National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lessons for St. Louis CITY: How Expansion Drafts can dictate success


So you’re wondering if you should be paying much attention to this whole 2022 MLS Expansion Draft thing happening in St. Louis on Friday evening (7 pm ET | How to Watch).

The season’s over, the World Cup is looming. There’s a chance your team isn’t even directly in the crosshairs of St. Louis CITY SC, thanks to the rule that exempts five clubs who lost players to Charlotte FC in the 2021 edition. Maybe you figure you have better things to do on a Friday evening.

Perhaps! I’m just here to tell you this quirky little process, this deeply MLSian ritual, routinely serves up some of the league’s most interesting storylines. Because while some new teams just go out and grab as many potential on-field contributors as possible, others wheel and deal like riverboat gamblers to make deals and stack up assets to be deployed elsewhere.

Finding centerpieces

It’s common to see expansion clubs conspire with others to peel away players from third clubs, like LAFC did with Jukka Raitala and Raheem Edwards five years ago, bundling the duo off to Montréal to acquire Laurent Ciman, who would captain the Black & Gold in their inaugural season and score the first goal in Banc of California Stadium history. Minnesota United FC did much the same with three of their picks in December 2016; FC Cincinnati did so with Kei Kamara as well.

Cincy, in fact, can thank the 2019 Expansion Draft for one of their crown jewels – breakout striker Brandon Vazquez arrived in southern Ohio via Nashville SC, who took him away from Atlanta United and then sent him to FCC for an initial $150,000 in Targeted Allocation Money with another $50,000 possible if certain performance incentives were met. Even if the latter was triggered, and we’re thinking it probably was, that’s a hell of a deal for a guy who’s blossomed into one of MLS’s top young frontrunners.

Nashville got particularly busy along these lines when it was their turn – it’s how they picked up Joe Willis, the excellent shot-stopper and 2021 Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year finalist who’s anchored the Coyotes’ defense-first approach since their arrival in the league. NSC picked Zarek Valentin from Portland with their second pick in the 2019 Expansion Draft, then flipped him to Houston to acquire Willis.

Trades & the dark arts

Wheeling and dealing like this can transform careers. Kamal Miller was a reserve defender for Orlando City SC in his first two seasons in MLS before CF Montréal brought him home to Canada via Austin FC taking him in their 2020 Expansion Draft and trading him north. A regular starter for one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams, he’s now an All-Star and likely to play a significant role for his national team at the World Cup this month.

For a couple of reasons, Canadian players tend to hold more value to clubs north of the border, which also can make it harder for those clubs to pull off what they consider fair deals for those players. So the middle-man effect of the Expansion Draft gives them useful leverage.

Then again, sometimes teams get downright trollish with this process, perhaps none more so than Montréal upon their MLS entry. In fact, SB Nation actually gave l’Impact, as they were known back then, an “A for trolling” in their Expansion Draft scorecard after then-head coach Jesse Marsch & Co. seemed to make a point of selecting as many beloved icons of other clubs as possible.

Exhibit A was their first pick, Brian Ching, a longtime hero of the Houston Dynamo who was at that point entering the final years of a richly successful career with La Naranja. The Dynamo probably figured his salary was too high, his injury history too significant for Montréal to pluck him away. But the Quebecois called that bluff and effectively held Ching to ransom for months, even as he insisted he would never play for IMFC and threatened to retire.

After he spent about a month of preseason in Montréal’s colors, “ChingGate” was eventually brought to a close with a trade back to Htown for a first-round SuperDraft pick. It seemed like a modest return for all that Sturm und Drang, and St. Louis may decide it’s not worth their time and trouble to try something similar with the likes of Dax McCarty (Nashville) or Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia). But still… sometimes ransom plots work.

Making sense of the noise

Over the years other teams have clearly taken note of the power of such gambits, which has helped lead us to the sort of protection racket we often see nowadays, with behind-the-scenes deals in which expansion clubs agree to leave certain clubs alone as part of wider transactions.

We’ve seen some of this over the past few days, with international roster slots and allocation money flying back and forth around the league in ways that aren’t immediately understandable. It’s not always directly connected to St. Louis but you can be sure the newcomers are working the phones, contacting every single one of their league counterparts to see how they can maximize the levers they have at their disposal.

It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if the Missourians don’t keep a single one of the players they select on Friday. Or who knows, maybe one of them goes on to become a club legend the way Brad Evans, Sebastien Le Toux and Zach Thornton, to name a few, did for the expansion sides that picked them back in the day. That’s the fun of it.

This is the epitome of MLS’s hot stove. And as wonky as it may seem at first glance, your team might just wind up walking away with – or without – a key piece that helps them win something down the line.