Analysis

Thinking about Austin FC’s expansion draft and the Union

Photo: Paul Redderow

Austin FC will join play in MLS for the 2021 season.

Historically every expansion team has been given the opportunity to draft players from the already existing teams. The rules governing those drafts have changed over time, as have the league’s entrance fees, and the quality of its play. But the fact of some kind of an expansion draft has remained, although laying it down is rumored to have been discussed.

Claudio Reyna, sporting director of Austin FC and formerly sporting director of NYC FC, has said Austin FC visualizes having young, dynamic, attack-minded players, an idea that resonates with Ernst Tanner’s principles. Austin’s first  two signings fit Reyna’s concept, a 26-year-old Paraguayan DP forward and a 20-year old one, not a DP but also a Paraguayan.

Tanner has several players who could easily be attractive Austin targets.

Expansion drafts

Nothing official about the draft is yet known to the public, including its existence. Probably negotiations are still underway among Austin, the league, and the existing teams. Tanner and Chris Albright are certainly aware of the probabilities as they maneuver the Union’s roster for 2021.

The following discussion assumes that last year’s rules governing Nashville and Miami  will adjust from duality to singularity, but otherwise will remain the same. As basic points, once a team loses a player it may lose no more, and most recently  an expansion side has been allowed to acquire five players in total.

The Union’s 2020 roster will be the one involved, since the event has always occurred before December 31. Past practice says 11 of the club’s 2020 players can be protected.

Philadelphia specifically

For the Philadelphia Union a key expansion draft rule is that Homegrown Players are exempt. The eleven being protected do not include them. With Brenden Aaronson off to Red Bulls Salzburg, but Mark “!Golazo!” McKenzie still here, there will be six 2020 Philadelphia Union Homegrown players at the end of the season: Anthony Fontana, Mckenzie, Matt Real, Matt Freese, Cole Turner, and Jack de Vries. 

Aaronson’s departure reduces the roster’s number to 25, so with the six home growns exempt 19 need decisions. If eleven are protected, eight will be left exposed.  

Decision-making

A player’s age, salary, potential return on investment from future sale, likelihood of retirement in response to selection, attractiveness to the new team’s fan base, and probable fit with the new organization’s playing style all are basic influences on decisions made by both the possessor and the acquirer.

Preserving good locker room relations by demonstrating that a players is valued can also be very important. The Union have always valued a strong, cohesive locker room. 

A chart of those basics comes first, followed by brief discussions of each individual case.



Name           Pos       Age       Salary   (Yr)      Value*     Quit      Fit           Appeal

Protected
Przybylko      S          27.5      $ 240 K (19)      $ 880 K       No    Probably    Average
Santos          S          26.1      $ 600 K (19)      $ 715   K      No    Definitely   Average
Wagner          LB       23.6      $ 318 K (19)     $1.10    M     No    Definitely   Average
Martinez        DCM    26.2         Unknown       $ 660  K      No    Definitely  Strong
Glesnes         RCB     26.5         Unknown       $ 770  K      No    Probably    Average
Elliott             LCB     25.1      $ 250 K (19)     $1.65   M     No    Probably    Average
Blake             GK       29.9      $ 500 K (19)    $1.65   M     No    Definitely   Strong
Monteiro        LM      26.9       $ 618  K (19)   $2.17    M     No    Definitely  Average
Bedoya          RM     33.4       $1.20  M (19)   $ 880 K      No    Perhaps     Strong
Ilsinho            RW    35.0       $  330 K (19)    $ 550 K      May  Unlikely    Strong
Burke             S        28.8       $   86 K (20)     $ 660 K     No    Probably    Average                                                                                    

Exposed
Bendik            GK     31.4        $ 144 K (19)       $ 330 K    No     Average    Average
Collin              CB     34.6        $ 175 K (19)       $ 220 K    May    Unlikely   Average
Creavalle        DCM  30.1        $ 162 K (19)       $ 440 K    No     Unlikely   Average
Gaddis            RB     30.7        $ 190 K (19)       $1.05 M   No      Unlikely  Average
Wooten           S        31.0        $ 510 K (19)       $ 825 K    No      Average   Average
Oravec            DCM  22.5          Unknown         $ 880 K    No     Probably  Average
Ngalina           S        20.5        $ 64  K (20)      $ 220 K     No     Definitely Average
Mbaizo           RB      23.1        $ 81   K (20)     $  275 K     No    Probably   Average

*My impression of Transfermarkt’s method of roster value calculation is that it first use values reported publicly from transfers, and then adjusts via an algorithm based on age and performance data.

