MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Best players available to Charlotte FC in 2021 MLS Expansion Draft

As New York City FC continue MLS Cup celebrations, all 28 clubs are now firmly focused on the offseason.

And, yep, that's not 27 clubs. With the 2021 season over, Charlotte FC are officially in business. As an expansion side, they’ll take center stage all winter long as their roster jumps closer and closer to resembling a full team.

There will be no bigger one-day growth than the Expansion Draft on Tuesday (7 pm ET).

“I think this year will be the most interesting Expansion Draft in the history of MLS,” Charlotte sporting director Zoran Krneta told last month.

All eligible 22 MLS clubs released their list of protected/unprotected players on Monday; five teams are exempt from losing players after having players selected by Austin FC in the 2020 MLS Expansion Draft.

So, let’s dive into the group of players available for selection.

There are a lot of interesting players that are either out of contract or had their option declined that I generally ignored (such as strong options like Alec Kann, Jan Gregus and Jared Stroud). There's more value in adding players under contract rather than trying to renegotiate and risk what happened to Austin FC last year, in using a selection on Joe Corona but failing to agree to terms.

Charlotte face plenty of options, which I broke down into a few categories. Historically, teams have seemed to gravitate toward the “value plays” type of player, with an emphasis on those who don’t require an international slot.

Lastly: There's been at least one trade in every Expansion Draft in recent memory. And with so many players available, I’d be shocked if there’s not at least one trade Tuesday evening.

All salary info is per the MLS Players Association.

High price, good talent
They aren’t cheap, but they’re good, MLS-proven players.

Rubio hasn’t taken The Leap since being traded to Colorado, but he’s a productive MLS forward and is compensated as such, making $630k this season. The 28-year-old Chilean international had five goals and six assists in 1660 minutes for the Western Conference-topping Rapids.

Prime candidate for a change of scenery? Cruz has talent but it hasn’t always shined in Cincy as the club have cycled through head coaches and finished bottom of the league three years in a row. The Costa Rican international turns 26 in February and is a strong buy-low candidate, so long as Charlotte (or another MLS club) would be content to take on his $1m+ budget charge.

A 2019 MLS All-Star, Metanire has been a hugely successful signing for Minnesota United. He’s a prototypical modern attacking fullback, but the Madagascar international hit the budget around $700k last year and turns 32 next season.

The Portland Timbers don’t quite play the same way Charlotte will, but Mabiala has excelled in MLS over more than 100 starts, twice making MLS Cup as well as winning the MLS is Back Tournament. He is 34, though.

Godoy has looked the part of a solid, starting-caliber center back in MLS… when he’s been healthy. The Argentine defender has played more than half of Vancouver's matches in just one of his three seasons in the league. He made 15 starts this year.

Returning from a torn ACL, Hyndman would represent some semblance of risk as that recovery continues, as well as his $900k budget charge this year. The former US men's national team prospect has made 42 appearances in MLS (4g/6a) and is just entering his prime at 25 years old.

Wanyama would require a DP spot and doesn’t really fit the high-energy system Charlotte will implement, but the former Tottenham midfielder has been solid for CF Montréal in his two seasons. Enough for an honorable mention here, at least.

Value plays
Not a big budget charge with MLS experience (typically best picks)

Polo seemed to find his best role with the Timbers in central midfield rather than the wing, the position he played when signed. The Peru international was limited to just four appearances this year due to a season-ending injury, but the 27-year-old is another really strong candidate on this list.

He made $500k last year, which isn’t entirely a bargain. But it’s not too much, either.

Blackmon is a 25-year-old versatile defender, who can play either right back or center back and has made 64 MLS appearances with LAFC in his four-year career. LAFC’s front-footed game model often left him defending in space, a quality Charlotte FC defenders will likely need under Miguel Angel Ramirez.

Just entering his prime, versatile, domestic defender? Might be one of the strongest résumés on the list of available players.

Solid, MLS-experienced center back? Who made $300k last year? This is the kind of player that routinely gets selected in these expansion drafts (or signed in free agency) for year one clubs.

Williams does turn 34 in April, though.

This year, Lawrence rejoined MLS with Toronto from Belgium's Anderlecht. And while he didn’t quite hit the Best XI form he showed with the Red Bulls, he’s still a proven commodity in this league.

The 29-year-old Jamaican international made 25 appearances in his return, plus has almost 12,000 regular-season minutes under his belt.

Findlay didn’t play a ton in 2021 after being acquired by the Philadelphia Union, but he fits the mold of a modern center back and there’s no shame in not beating out Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes for minutes, two top-level center backs in MLS.

Plus, the Union have a very high success rate in acquiring undervalued talent in recent years. Plus-plus, Glesnes didn’t play much the first year he was signed by Philly and that worked out pretty darn well.

Burke might not necessarily fit Ramirez’s game model or Charlotte’s general attacking profile, but a Jamaican international, proven MLS goalscorer might be the subject of a few calls from around the league for a trade.

One more Union option: Jesus Bueno was just acquired this summer from Venezuela, a defensive midfielder. The last time Philly went to Venezuela for an undervalued defensive mid, that player turned into Jose Martinez, one of the very best No. 6s in MLS.

The risk is that Thorkelsson is unproven in MLS, as the 19-year-old Iceland youth international center back never made his debut after signing for CF Montréal, in part due to injuries.

The reward is selecting a U22 Initiative signing for next-to-nothing.

Lopez hasn’t hit the ground running in Atlanta, but was acquired for around $3 million. Like Thorkelsson, a potential high-reward flier.

The 20-year-old forward has one goal across 869 MLS minutes.

Another young center back available, Cissoko, who turns 22 this month, looked promising in 12 starts for the Sounders this year. Could be worth a low-risk, supplementary roster slot addition.

Reigning champs

Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Malte Amundsen, Anton Tinnerholm, Jesus Medina

It’s very difficult to keep together trophy-winning teams in salary-capped leagues. Players who were performing at value are due new contracts and other teams in that league see the success and come for the players. NYCFC have a number of strong players that could be selected.

Any one of those four players above could be picked by Charlotte or selected for a trade.

Too Inside MLS?

This is a galaxy-brained, half-baked thought. Don’t take it overly seriously. But it crossed my mind and after watching the Joe Corona situation between Austin and Houston last year, anything is possible, right? Can Charlotte essentially steal transfer fees for these two players? Probably-almost-definitely-not ….. Right? Right…?

Rossi is technically on loan from LAFC to Fenerbahce, even though sources have described it as a forgone conclusion that the deal becomes permanent this spring anyway. I’m just sayin’.

Mitrita is on loan from NYCFC to PAOK in Greece. The Romanian international was acquired for $7 million and still holds value in Europe for an eventual transfer, as he's currently on his second loan from NYCFC. Again, I’m just sayin’.

If I had to pick five….

… I’d probably go:

  • Diego Rubio, Colorado (FWD)
  • Malte Amundsen, NYCFC (DEF)
  • Andy Polo, Portland (MID)
  • Tristan Blackmon, LAFC (DEF)
  • Stuart Findlay, Philadelphia (DEF)

This is without knowing any of Charlotte’s current whiteboard, how close they are on other deals for players potentially in the same positions, of course, nor the trade offers they’re starting to get for players on this list. But these five players could all play major roles in Charlotte’s inaugural season and generally seem to fit with what Ramirez will be preaching.

Findlay, Polo and Amundsen would require international slots as well, something else to consider (though Polo should be due for a green card soon).

Tuesday should be fun!