Expansion Draft

What history says about how Austin FC should approach the Expansion Draft | Andrew Wiebe

Joe Willis - Nashville SC - pointing

Assets over everything. 

That’s the unofficial mantra of the Expansion Draft, and teams that get the most out of it don’t worry too much about the particulars of the final haul as long as they maximize the once-in-a-MLS-club’s-lifetime opportunity that comes with cherry picking opposing rosters.

Austin FC sporting director Claudio Reyna has been through this process before with New York City FC. He’s studied the five Expansion Drafts since he last participated in 2014. He gets it. Today is a big day for Austin FC, but it’s not a day to pick up five starting-caliber players, though one or two would be nice.

The Expansion Draft is a place to pick up quality and affordable depth, veteran savvy or a young player who is blocked from the playing time they need. It’s a time to play middle man, too, shopping selections to clubs around the league who see someone on the unprotected list they’d like to acquire. Player trades, allocation money, draft picks and international roster spots – everything is in play.

Extratime debate: Who should Austin pick in the Expansion Draft?

By Tuesday night, Reyna wants to emerge with as many resources as possible to improve his team. The hope is to replicate what LAFC did in 2017 and Nashville did in 2019 – those are, in my opinion, the two best and most strategic Expansion Draft hauls in the modern MLS era. What might that mean? Let’s learn from previous picks, and be sure to turn into tonight’s event at 6 pm ET on MLSsoccer.com, the free MLS app, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

Nashville flip Zarek Valentin for Joe Willis

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The expansion draft helped to land Zarek Valentin in Houston | USA Today Sports

This was Mike Jacobs' best Expansion Draft maneuver in 2019. The Houston Dynamo wanted Valentin, and Jacobs wanted Willis, who was protected and could not be selected in the Expansion Draft.

This is a prime example of the middle-man role available to Austin. In the end, Jacobs’ only expense in the deal was the opportunity cost of one Expansion Draft pick. Taking Valentin cost Nashville nothing out of pocket and it netted a starting goalkeeper (now and for years to come, it seems) for an expansion side that was one of the best defensive teams in the league.

Reyna’s phone has surely been ringing and buzzing nonstop since the protected lists came out. There are players on the list that other teams are interested in acquiring. It’s up to him to use that interest to lay the framework for deals that allow Austin to trade for players who were protected by their clubs (or for other assets that serve the same purpose).

Latif Blessing, Tyler Miller selected by LAFC

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Tyler Miller thrived at LAFC before heading to Minnesota United | USA Today Sports

LAFC picked up four starters in the 2017 draft. John Thorrington and Bob Bradley traded for Laurent Ciman, the club’s first captain, by selecting then flipping Jukka Raitala and Raheem Edwards to the Impact. They picked up Marco Urena, who was their starting forward for the first half of the 2018 season.

But the real, lasting impact came via Latif Blessing, plucked from Sporting Kansas City, and Tyler Miller, who needed a path to a starting spot after backing up Stefan Frei in Seattle. We know Blessing’s story. Bradley converted him to a midfielder and he helped the club roll to a Supporters’ Shield. The Ghanaian signed a contract extension to keep him at the club for years to come in August 2019.

Miller, meanwhile, started 61 regular-season games during his two years with the club. The goalkeeper proved he was a starter in MLS, and when LAFC decided to move on, they got allocation money in return totaling $200,000 in GAM and TAM from Minnesota United. They saw potential, they cultivated it and created value. Remember, assets over everything.   

Atlanta United pick up the No. 8 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft

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Julian Gressel spent his first three MLS seasons with Atlanta United | USA Today Sports

You might be asking, ‘Who was the No. 8 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft?’ It was Julian Gressel.

Atlanta United acquired the pick by selecting Donny Toia from Real Salt Lake and trading him to Orlando City SC. Not only did they use that pick to acquire Gressel, who scored 17 goals, added 37 assists in three seasons and helped the club win MLS Cup, they netted a boatload of allocation money when trading him to D.C. United before the 2020 season.

The No. 8 pick was a tool, and the Five Stripes got years of use from the selection and then more resources to improve their team down the line. All for selecting Toia and moving him on.

What to remember

These are best-case scenarios, but they’re the sort of domino effects Reyna will be shooting for today and the beginnings of the foundation being built for 2021. The Expansion Draft is not the end-all-be-all of expansion roster building, but it serves a purpose. We’ll see what purpose this year’s edition serves at 6 pm ET on MLS channels.