Let's just begin with the part that seemed to most confuse everyone: In the third round of Tuesday's Expansion Draft, Atlanta United took Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin. This was a bloody big deal because Irwin is youngish and affordable and very good and just started in an MLS Cup final for a team that will, I'd wager, be in the running for the same next season.
Except that Atlanta don't really need Irwin, because they've reportedly got USMNT starter Brad Guzan coming in once the transfer window opens in January. Taking Irwin when there were other potential assets out there seemed like a luxury.
Thing is, they weren't really taking Irwin: They were taking Mark Bloom and the chunk of General Allocation Money that Toronto had just picked up for losing Irwin. Bloom was a target of Atlanta for a few reasons -- he's a quality backup right back with experience in a winning locker room, he's reportedly a good dude who works hard in training and helps build a good culture, and he's a native of Georgia whose wife and two kids still live in the South. They were going to bring him in one way or the other.
"So why not just pick him?" you ask. Well, there's the issue of the GAM compensation for teams that lose players in the draft. Take Bloom, and you just get the player. Take Irwin, and you can trade him for both the player and the cash.
"Oh, so Toronto got played," you exclaim.
Well, not really! They're the league's deepest team, and it was totally reasonable to expect to lose one starter (either Irwin or right back Steven Beitashour) on Tuesday. Given league rules and the relative value the TFC front office placed on other guys on the roster, both guys had to be exposed.
Losing one was the worst-case scenario. The best-case scenario is that Atlanta chose Bloom -- who TFC were going to trade to be closer to his family anyway -- and TFC could've kept the GAM. The happy medium was keeping both Irwin and Beitashour, then losing a player they were going to lose regardless and a little bit of cash that...
It was Schrodinger's GAM that TFC sent to Atlanta. They only had it b/c Irwin was picked, so it both was and wasn't theirs.— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) December 13, 2016
That GAM was the only thing really under question, as long as Minnesota United FC didn't crash the party and jump on Irwin or Beitashour earlier in the draft. They didn't, so all Atlanta had to do was not mess it up.
Atlanta didn't mess it up. They got the player and the cash asset, and TFC lost a guy who played 350 minutes last season and money they never had in the first place. It would have played out the same way if they'd left Eriq Zavaleta or Marky Delgado or Nick Hagglund unprotected instead.
MLS roster rules can be dizzying, and I worry that this sequence of events makes sense to me. But there is a strange logic to it all, so it does. Hopefully it does to you, too, now.
Now let's look at some of the other moves:
• I'm a big fan of Donny Toia, but no one will ever convince me that he was the No. 1 option on this particular board. I strongly suspect that there's a sort of ex ante "future considerations" deal in place between Atlanta and Montreal, who as a result of losing Toia were able to protect the rest of their roster, including playmaker Harry Shipp. I (and many others) argued that Shipp would be an ideal candidate for the Loons to take with their first pick, and subsequently build around.
That, of course, didn't happen, and then Atlanta flipped Toia to Orlando City for the No. 8 pick in next month's SuperDraft. They now have the Nos. 2 & 8 picks in that event, which means they should be able to wheel and deal like mad.
Orlando, meanwhile, get in Toia a player who, as I said above, I like quite a bit. He's a very good 1v1 defender, which is something OCSC's fullbacks have struggled with for two years, and he's a reliable outlet in possession. That works for a Jason Kreis team.
• Minnesota weren't quite as inventive as Atlanta, but they may have built an entire central midfield in one afternoon. Two of those additions came via expansion draft picks, as they landed Collen Warner with their second pick and then Mohammed Saeid with their third. Warner is a true No. 6 and Saeid a ball-circulating No. 8, both of which should work very well in Adrian Heath's preferred 4-2-3-1.
The third piece of the puzzle is Costa Rican international attacker Johan Venegas, who lit the USMNT up last month:
He played as a false 9 on that day, and has played most of his largely underwhelming MLS career as a winger in Montreal. But I think he's best as a free attacker underneath a center forward, roaming and hitting gaps rather than controlling the game as a true No. 10 would.
