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Expansion draft preview: Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union could lose two players in the Nov. 24 expansion draft, when the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps start filling out their roster. That means the Union’s protected list is hugely important. We’ve obsessed a bit over this because the Union have so many talented young players, and depending on the club’s priorities, they could lose someone much loved by fans. Union management has begun game-planning the draft.

I had planned to wait a bit before writing a draft preview, but with all sorts of misinformation floating around about the draft and people talking about it here in Philly, I figured I ought to weigh in sooner than later. After all, if there’s a mess to be made, I can always make it messier. So here’s our draft preview (v. 1.0).

The draft – How it works

The draft will operate under most of the same rules as the previous draft, but there are a few differences because two teams are picking this year. Here are the rules:

  • Each team protects 11 players. If a player’s contract expires, he can still be protected. (No free agency in MLS.)
  • Generation Adidas and homegrown players are exempt.
  • Designated players can be exposed in the draft and are not exempt.
  • Vancouver and Portland will select 10 players apiece.
  • Once a team loses a player in the draft, it can pull back and protect one of its unprotected players.
  • No team can lose more than two players.
  • The Union must protect three international players, based on their current roster.
The international player rule

That last rule about international players is determined by my translation from legalese to English of a complicated tenet in the rules:

“Clubs are restricted in the number of international player(s) that they may make available. Clubs may make available a number of international players equal to their total number of international players minus three, provided that if a club has three or fewer international players it may make available not more than one. For purposes of this expansion process, for U.S.-based clubs, any non-domestic U.S. player would count as an international and, for Toronto FC, any non-domestic U.S. player or non-domestic Canadian players would count as an international.”

The Union have four internationals eligible for the expansion draft. They can only “make available” one in the expansion draft. So they must protect three internationals, according to my legalese-to-English translation. (4-3=1. Math is awesome.)

The four internationals are Roger Torres, Eduardo Coudet, Juan Diego Gonzalez and Toni Stahl. Players with domestic residency are not considered internationals under MLS roster rules, so the Union don’t list Sebastien Le Toux, Stefani Miglioranzi and Alejandro Moreno as internationals.  (The Union listed Fred as an international during the regular season but have confirmed that he no longer counts as an international due to having secured a green card.)

Roger Torres is probably a given to be protected. That means two other slots that would otherwise be spent on domestic players on the bubble — like Kyle Nakazawa, Jordan Harvey, Brad Knighton and Alejandro Moreno — must go to international players instead. That will hurt the Union, because most of their internationals should not otherwise be protected.

But there is a tactic they might be able to take to free up a slot for a domestic player, which I explain below.

Exempt – Generation Adidas

Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney should retain their click here.)

The 11 players the Union should protect

Don’t ask me to predict who they will protect. Honestly, I don’t know. It depends on management’s priorities and internal assessments. For example, Jordan Harvey led the team in minutes played for a reason. Whether that’s because Peter Nowak likes him and/or or the team has no other left backs, I don’t know. Many are down on Harvey’s second half play, but he played well earlier in the year. Most fans don’t watch game film like coaches do, see players in practice or realize that a player might be playing poorly because he’s asked to do something that plays away from his strengths but betters the team. So what we see may not be what Nowak and company see.

What I can tell you is who the team should protect. Here’s my list:

  1. Sebastien Le Toux — If you don’t know why the Union’s best player should protected, go follow the Red Bulls.
  2. Michael Orozco Fiscal — Played well down the stretch, has potential to be one of the best center backs in MLS.
  3. Danny Califf — The captain is an emotional veteran leader and a solid back line anchor.
  4. Justin Mapp — Good attacker with clear vision and a sense of humor about his weak right foot.
  5. Andrew Jacobson — The Union’s most underrated player may be their best holding midfielder next year.
  6. Shea Salinas — The Union’s most exciting player could be a star if he stays healthy. If he’s left unprotected, there will be rage among Union fans when he becomes the next Sebastien Le Toux: A superstar for a first-year club.
  7. Sheanon Williams — So young and talented that he has almost no ceiling for his potential. If left unprotected, he’s gone because he can start now and develop into a top player later.
  8. Roger Torres — Same as Williams. He’s on loan from Colombian club America de Cali, but that shouldn’t matter. Last year, Seattle had to protect Fredy Montero, who’s in a similar situation.
  9. Jordan Harvey — Led the team in minutes played. Struggled down the stretch, looking tired and lacking confidence, but could benefit from a training camp with Williams, allowing Harvey to play as the defense-minded starter-quality fullback he truly is instead of the attacking wingback he’s not.
  10. Juan Diego Gonzalez — Of the four international players, he’s the second to protect. Quality center back. Could start for many teams. Has trade value.
  11. Eduardo Coudet — Coudet is 36 and probably wouldn’t normally be protected, but would the Union spend this slot on Stahl? Look for some player personnel moves before the expansion draft to free up this slot.