Salary figures are my responsibility. Usually they are the 2019 number reported by the Players Association a year ago September. I have updated them when there has been a public report or when positioning among the roster’s subsets indicates change. In the latter case I assume the minimum applies unless I know otherwise.

My figures do NOT reflect any pro rating due to the pandemic’s loss of games and other revenues.

Protected player comments:
  1. Kacper Przybylko. Reyna would  grab a top-rank but inexpensive MLS striker to complement his Paraguayans, and the Union would lose a large possible future return on investment. Reyna’s only hesitation might be the German’s speed. Reinforcing a Union choice to protect him, there are no comparable replacements immediately ready within the organization. (Cory Burke has to be re-signed for 2021.)
  2. Sergio Santos. He is more expensive than Przybylko, but the pacey Brazilian gets behind defenses better. Austin would be foolish to pass him up. Santos may want Europe, so future resale value needs protecting as well. The drop off when he has been hurt is clear. To date only Wooten has replaced him as a straight like-for-like, although the New England match Monday is expected to change that.
  3. Kai Wagner. If he returns to health and form, his future return on investment should be high as his roster valuation number indicates. Top young two-way left backs are scarce. His replacements are solid but not as capable.
  4. Jose Martinez. Reyna would not pass up the next Diego Charra, especially a Spanish-speaker for the capital of Texas. Martinez probably wants Europe eventually, so future resale value needs protecting. And right now the team’s depth at the position is not yet ready to step in.
  5. Jakob Glesnes. He is a top MLS defender with some possible resale value even though we don’t know what he costs. If McKenzie leaves, long-term, high-quality depth at the position disappears, so protecting  Glesnes is essential. The Union II/Academy pipeline is at least a year of first-team practice away from persuading Jim Curtin to trust it voluntarily.
  6. Jack Elliott. Another top defender with potential resale value. See all comments under Glesnes.
  7. Andre Blake. He is a premier shot-stopper, as illustrated yet again in D. C. Wednesday. If Burke, Santos, Blake, and Przybylko were left available, Reyna would face a tough choice. Immediate keeper depth is solid, although for the longer-term the solidity seems less obvious. The actual versus expected goals against metric in the recent MLS website article — the Union have let in six fewer that “expected” — highlights Blake’s value, although the entire team deserves plenty of credit.
  8. Jameiro Monteiro. Probably his DP contract requires that he be protected, and in any case the organization would be wise to demonstrate its continued valuing of him. His new contract had to include a nice salary increase over 2019’s $618 K, since last year’s number is below the DP minimum. Exept for Fontana, younger midfield depth is at least a year away from being first-team ready, and Brenden Aaronson will be gone. Protecting Monteiro is obvious. 
  9. Alejandro Bedoya. Do not disrespect the captain, even if for age and pace he does not fit what Claudio Reyna says he seeks. Although he is no longer a DP but a TAM player, he probably didn’t take a paycut from 2019’s $1.20 M salary. See Monteiro comment on midfield depth.
  10. Ilsinho. His age – 35 last Monday  — puts him outside Claudio Reyna’s described style, but he fits the other characteristics perfectly. He continues to be an effective player, perhaps not as spectacularly this season as last, although two recent team-of-the-week awards disagree. He would provide instant offensive credibility to Austin FC’s bench, and he might be an asset other clubs would seek to acquire in trade once drafted. And he could be drafted and traded back to the Union for allocation money. His 2020 salary is thought to be less than 2019’s $330 K, given his sister’s public complaints last winter. Jim Curtin’s warm praise suggests he would expose Ilsinho in the expansion draft only most reluctantly.
  11. Cory Burke. Now that he is available, the only reason not to protect him would be that he soon turns 29. Otherwise he also is a perfect fit for what Reyna wants in Austin. His 2020 salary is probably around $87,000, since it was “$5 K and change” higher than the senior minimum in 2019, and he had five appearances and two goals that year before his immigration status went south. (Appearances, starts, assists, and goals have boosted MLS salaries automatically in previous collective bargaining agreements.) He will need a new contract for 2021. See earlier comments about depth at striker. Here is what his coach thought earlier about his return.
Exposed player comments:
  1. Joe Bendik. He should be replaceable at comparable levels of talent and cost, if necessary, and the good organization soldier may want a chance to compete for a starting job elsewhere, a la John McCarthy. 
  2. Aurelien Collin. His age and speed suggest it may be time to move on. There are developmental candidates in the organization to replace him for practice purposes should he be taken.
  3. Warren Creavalle. While he is this year’s top backup to “Yellow-card” Martinez, age, and offensive limitations suggest it may soon be time to move on to younger players with greater two-way potential. And he does not fit Austin’s stated parameters as improved as he has made himself during his time with the Union.
  4. Andrew Wooten. He has been quite expensive given his production to date. He is the oldest of the striker cohort, and the least effective defender of those who play. (Burke was an effective defensive striker in the past.)
  5. Ray Gaddis. He is an older player with clear, known limitations. He will have to be replaced soon. He is beyond valuable in the locker room, and could credibly be made club ambassador for diversity when he retires. But he does not fit Claudio Reyna’s intended style, even as improved as he is over the last decade.
  6. Matej Oravec. He cost a lot, and has not played at all.  Judging by Curtin’s responses to Jose Martinez’s last-minute departure before the second Cincinnati match and subsequently, he is not thought ready to be next man up. There is other depth at DCM, so he can be risked in exposure. Probably, Claudio Reyna does not take a risk on an unknown, unready player.
  7. Michee Ngalina. He remains unproven at the MLS level, there being no Open Cup games this season. But he is inexpensive, was a USLC-level impact player, and fits Reyna’s described style excellently. His 2020 Salary is almost assuredly $63,547, the reserve roster minimum. With only five picks, Reyna probably does not take a risk on an unknown, especially since he already has two young strikers.
  8. Olivier Mbaizo, He is relatively young, and has had a showcasing opportunity during Gaddis’s injury. He may have some future resale potential once Nate Harriel is ready in a year or two. Accurately judging when to choose to play fast remains an opportunity for future growth. Harriel’s ceiling may be considered higher. Mbaizo’s 2020 salary is probably $81,375. He was on the senior roster last year but was on last year’s senior roster minimum salary  and added to it negligibly last season.

