Fair warning: I've always valued expansion drafts more than the teams actually conducting them to seem to. I operate under the assumption that two of the biggest inefficiencies in all of soccer (not just US) are the unwillingness to develop end-of-roster players once they hit their mid-20s, and the unwillingness to understand players as workable parts of a whole rather than individual units of X or Y amount of quality that you simply plug into a lineup.
Soccer is a team game, and teams often demand guys who can fill very specific, very niche roles. They also demand locker room stability and know-how – guys who understand how to grind through a season that could start and end in sub-zero temperatures, yet see its most crucial stretches played in searing, subtropical heat either at altitude or on turf of... well, you get it, right? North America is a vast place and the MLS season taxes even the most prepared players both mentally and physically.
With that in mind I'm going to examine just a bit what I think the philosophy of each team will be for the draft, as well as some players who fit the mold:
Atlanta United FC
They have signaled their intent to compete for the best talent not just in MLS, but in the Americas, and they've done so both on the field and on the sidelines. Head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino is probably going to be the biggest-name addition to the league this offseason, and he'll never kick a ball.
Martino's teams have generally played high-tempo, high-pressure soccer over the last half-dozen years, but he's also been very at home building a mostly counterattacking squad in the past (remember Paraguay?). He's also shuttled through various formations and identities, and done it on two different continents. He's maybe more notable for his long list of second-place finishes than for his few titles, but the point is that he builds a team that will compete year after year after year.
In Atlanta's case that team's attacking corps is almost complete. Young DPs Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba should man the flanks, and veteran EPL No. 9 Kenwyne Jones should be the starting center forward. There is depth in youth to back them up...
...including young Andrew Carleton, who all decent and upstanding citizens should be hyped about. Add in Brandon Vazquez and Romario Williams up top and Kevin Kratz and Junior Burgos in the center of the park, as well as a presumed third DP to play somewhere in there, and there just aren't a ton of minutes in the front five, even if Almiron is asked to play as a No. 10.
Things are decidedly sparse beyond that, with no true defensive midfielder and only one defender on the roster. I think that's pretty obviously the place Atlanta will try to target, as well as a place they'll probably want to avoid spending international roster slots. Expansion teams that have succeeded in the past are ones that have relied upon the kind of familiarity with the league that you just can't purchase overseas.
- Collen Warner (DM - Houston)
- Kofi Opare (CB - D.C. United)
- Chance Myers (RB - Sporting KC)
- Steven Beitashour (RB - Toronto FC)
- Jared Watts (CB - Colorado)
Please note that this is not a list of guys I think they'll pick. If they take Myers, for example, they're not going to snag Beitashour with the next selection.
Rather, it's a list of guys who I think represent good-to-great value at spots that really matter. A few are out of contract and thus won't come at bargain-basement prices, but all five bring a blend of experience and potential for tactical flexibility while filling roster needs.
Watts is the No. 1 name on the list of guys who I was shocked to see unprotected, by the way. But I don't think he'd be a good partner for Michael Parkhurst – the one defender on Atlanta's roster – and thus I don't think he should be a high priority. Opare is probably a better bet.
Warner, meanwhile, should be the first guy taken. He was quietly excellent shielding Houston's backline during the second half of the season, is reliable in his distribution and he knows the league. He can play as a true, lone No. 6 or as a deep-lying partner for Chris McCann, who will need a more rugged presence alongside him in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3.
Harry Shipp goals and highlights for Chicago Fire
Shipp is simply not meant to be on a counterattacking team, nor is he meant to be on the flank, and thus he was usually miscast by Frank Yallop and at sea with the Impact. Sometimes a player just isn't a good fit in a given scheme.
I think he'd be a great fit for what I've seen Heath run in the past, occupying that spot as a free playmaker underneath Ebobisse and flanked by two all-action wingers. More to the point: I still think domestic attacking talent is underrated, both at home and in the global market. Shipp has what it takes to run a team in this league, and I hope the Loons see as much.