The unprotected

  1. Kyle Nakazawa
  2. Alejandro Moreno
  3. Stefani Miglioranzi
  4. Chris Seitz
  5. Brad Knighton
  6. Fred
  7. Cristian Arrieta
  8. Nick Zimmerman
  9. J.T. Noone
  10. Toni Stahl
Kyle Nakazawa: The first to go?

If Kyle Nakazawa is left unprotected, he’s probably gone — unless someone picks Brad Knighton first. The young free kick maestro is too good on set pieces for Portland or Vancouver not to pick him and hope the rest of his game develops. The need to protect two or three internationals pushes Nakazawa off the Union’s protected list, unless management decides to not protect a goalie or Harvey. While Nakazawa didn’t dramatically impress in the run of play like Mwanga did as a rookie, he definitely showed he could compete at this level. He plays hard and will get better with more playing time. It’s hard not to like him, and he’s the toughest one to leave unprotected because of his potential and hustle. His biggest problem this year was the Union’s glut of center midfielders, and that may not change next year. If the Union didn’t have to spend a spot on an international player they really don’t need to protect — Gonzalez, for example, though he’d be lost if not protected — then Nakazawa would be on the protected list. Watching Nakazawa develop for Vancouver or Portland won’t be fun, but it will probably happen if he’s left exposed. What do they say? If you love someone, you let them go. Or something like that.

Obviously, some would replace Harvey with Nakazawa or Knighton on the protected list, and that could happen. If so, Harvey could be the first Union player to go.

If Knighton is picked first, then Nakazawa could be the first pulled back. Nobody wants to see Nakazawa leave, but it’s a numbers game.

The goalkeeper conundrum

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Union left both Seitz and Knighton unprotected. Knighton earned the starting job over Seitz, but a mid-career veteran could be signed to stabilize the job, much as Jimmy Nielsen did for Kansas City this season. Something tells me the Union brass aren’t comfortable with Knighton for the long-term, and leaving him unprotected — and seeing him get picked — could be a simple way to resolve a future goalkeeping controversy if they plan to import a veteran. If Knighton isn’t picked, you retain a young guy who played fairly well down the stretch and can be a solid backup or serviceable starter.

The rest

Presuming Knighton or Nakazawa is picked first and then the other is pulled back, the likely next pick would be either Chris Seitz, Cristian Arrieta or Nick Zimmerman (unless Mwanga graduates GA, which means he nudges someone off the protected list).

Seitz had a rough first year, but an expansion team could do a lot worse than take a chance on a 24-year-old former Olympian and youth international, provided they have some veteran insurance. Along with Nakazawa, Seitz still has the most unrealized potential of the unprotected group.

Arrieta could be the next guy picked because he can start right away. He’s versatile on defense, but he belongs at right back, where he’s a very effective crosser. His lack of speed hurt him for the Union.

Zimmerman is young, athletic, and a good clubhouse presence. He couldn’t find much time for the Union this season. When he did, he did OK, never playing poorly but rarely imposing himself on the game. Given time, he could blossom, much as Sebastien Le Toux has this season, and could be attractive to Vancouver and Portland.

Fred’s salary is high enough to chase off teams if he’s left unprotected, but it could be renegotiated. His performance this season may turn them away, but his good play down the stretch — and the fact that everyone knows he’s a center mid playing on the wing — could draw a team willing to play him centrally. A rumored loan to an Australian club could also be attractive to Fred as a transfer option, because at least in Australia, they let him play in the middle of the field, where he performs best.

Moreno and Miglioranzi are legitimate MLS starters, but a combination of age, contract, and role on the team might chase Vancouver and Portland away. Moreno wants to stay in Philadelphia, and like him, Miglioranzi probably doesn’t want to go to an expansion team again at this point in his career, which could chase off suitors. Of course, that could be wishful thinking, because both are team leaders and legitimate contributors. It all depends on the priorities of Portland and Vancouver management. Moreno is a proven starter in MLS, and if those teams want someone who can play the role he played this year — veteran leader, unselfish team player, reliable starter, a coach on the field — then he’s a great pick. There may be nobody in the league, save maybe Brian Ching, who plays hold-up as well as Moreno. Migs, on the other hand, is a bit older and has a more limited role. He’s good in that role, but I just have a feeling that these teams are more likely to go for the Union’s young players.

