The two phrases I think I'd use to best encapsulate the results of Tuesdays' Expansion Draft, in which both Inter Miami and Nashville SC selected five players to (one way or another) help fill out their growing rosters, are "value picks" and "cap flexibility." It was pretty clear that both teams prioritized those things – which are very clearly related – over swinging big on some of the bigger contracts that were available.
- There was only one max salary player taken (LAFC veteran playmaker Lee Nguyen, who was taken by Inter Miami).
- There were only two high-upside/low-floor young(ish) players taken (Minnesota United forward and former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Abu Danladi, and Atlanta United forward Brandon Vazquez, both taken by Nashville SC. Vazquez was immediately shipped to FC Cincinnati for $150K in GAM, which would rise to $200K if certain incentives are hit).
Everything else was about getting the MLS equivalent of glue guys, veterans who have been in (mostly) winning locker rooms, who are reliable pros, and who have low ceilings, but high floors. This was a "you want to know what you're getting" draft.
And now, at its conclusion, both teams' rosters are about halfway full.
First, Miami (are we going to call them "Inter?" I'm OK with that, but am OK with not doing that, either). Here's what they'd look like if they had to take the field tomorrow:
Bench: Callender; Acosta, Argudo, Norman Jr.
Questions about this current roster:
• Did they get David Norman Jr. with the intention of converting him to center back? He's a big, competitive kid who's a pretty good central midfielder and played most of this year in Canadian Premier League, but probably lacks the vision and footwork necessary to play in the middle of the pitch at the MLS level. If that sounds something like Aaron Long five years ago, or Nat Borchers before him, well, that's where my head is, too. There's a pretty rich history of young CMs who have the physical tools to do so being converted to center back.
(For what it's worth, if I was a Canadian men's national team fan reading this I'd be rooting like hell for Norman to be converted to CB, which is the thinnest spot on Canada's roster.)
Wrapped up in that is the status of Venezuelan youth international Christian Makoun, who is super high-upside and just 19 years old. Makoun has played either center back or defensive midfield over the course of his young career, and while he probably projects better as a CB, he'd fit pretty snugly as a destroyer next to veteran tempo-setter Victor Ulloa in deep midfield.
Regardless, Norman, Makoun and Grant Lillard are three defensively inclined youngish players up the spine.
• I also have questions about both fullbacks. Ben Sweat was excellent on the overlap under Patrick Vieira, but struggled making progressive passes in Dome Torrent's positional scheme. The idea of Sweat as an overlapping, attacking force magnifier is a good one. The idea of Sweat as a sequence-starting possession fulcrum playing to midfielders checking into pockets is less good.
Alvas Powell, meanwhile, has been a below-average passer in every phase of the game throughout his career.
• Does Nguyen's acquisition mean there's no DP No. 10 coming? It seems clear that Miami will use Nguyen higher up field than LAFC did, which is the right choice, and as pointed out above, Nguyen didn't come cheap. He'll hit at something close to a max salary slot next year, and guys on that type of money are expected to play meaningful minutes.
Miami have one DP slot filled (LW Matias Pellegrini). I assumed they'd go with a No. 9 for one of them and a No. 10 for the other, but perhaps they'll just spread the wealth across the entire front line and let Nguyen (or George Acosta or Jay Chapman) pull the strings underneath.
• Is there a killer d-mid on the way? I like Ulloa a lot, but he's at his best in a double-pivot. Makoun can play that spot but he's 19 and it might not be his best spot and they might need him at CB. Norman can play that spot but he's 21 and it might not be his best spot and they might need him at CB.
A lot of what's to come is up in the air, obviously.
• When does the big DP signing arrive? They've been linked to just about every big-name Latin American player out there. The vast, vast majority of those guys are in the middle of their club seasons, and are staring at the Copa América next summer. Is it possible for this team to wait til mid-July to add their biggest piece?
Sporting director Paul McDonough said no on Monday's Extratime, and said that they'd be filling both DP slots this winter. We shall see.
What to expect next: They still don't have a coach. Owner Jorge Mas told us the wait is almost over:
If it's Marcelo Gallardo – and to be clear, I think it's going to be Marcelo Gallardo – then this hire signals a statement of intent in the same way that Atlanta did when they got Tata Martino. "Marcelo Gallardo is our coach" gets players in the door and into the team, and "Marcelo Gallardo is our coach" has meant you're competing for, and often winning, trophies.
I think they'll announce the coach first, and then the two DPs.
Two other things to consider:
1. They've really, really kept the powder dry on their allocation cache, as in "barely dipped into it." If I've done the math right – and depending on how big a chunk of allocation cash they had to use on Julian Carranza – they could add the DPs and then roughly seven more TAM players.
That, of course, is assuming the cap stays flat and there's not another infusion of TAM. But nobody thinks the cap's going to stay flat, and while there are a ton of questions about the future of TAM, it's pretty clear that "get more TAM-level players into MLS" is a priority for the league and for the smarter teams in it in general (nine TAM-level players featured for Seattle in their MLS Cup win).
