Timbers training, 10.10.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

MLS Expansion Draft unpredictable by its very nature

Tomorrow the Portland Timbers could lose one of their players, but there are no guarantees. Only 10 teams will have players selected in this year’s version of what, by now, has become a regular tradition: an offseason expansion draft in Major League Soccer.

Eleven times in the last 14 years, MLS has used this process to add talent to its newest teams, asking each of its existing franchises to make players available to populate new clubs. This year, the league’s 24 existing teams were allowed to “protect” 12 players each from their current roster.

The rest are up for grabs to be selected on Tuesday in the 2019 edition (2:30pm PT, MLSsoccer.com), with the league’s newest teams – Inter Miami and Nashville SC – given a chance to add five players, each, to their first MLS rosters. Teams that lose players get $50,000 in General Allocation Money. Players who lose teams get new ones, along with new homes. It is what it is.

This Saturday, the league announced the players who will be available for selection, and unfortunately for Timbers fans, there are some names Portland will not want to lose:

Expansion draft available players: Portland
Goalkeepers: Jeff Attinella, Aljaz Ivacic, Kendall McIntosh
Defenders: Claude Dielna, Modou Jadama, Zarek Valentin
Midfielders: Dairon Asprilla, Tomas Conechny, Andres Flores, Andy Polo, Renzo Zambrano

Some players, here, have formed deep connections with Portland’s community. Attinella and Valentin stand out most. There are also players who, in their time developing with the Timbers, it would hurt to lose for different reasons. After over two years in the Rose City, wouldn’t it be nice to see Renzo Zambrano continue in green and gold?

You could go through every player on this list and come up with a reason you’d want them to stay. After all, there’s a reason they were Timbers in the first place. But expansion drafts are more of a rule than an exception at this point in Major League Soccer, which means each offseason, fans, coaches, players and their squads are left in the same place. Why do the teams have to lose players for this? Because that’s how it works.

The silver lining, though, is by one interpretation of the odds, the Timbers might not lose anybody at all. Six teams are exempt from this year’s expansion draft: five because they had players selected last year (FC Dallas, D.C. United, Houston Dynamo, New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps FC) and one because they were the team doing the selecting (FC Cincinnati). That leaves 18 teams in danger of losing someone’s rights. Another way to look at it: 44 percent of clubs who had to expose players will escape Tuesday’s festivities unscathed.

The other must-know about Tuesday is the expansion teams’ point of view. Of the last 20 players selected in expansion drafts – the number of players taken since the league went to its current 5-pick format – nine were immediately traded. Like, that day. They never dressed for the expansion team that picked them. Never even had to get on a plane for a physical. The value they had to a new team came down to what old team was willing to give up for them.

That dynamic makes it difficult to predict was going to happen on Tuesday. The league’s web site has a mock draft up, because that’s what you do whenever there’s a draft. You mock it. But without seeing the plans in place for Miami and Nashville, it’s impossible to know the player profiles they’re looking for. Does Nashville see this draft as a roster-building exercise, or an asset play? Will Miami’s large international drawing mean more competition for playing time, and less of a likelihood that expansion picks will contribute?

It could be a combination of both. In 2017, Los Angeles FC kept three of the five players they selected. Two of them (Tyler Miller and Latif Blessing) were starters for this year’s Supporters’ Shield-winning squad. They had an international draw, but they also had a need for Blessing and Miller. In 2018, FC Cincinnati only made one trade, dealing Kei Kamara to Colorado, but saw another of their picks (Eric Alexander) released midseason. Another selection (Roland Lamah) had the option on his contract declined this offseason. There wasn’t much roster building from last year’s draft for FCC.

All of which is to say expansion drafts can be unpredictable. From players to strategies, we know what the options are, but there is no way of saying “Nashville profiles like a place for [insert Timber here],” or “Inter Miami has to be interested in [another Timbers player].” Without being in those general managers’ offices, we’re left in the dark.

In the light of tomorrow’s Expansion Draft, though, the Timbers could be down a player. It sucks, especially because, so often, the selecting team doesn’t even want the player, but this is still the world we live in. And it happens almost every offseason.

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