BURNABY, British Columbia – While the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers invest in their developmental programs and scour the globe to scout for talent, history tells us that the MLS Expansion Draft may play the most crucial role in shaping their early success.
“If you get it right, that could ensure that you make the playoffs in your first year," Whitecaps FC president Bob Lenarduzzi said on Monday. "If you get it all wrong, then probably you’re not making the playoffs.”
Those words will likely hold true.
Look no further than Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, two franchises that took very different approaches to their player selections and that have, consequently, experienced very different on-field results.
When Toronto FC were getting ready to form the core of Canada’s first ever MLS team in 2006, they were eager to bring in their own talent and thus recruited several players from the UK through the connections of Scottish manager Mo Johnston (who is no longer with the club). In order to fill their domestic player quota, they enlisted several Canadian players from outside MLS.
With many of their needs filled, the Expansion Draft was perhaps overlooked. Nine of the 10 players TFC selected were traded away, seven of whom never suited up for TFC (Adrian Serioux and Tim Regan would play for the team in later seasons). Only Paulo Nagamura found the field for the Reds, and after four games played, he, too, was traded, leaving not a single player from the Expansion Draft on the roster.
In their four seasons since, Toronto have yet to make the playoffs. A fluctuating roster has no doubt contributed to their struggles, though we’ll never know for sure what could have happened had they used the Expansion Draft differently.
However, we do know what happened in Seattle. In 2008, it was the Sounders’ turn to build their roster, and while they, too, looked outside the doors of MLS to find players, they also used the Expansion Draft to form the core of their team.
The groundwork was laid for a strong squad with the signings of former US national team goalkeeper Kasey Keller and Swedish star Freddie Ljungberg, but those two alone weren't enough to bring the Sounders success. The Expansion Draft allowed the club to surround them with MLS veterans.
Eight of the 10 players selected remained with the team in their inaugural year, and a ninth, defender Jeff Parke, rejoined the squad this past season. Nate Jaqua, Nathan Sturgis (pictured above), Jeff Parke, Tyson Wahl, James Riley and Brad Evans all remain on the team and have each started a significant amount of games for the club in the last two years.
The Sounders have experienced great success, qualifying for the playoffs in each of their first two seasons and becoming the first MLS team ever to win back-to-back US Open Cups. This is due in no small part to the stable core of players that they selected in the 2008 MLS Expansion Draft.
The Whitecaps and Timbers will have more of a challenge than Toronto and Seattle, as this will be the first expansion draft with two teams since Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake selected in 2004. But the list of unprotected players contains plenty of interesting names, and finding quality should not be the issue.
“When you consider that you’ve got a 30 man roster and 10 players from this list could likely make up a third of it, then yes, it is a big day,” Lenarduzzi said. “We’d prefer to get it as right as possible, but that will only be determined at the end of the first season, when we look back at the draft and what the players we drafted, how they actually factored into our playing season.”
If Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders are any indication, they could factor quite prominently.