Atlanta United technical staff during Expansion Draft - 12/15/2016

Ahhhhhh, the Expansion Priority Draft, or as I like to call it, “the draft of drafts.” As someone who quite literally squeals every time a GAM-for-TAM trade hits my inbox, these are the sort of only-in-Major League Soccer moments that really get me going.

Come 2020, two expansion teams – Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC – will join the league. That means, for the first time since 2016, we’ll have an Expansion Priority Draft to divvy up the spoils that go to first-year clubs as they build their first-ever MLS rosters. You can watch it all go down on Sunday’s Decision Day presented by AT&T Pregame Show (3 pm ET; watch on, the MLS app, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube).

First, the coin flip to see who goes first. Then, the draft of drafts, with the teams alternating until all five roster-building mechanisms have been chose. Here’s what Miami managing owner & CEO Jorge Mas, Miami sporting director Paul McDonough, Nashville CEO Ian Ayre and Nashville general manager Mike Jacobs have to choose from:

  1. No.1 pick in 2019 MLS Expansion Draft 
  2. No.1 pick in 2020 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas
  3. No.1 position in Allocation Ranking Order
  4. Penultimate position in MLS Re-Entry and End-of-Year Waiver Order
  5. Penultimate position in Discovery Player Ranking

That’s a pretty important coin flip, huh? Whoever wins it will get priority on two of the top three mechanisms, all of which are valuable on their own but also tradeable, as we’ve seen before. You want to win the coin flip, but there’s no reason to panic if you don’t (more on that in a second).

One quick note. The rules of the game have changed slightly since last year, when FC Cincinnati took their turn at the expansion wheel. Namely, all teams will now be able to protect 12 players after previously being allowed to place 11 on their protected lists when the 2019 MLS Expansion Draft goes down on Nov. 19. Both teams still get five picks.

Time to remind you how Atlanta United and Minnesota United prioritized things back in 2016, the last time two expansion teams entered MLS in one season. The Five Stripes won the coin toss, and the mechanisms were split as you see below. I’ve taken the liberty of adding what player/assets were acquired with each mechanism. It’ll add some much-needed context.

  1. ATL:  No.1 pick in 2016 MLS Expansion Draft (Donny Toia, traded to Orlando City for the No. 8 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, which was used to select Julian Gressel)
  2. MNUFC: No.1 pick in 2017 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas (Loons took Abu Danladi No. 1)
  3. ATL: No.1 position in Allocation Ranking Order (Atlanta used the top spot to sign Brad Guzan)
  4. MNUFC: Priority on NASL/USL players should Atlanta United try to claim the same player in one of the other leagues in the U.S. (no competing claim, to my knowledge)
  5. ATL: Penultimate position in MLS Re-Entry and End-of-Year Waiver Order (neither team made a selection in either draft)
  6. MNUFC: Penultimate position in Discovery Player Ranking (N/A)

What’s that breakdown tell you? What we already knew, that’s what. The top picks in the SuperDraft and Expansion Draft are valuable and so is the top spot in the Allocation Order. The rest? Just a technicality, really.

Here’s what to remember: What’s most valuable depends on how you plan on building your team and how much the assets you can gain from each mechanism are worth in the trade market. What really matters is your plan to use those assets, as the contrast in success between LAFC and FC Cincinnati showed us in 2018 and 2019.

Here’s why it doesn’t matter that much if you lose the coin flip (told you we were going to get to this): You still get the second pick in those mechanisms!

Minnesota couldn’t draft Toia in the Expansion Draft, but they still got Chris Duvall, who they flipped to Montreal for Johan Venegas (a Costa Rican international) and GAM. They didn’t have the No. 1 pick in the Allocation Order, until they did once Atlanta signed Guzan. They flipped that to Vancouver for $225,000 in GAM/TAM and a 2017 international roster spot.

Atlanta United didn’t have the No. 1 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, but they had the second, which they used to select Miles Robinson. The same Miles Robinson who stepped right into the backline this season and got his first US men’s national team call-up because of it. As you already know, they got Gressel via Expansion Draft wheeling and dealing, too. Their scouting paid off with two first-team standouts.

So how might Sunday’s Expansion Priority Draft go? My guess is the same way it went back in 2016.

First, you take poll position on either adding MLS experience to your roster via the Expansion Draft or fielding trade offers for eligible players. Either you get Day 1 contributors, something you value more in return via trade or, ideally, a couple of both. LAFC put on a clinic (Tyler Miller, Latif Blessing, and Marco Urena stayed on the roster and Jukka Raitala and Raheem Edwards turned into Laurent Ciman) in 2017.

Second, you grab the top spot in the SuperDraft. Maybe that’s Virginia’s Daryl Dike. Maybe that’s someone else. Maybe that’s a couple hundred grand in allocation money or a player capable of impacting your first team via trade. Again, your scouting matters, and so do your relationships. You ought to know who the best players are, how they might affect your roster build and which teams rate them should a trade opportunity materialize.

Third, you go for the Allocation Order in the hope that 1) there’s a player on the list you want to sign (like Guzan) and you won’t have to pay another team to do so or 2) another team will eventually be so smitten with an Allocation Order player that they’ll pay you for your place in line. Either way, you should land a player or cash.

No matter what you do, you better have a plan. Expansion teams only get a head start once. If they’re not ready to use it, no coin flip or draft mechanism can save them.