In Major League Soccer, there have been multiple expansion drafts over the last few years, but they haven’t all followed the same roadmap. Obviously, the rules governing these special engagements have changed over the last seven years, where five expansion drafts have taken place over that span, but the greatest differences have been with the approach adopted by each of the expansion clubs under differing circumstances.
The Impact, on November 23, will find itself in a similar situation to that of the Seattle Sounders FC when it approached the draft table on November 26, 2008, but under a very different context than the four previous expansion drafts dating back to 2004.
A NUCLEUS FROM SECOND DIVISION
As a matter of fact, even before making its first pick of players left unprotected by their respective clubs, the Impact management, like their confreres from Washington State, will be able to rely on a nucleus of players from its final season in second division.
The Impact has already announced that they will be retaining the services of goalkeeper Evan Bush, as well as midfielders Hassoun Camara and Sinisa Ubiparipovic.
Only three of the last seven clubs to benefit from an expansion draft had defined a strategy based on a nucleus of experienced players from the season prior.
Just over a year ago, on November 24, 2010 to be more precise, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC and the Portland Timbers graduated their best players from their second division sides (12 for the Whitecaps!), but also had to face off against one another when it came time to draft unprotected players from around the 16 teams in MLS.
“The Impact has a bit of an advantage as they won’t be competing with any other team at the draft table,” said Greg Anderson, manager of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “They have complete control of the direction they wish to take, while we were forced to deal with what Portland might do. We had to adjust based on decisions they made along the way.”
Despite those challenges, the two western expansion teams shared a similar philosophy when it came time to announce their selections.
“We were looking for players with good MLS experience to support our group of rookies kept from the second division side from the previous season,” said Anderson. “In addition, we had to consider the monetary side of any selection as well as ensuring we had space for international transfers.”
The Vancouver Whitecaps FC followed its game plan to the letter. Two selections from its expansion draft (including its first pick Sanna Nyassi), were traded to bump up its quota of international players and both were exchanged for monetary allowances. One year later, five players acquired through expansion remain a part of the club from British Columbia.
A direct competition on draft day also took place in November 2004, when Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake were planning for their debuts in MLS in spring 2005.
Aside from going head-to-head in the draft, these two clubs also took the same philosophy to the expansion table on November 19, 2004, the same one used by the Philadelphia Union five years later...that is to build the team from zero at the draft.
“We started from nothing, which is to stay we had no stadium, no team in second division to help us start with a foundation for MLS,” said John Hackworth, coach with the Philadelphia Union, who was one of the architects of the team’s building strategy with executive vice-president of soccer operations and team manager Peter Nowak. “Our objective was to build our nucleus by selecting the best players made available by the 15 other clubs in the league.”
Theory often differs from reality. Careful work and preparation for the expansion draft will be to identify the "gaps" between the value of a player in the eyes of the technical staff of his club that left him unprotected, and the club that might be interested in him.
“For example, we were able to get our hands on lateral defender Jordan Harvey, who was in the starting line-up for 29 games with the Colorado Rapids,” said Hackworth. “Harvey played 45 games for the Union in one and half seasons in Philadelphia before being traded to the Whitecaps. This was a good return on our investment.”
Philadelphia was able to find a hidden gem in its expansion draft by selecting Sébastien Le Toux, who was left unprotected after scoring only one goal in 15 games for the Seattle Sounders FC. The French striker did not waste any time in making his mark with his new club, scoring 14 goals in 28 games for the Pennsylvania side and was named one of the three finalists for team MVP in 2010.
Le Toux is one of two players chosen by Philadelphia in the expansion draft that is still with the club. The other is midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi.
The other eight players selected at the time had all played at least one game with the Union, totalling 30 games in its first season.
Greg Anderson and John Hackworth have similar messages for future rivals, the Montreal Impact, when asked if they had any advice for the draft. “You have to put all your energy and effort into examining the list of players available,” they said. “We know how far a good selection can take you.”
A multitude of factors come into play – both economical and tactical – when defining a club’s strategy on expansion draft day.
“The salary cap is an unavoidable consideration,” said Anderson. “If a club decides to designate three players in its first year in MLS, they will have to consider the salaries of any player chosen to fill out the roster.”
As for John Hackworth, he said “the hardest part is to decide between the best player available or the one that might fit your needs and playing style the most.”
Now that he has to prepare a list of protected players for the second year in a row, Hackworth sees things form a different perspective.
“It will be difficult if we have to lose a player on November 23 that was an important part of our organization, even though we had to leave him unprotected,” he said.
It’s with this in mind that Hackworth offered a specific message to his counterparts in Montreal, head coach Jesse Marsch and assistant coach Mike Sorber, with whom he’s crossed paths with in the U.S. national program.
“Jesse and Mike are two very smart guys who will, I’m convinced, do some excellent work during the expansion draft,” said Hackworth. “Could you please ask them to do me a little favour and to lose the Union’s unprotected list when it comes time to make their choices? Thanks a lot...”