If unprotected, Coudet is unlikely to be picked because he’s 36 years old and coming off an injury, while Noone and Stahl have no MLS body of work to evaluate and, as a result, probably wouldn’t get picked. You saw what happened when the Union picked someone like that. Dave Myrie washed out almost immediately. I doubt anyone wants to repeat that mistake, although Stahl was on plenty of radars before the 2010 college draft so may be more attractive.

Fred is out of contract and could return, but he also could head to Australia.

Variables

Moving internationals could save Nakazawa or Knighton

The Union may be able to cut the number of international players they need to protect by trading or even releasing them. If they moving two, they’d only have to protect the remaining two. For example, they could trade Stahl and Gonzalez and then would only have to “make available” — i.e. leave unprotected —  one international instead of two. They could then protect Nakazawa, Knighton or Moreno and expose Fred. There’s nothing in the draft rules that says a team couldn’t do this.

Coudet is a good player, but he may be worth sacrificing if it means keeping a rookie free kick expert who could have a longer future with the team. Stahl hasn’t played in a regular season game since he was red-carded on opening day and is certainly worth cutting if it means the Union could keep Nakazawa or Knighton instead.

Back room deals

There’s another variable to toss into this mix, and that’s the back room deal. Chris Seitz wasn’t selected in the expansion draft last year — he was exempt by virtue of his Generation Adidas status — but was acquired by trade immediately after it. Likewise, no one from his club, Real Salt Lake, was drafted by the Union. If you don’t think passing over the league champs’ roster in the draft was part of the deal, then I have a bridge to sell you.

The Union could do the same thing from the other end. We’ve seen them adeptly work the trade market, securing extra college draft picks to select McInerney and Okugo and acquiring Mapp midseason. What complicates matters this year is now there are two teams in the draft, so just because you work something out with Vancouver, it doesn’t mean Portland won’t go and grab the guy you want to pull back.

Mock draft: What do Portland and Vancouver want?

Everything depends on what these teams prioritize. If it’s youth, then guys like Nakazawa and Knighton are targets. If it’s winning immediately, then look at Moreno.

With Portland already talking up the Seattle rivalry with aggressive and hilarious moves like this, there’s more pressure to win immediately. While they won’t eschew good young players, don’t expect the same kind of youth movement or patience that the Union have had. Portland has already signed several players from their USL club.  Two are former MLS starters, one started for teams in England’s League 1 and League 2, and the other was a 2010 MLS first round pick. All are in their 20s. One led the league in scoring. Three played for Portland all season, and the fourth was on loan to Austin, so the team knows these guys and was able to get first crack at them. It’s a smart move by a team that clearly learned the Sebastien Le Toux lesson. Head coach John Spencer was a top MLS assistant and regular for Chelsea as a player. He’s a smart pick.

Vancouver seems a little murkier. Their only likely signing so far is U.S. youth international Omar Salgado, but they must pick him in the amateur draft. Their USL team leader, Martin Nash, is retiring. Their coach has coached the team in USL since 2007 but also coached in Scandinavia, much like New York coach Hans Backe. The team also made significant roster changes mid-season in preparation for joining MLS, despite playing well in USL, so in all likelihood, they’ll keep some current players. Considering how highly they prized Salgado, they could push for youth. But we don’t really  know yet.

Could Shea Salinas be the next Sebastien Le Toux?

Anyone who reads this site knows pretty much everyone at PSP thinks Shea Salinas is a future star — and not the far-off future either, but as soon as he’s consistently healthy. I listed him as my player to watch back in our season preview in March, and for once, I was right. Most say MLS is a fast league, but Salinas makes everyone else look slow, like he’s a flash of Technicolor in a black and white world. Injuries cut his season in half, and if not for that, he’d have been a star this year and made the Union a much better team. Was it lack of fitness that kept him out of the lineup down the stretch? Or is Union management just not as high on him as we are?

We’ll find out when we see the protected list. Salinas belongs on it. If he’s not, then he’s gone, and he’s the next Sebastien Le Toux, the new superstar for an expansion team.  The Union should feel no obligation to even out the karma scales like that.

(Note: This post has been updated to reflect the change in Fred’s domestic status.)

What do you think?

Who do you think should be protected? Who did I get wrong and why? (I expect a few Jordan Harvey rants, so keep those concise and move on to the rest. 😉 ) Did I miss anything? Post your thoughts and your own protected list below and start the debate.

(Cover photo: An unnamed Union fan)