2. They have the Nos. 1 & 3 picks in the upcoming SuperDraft. Miami sporting director Paul McDonough is the same guy who drafted Miles Robinson and Julian Gressel for Atlanta United, and Cyle Larin for Orlando City. Keep that in mind.
Bench: Zendejas; Medranda; Jones; Lancaster, Danladi
Questions about this current roster:
• How close to complete is it? In looking at Inter Miami's XI above you could talk me into only two guys being actual starters for most of the season (Sweat and Pellegrini), while it seems like Nashville is much further along in building out the core. That midfield trio of Dax McCarty, Anibal Godoy and Hany Mukhtar is going to be the starting, Day 1-through-Decision-Day starting trio barring injury next year, and in Derrick Jones they have a high-upside young player to rotate in to rest Godoy and Dax (or maybe to take one of their jobs – Jones has the potential to be really good).
Randall Leal, a Costa Rican international that pretty much everybody in the confederation is high on, can and will start anywhere on that front three. David Accam is probably a starter if he can stay healthy. Jalil Anibaba was a starter this year for a playoff team; it stands to reason he'll be a starter next year for an expansion team. Daniel Lovitz is a full US international who didn't move to Tennessee to sit. And if the Miguel Nazarit reports are true, they're not getting him as a back-up:
Este es el nuevo equipo de Miguel Nazarith ex jugador del @oncecaldas— Ruben D Mondragón P. (@DarioMondrago) November 18, 2019
Nashville SC, jugará en primera división en el 2020, el jugador llega con un contrato a 3 años inicialmente...en @caldasaldia todos los detalles del Blanco de Colombia.. pic.twitter.com/1prdaiA7n9
It's a very different roster-building approach than Miami's. Miami have built around the edges, primarily adding depth pieces, and will add to the core over the next few months. Nashville have apparently built their core, and are waiting to pull the trigger on one or maybe two more big-name players.
I think both approaches have merit.
As it stands, if/when they sign Nazarit I think they'll have nine starters rostered before they even hit December.
• What does Daniel Rios have to offer? At the USL level, the answer was "lots of goals":
The consensus around the US soccer-sphere in recent years is that the gap between MLS and the USL is growing, and for what it's worth I tend to agree with that. However, that doesn't mean there isn't talent to be found in the lower levels of the soccer pyramid, and in recent years we've seen players like Brian White (RBNY) and Christian Ramirez (Minnesota United, and now with Houston) move up a level into MLS and consistently produce.
Rios might be the next guy on that list. Or he might end up being not quite good enough. Either way, the former Chivas kid and fringe Mexican youth international was a shrewd value signing for Nashville a year ago, and he really did score goals for fun – 41g/5a in 64 USL games over the past two seasons. That's a much better rate than either White or Ramirez at the lower levels, so it makes a ton of sense to bring him into 2020 on what is presumably a very affordable contract.
So if he comes into January fit as hell, and looks the part in preseason... this guy is potentially a major steal.
• What happens with the two open DP slots? The obvious answer for one is "they bring in a No. 9," and it's up to Rios (or maybe Danladi) to dissuade them from that route.
If they're dissuaded, do they turn to one of the winger slots? Mukhtar and Leal are both potentially very good, but neither is a sure thing in this league. David Accam is excellent when fit and engaged, and was low-key very productive last year with 8g/3a in 1,200 minutes across all competitions, but he is injury-prone and can disappear for long stretches.
I'm guessing they have their eye on a veteran, goal-scoring winger for that DP slot.
• How do they address right back? LAFC signed Steven Beitashour as a free agent two years ago. Toronto FC got Richie Laryea as a preseason camp invitee last year, and Nick DeLeon (who's more of a winger, but did play some RB) via the Re-Entry Draft. The Revs drafted Brandon Bye in 2018 and converted him into a RB, and obviously teams all over the league have gone overseas to fill fullback needs.
What to expect next: Nashville's coaching staff is in place, and they have moved this roster along nicely. Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Draft is on November 26, and while I don't expect them to be "busy" per se, I wouldn't be surprised if they added a veteran fullback and another veteran CM.
Stage 2 – usually the busier stage – is on December 3.
The full list of re-entry draft eligible players comes out on Thursday at noon eastern.
Two other things to consider:
1. Guess who sits atop the Allocation Order? Yeah, it's Nashville SC, and while it's probably safe to say that they won't be bringing the likes of Miguel Almiron or Alphonso Davies back to MLS, how would Fabian Castillo look in the Music City? Or maybe Andy Najar at right back? Or what about seeing how much allocation money they can squeeze out of a team that wants to trade up?
The No. 1 allocation spot is a major asset.
2. They traded away two of their international roster slots on Tuesday, which suggests they have a fairly high amount of confidence in their ability to get domestic players (or guys who have green cards) from within the league. Tito Villalba has a green card, as does Cristian Higuita, and Kei Kamara is a citizen. There are more guys like that kicking around MLS.
At least a couple of them, via one roster acquisition mechanism or another, is going to end up in Tennessee.