance and leave both exposed to the Expansion Draft.
Ultimately, the difficult choice for Hamlett would appear to be which two of three starters-in-waiting to protect. It looks as though RBNY’s list of protected players will boil down to which two of Ryan Meara, Hassan Ndam, and Cristian Casseres get shielded from Cincinnati.
Ryan Meara is a starting-caliber MLS ‘keeper, as he demonstrated again this year when he provided cover for the only three league games Luis Robles has missed in his entire career as a Red Bull. It seems a little reckless to offer Cincinnati a shot at nabbing Meara for nothing more than a $50K GAM thank-you from MLS. So Meara should be protected if for no other reason than his value to the team is surely greater than the compensation offered by the Expansion Draft.
That leaves a choice between Hassan Ndam and Cristian Casseres for the last protected spot available. RBNY would prefer to lose neither, since both are young players the team is expected to give every opportunity to win starting spots over the next couple of seasons.
If OaM were in Hamlett’s position - and it is to the immense benefit of RBNY that this is not the case - then OaM would choose to protect Ndam.
The last time Cincinnati saw him was in the USL playoffs, where he contributed to shutting out the USL regular-season champion in front of its home crowd. Ndam has all the conventional attributes of a quality center-back - tall, strong, robust - and he has been playing regularly in USL for the last two seasons: a league Cincy knows well. Picking Ndam would be an easy decision: he visibly has the ideal tools for his trade and he’s ready to start challenging for minutes in MLS. For much the same reason as Meara should be protected, therefore, Ndam should also be kept out of the Expansion Draft: no reason to gift Cincinnati an easy selection.
Casseres’ talent is no secret: he was ranked 12th in USL’s annual celebration of its best U-20 players this season. He too has already played for the RBNY first team, and he too will be expected to challenge for a start in 2019. But he’s also still a teenager - he turns 19 in January - and he potentially busy year ahead.
He’s committed to the Venezuela men’s U-20 team training camp until at least early January; if that goes well for him, he can reasonably expect to be in the squad that represents Venezuela at the 2019 South American Men’s U-20 Championship. That could see Casseres occupied until early February - he’ll be a late arrival to pre-season. And if his team does well at the South American Championship, then he could be playing in the U-20 World Cup in Poland in May. RBNY can afford to invest time and patience in bringing along a teenage midfielder who probably won’t really be ready to compete for regular starts in MLS until at least 2020, but is that what Cincinnati wants to do with one of its five Expansion Draft picks? The Red Bulls can hope it is not.
If the other options are Meara or Ndam, Casseres is the least likely to give Cincinnati regular minutes in MLS or be an attractive asset to trade away - so he is the player RBNY least wants to lose who should nonetheless be exposed to the Expansion Draft.