The Loons got him for right back Chris Duvall, who they took with their first pick in the draft. Duvall is a good, solid starter on an affordable contract who can play a little bit in central defense as well. He's a guy who can answer some of those defensive questions that TFC kept asking in the Eastern Conference championship.
Back to Minnesota: Venegas isn't Shipp when it comes to chance creation or affordability, but he's a better goalscorer and a snug fit. And with Warner and Saeid behind him, he won't have to do much heavy lifting in terms of possession or defense. Duvall, meanwhile, wasn't really necessary for a team that already has two fullbacks in the fold.
I like this move. The Impact gave up more talent but freed up cap room, while MNUFC got a guy with the talent to be a difference-maker, and surrounded him with players who can make his job simple.
• I thought Minnesota would come out of this draft with a starting goalkeeper, and I figured Jeff Attinella was their man when they took him in the fourth round. I'm still figuring on that, but if he's traded elsewhere, you can expect the Loons' front office to be busy looking for a No. 1 via either free agency or the Re-Entry Draft.
We have lots of drafts, folks.
• Irwin wasn't the only 'keeper Atlanta picked, and Bloom wasn't the only Georgian they ended up with because, with their final pick, they took Sporting KC backup Alec Kann. He's a 26-year-old who is maybe more suited to backing up Guzan than Irwin would've been.
This was a very straightforward selection, as was their fourth pick. That's when they snapped up left back Mikey Ambrose from Orlando City, a player who's spent two years playing regularly in USL and moved up to MLS in August.
It's a fair bet that Atlanta director of soccer operations Paul McDonough, who spent 2015 with OCSC and oversaw the acquisition of Ambrose at the USL level after the 2015 season, had a hand in the choice.
• I'm a little more confused by Atlanta's decision to draft FC Dallas veteran Zach Loyd in the second round. Loyd has been a very good pro for a long time, and checks all those "locker room culture" boxes that new teams struggle with. But he's a 'tweener who's too small to play alongside Michael Parkhurst in the central defense and not technical enough to be an attacking hub at right back. Add in his age, his not-inexpensive contract for the position, and the fact that he played less than 1,000 minutes this past year with injuries, and I'm left scratching my head a little bit.
• Hey, why wasn't Jared Watts of the Rapids taken?
Honestly I have no idea. Reportedly there was some sort of handshake deal between Colorado and MNUFC after Monday's trade for Joseph Greenspan, but that wouldn't explain why Atlanta would let Watts -- who's just 24 and is a reliably good center back -- slip through the cracks.
• Less confusing was Minnesota's decision to take New England's Femi Hollinger-Janzen with their final pick. Femi was productive in limited minutes and can play anywhere along the front line in a 4-3-3, and do so on a rookie contract. If they re-sign Christian Ramirez (which I think they will) and draft Jeremy Ebobisse No. 1 in the SuperDraft (which I think they will), then they're three-deep at center forward, have two guys who can play as second forwards, and two others who can play on the wing all without dipping into their TAM or opening the DP checkbook.
This is how you build a team with a budget.
• Don't the Loons really need some bodies in central defense, though? Yes indeed, and hey, look at this:
To be clear, this is far from a done deal and, as Taylor pointed out in a later tweet, Ream is not cheap. But because Guzan is almost certainly going to Atlanta, that means Minnesota would have the top spot in the Allocation Order, which surely figured into their decision not to choose a center back. Ream -- who struggles in the air but is brilliant with the ball on his foot -- next to the giant Greenspan is a pretty natural pairing.
Bear in mind that there are also a smattering of quality central defenders available in free agency and the Re-Entry Drafts. I'm of the opinion that they need a veteran for the spot, so expect them to be active even if they do intent to pursue Ream.
• Is that it?
Yup, for now. There were other moves on the day, including the Galaxy acquiring the rights to Jermaine Jones and Sheanon Williams heading to Vancouver. But those really happened outside of the scope of the Expansion Draft, so I'm not going to touch on them here. There is also the bombshell news that Atlanta are on the verge of adding Paraguayan No. 10 Oscar Romero, which is a Lodeiro-level signing that will get its own column.
Not today, though. I will, however, keep up a running commentary on the entirety of silly season in the days, weeks and months to come.