The 2023 MLS offseason begins in earnest with the St. Louis Expansion Draft this Friday. Up there with league oddities like GAM, homegrown territories, and discovery rights, the now-annual draft allows expansion teams to have their choice of players from future MLS rivals. This year’s participant, St Louis City SC, will have five selections from a list of unprotected players chosen by their respective clubs. Each club is allowed to protect 12 players from their Senior and Supplemental rosters from being drafted, with homegrown players automatically protected and not using up a slot.
The New York Red Bulls released their list of protected players this morning, with a customarily dry press release stating that “The Red Bulls will protect goalkeeper Carlos Coronel, defenders Sean Nealis and Andrés Reyes, midfielders Frankie Amaya, Wiki Carmona, Cristian Cásseres, Jr., Cameron Harper, Lewis Morgan, Luquinhas, and Dru Yearwood, and forwards Tom Barlow and Elias Manoel.” Aside from a controversial listing of Luquinhas as a midfielder, the list provides some notable choices from a front office that has already felt the sting of an Expansion Draft, having lost Jared Stroud to Austin in 2020 and Hassan Ndam to Cincinnati in 2018.
Perhaps most shocking was the protecting of Tom Barlow, the oft-maligned striker and St. Louis native. While certainly a relief to some, it was a surprising choice for a player who has undoubtedly had scoring struggles in his time in MLS. Leading up to the draft many had thought that Barlow would be a target for St Louis City, being from the city and with head coach Bradley Carnell having worked with Barlow at the Red Bulls and valuing his skillset.
The decision to protect Barlow seems to be a doubling down on the New York coaching staff’s trust in the Missourian, with Gerhard Struber regularly using him as a late game substitute. While Barlow’s stay at the club is still not assured, as St Louis City can still engage in trade talks for the former RBII star (a trade which would likely result in a more hefty return for New York than the $50,000 GAM given as compensation for drafted players), the choice is an interesting one, and made even more interesting by the subsequent choice to not protect fellow striker Patryk Klimala.
The weight of expectation has troubled the Polish youth international since his arrival, with the reported $4 million fee and Designated Player tag not seen as justified by his 13 MLS goals in 2 seasons. These scoring struggles have not been entirely his fault, however even his harshest critic would be surprised at the Red Bulls leaving him available for selection. It would be questionable business to let the big-money signing leave for essentially nothing, however it seems that the Red Bulls are attempting to St Louis’ bluff with the choice.
The Expansion Draft is never just a choice of the objectively best players available, contractual details and roster management are always taken into account by those whose job it is to run the club. Klimala is on a Designated Player salary and would occupy a valuable international roster slot (yet another one of the league’s quirks), and it would be quite the commitment from St Louis to dedicate such resources to a player with such aforementioned struggles. Hardcore fans of the draft will remember that when Cincinnati drafted Hassan Ndam from the Red Bulls in 2018, they passed over New York legend Connor Lade, who had been left unprotected, in doing so. Few would argue that Ndam was a better player than a Lade who was in his 4th season as a Red Bull, but Lade was 27 and on a hefty salary and Cincinnati saw it fit to opt for the giant center-back. The expansion club have room to work with and could very well take the risk on Klimala, so time will tell if New York’s gamble will pay off.
The Cameroonian has comically been left unprotected by the Red Bulls once again, after the aforementioned move to Cincinnati in the 2018 draft, the defender embarked on a journey through USL and free agency before finding himself back at the Red Bulls midway through 2022. A much-loved figure in New York, “Big Hass” provided vital center back cover for the first team in 2022 when injuries to Andres Reyes and other defenders stretched the roster. With the likely departure of club captain Aaron Long following the World Cup, many expected Ndam to have an increased role in 2023, only being 24 years old and still having room for development. Other names throughout the league may jump out more at St Louis and he would definitely be an outside pick, but don’t be surprised if yet another expansion team sees the value in the well-traveled player.
Jake LaCava, Matthew Nocita, and Steven Sserwadda
Two young but unproven players thought to have good potential for a future first-team role, the decision to leave them unprotected is customary but risky, as shown by the aforementioned loss of Jared Stroud in 2020.
LaCava spent the 2022 season in USL with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and enjoyed tremendous success in Florida, advancing to the USL Championship semifinals and scoring 13 goals and 5 assists en route to a nomination for USL Young Player of the year. A longtime star for RBII, the young wide forward is a pressing machine and was thought to be a very promising prospect for the Red Bulls senior team in 2023.
Nocita on the other hand was a selection from the 2022 SuperDraft, a Navy graduate who after being drafted 7th overall amusingly spent months in contractual limbo before finally being signed to an MLS deal in late August 2022. The towering center back spent the rest of the season with RBII, having a strong end to the season and being rewarded with his 2023 contract option being picked up by the club. Besides being 6’8”, Nocita looks like a skilled distributor of the ball and like Ndam was thought to be a long-term successor to Aaron Long, so while completely unproven at the senior level one would not put it past St. Louis to take a chance on him.
Meanwhile the status of Sserwadda seems like another puzzle. The Uganda international joined in late 2021 after a protracted transfer from Kampala Capital City Authority. After impressing in early USL reps with Red Bulls II in which he displayed dogged pressing skills, he made a brief series of cameos with the first team this spring before largely disappearing from the rotation.
Sserwadda, LaCava, and Nocita are 20, 21 and 22 respectively, and while it is unlikely that they end up getting drafted it does show a concerning lack of prioritization of up-and-coming young talent by the front office. Despite the reported organizational focus on youth development, the club has struggled to find a real star from RBII or pinpoint any exciting young talent since Tyler Adams came through the ranks. Young players such as Stroud and Derrick Etienne Jr. who came onto the scene admittedly raw were not particularly concentrated on in their time in New York, and to see the trend potentially continue with LaCava and Nocita could come back to bite the Red Bulls in the future.
Ultimately, there are many salivating options available for St Louis in the draft apart from the Red Bulls, with Alejandro Bedoya, Alex Muyl, Indiana Vassilev, and Gustavo Bou all reasonable selections. Red Bulls fans can sleep easier knowing that any selection from the club would be a surprise. One can read into the list and draw a multitude of conclusions, but ultimately more important days lie ahead as the Red Bulls enter what should be a crucial offseason for an organization looking for a step up in 2023.