The protection-exposure choice between Ilsinho and Mbaizo that I made favoring Ilsinho also depends  on what intelligence Philadelphia may have about Claudio Reyna’s right back plans.

Here is a guess. Is it hare-brained? Of course! A possibility? Just maybe.

In the fall of 2016 when Carlos Bocanegra was constructing Atlanta United’s initial roster, the Union acquired German midfielder Kevin Kratz. Kratz practiced and stayed sharp but never dressed. Then he was traded to the five stripes for a fourth round draft pick, once the Georgia team was closer to providing its own practice opportunities. While nothing was ever said, Bocanegra took no Union players in Atlanta’s expansion draft that December.

I have been puzzled by 19-year-old Axel Picazo’s contract status with Union II since the summer. He finished his PG year at the Academy in June. He has appeared in all 16 Union II games this season (the last few as cameos). BY the eye test, he has played as well as the two 17-year-old Academy midfielders who were earlier signed as homegrowns for 2021. He has continued to play as an amateur well past the date at which players bound for the NCAA normally leave, admittedly in an atypical year of multiple major changes to roster management rhythms and expectations.

The closest the club has ever come to commenting on Picazo’s status was when former coach Sven Gartung laughed out loud when I asked for clarification yet again. All other inquiries have produced no official acknowledgement of the question’s existence, let alone a response.

Picazo’s family moved to Austin, Texas from Mexico City early in his teenage years, and he played club soccer in Austin for a youth team called Lonestar Soccer Club before leaving for the Union Academy in 2016. Lonestar is now in the home territory of 2021 expansion side Austin FC.

Is it possible that the Philadelphia Union have provided Picazo with a year USLC practice and play before he signs with Austin FC as a “young dynamic attack-minded” midfielder, since their academy has no team for a 19-year-old? Might the Union transfer his homegrown player status to them for some easy consideration, since they seem unlikely to use it?

Were Austin FC to ignore all exposed Uniion players in its expansion draft, my crazy theory might not be so crazy. But we will never know for sure.

15 Comments

  1. When I first saw this article, my immediate thought was that Ilsinho should probably not be protected and would be the most likely to go. After further thought, though, I think that Bendik would be the best player for a new team to take. He’s an experienced MLS keeper who has started for most of his career. The biggest downside to this is that Blake will likely miss some time next season during World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup (assuming MLS continues its practice of ignoring International dates).

  2. I wonder how tempting Bendik would be in the expansion draft. Based on his time in Toronto, he is a more than capable starting goalkeeper in MLS and I would have to give him a long hard look if I were Claudio Reyna. At the same time Union would be hard pressed to protect him.

    Beyond that, as long as Ilsinho is protected I can’t see anyone on the unprotected list I’d be all that concerned about leaving.

    • Just curious as to why protecting Ilsinho is high on the priority list given that he’s 35 years old and will probably see his minutes diminish in the next year or two?

      • Because he does something no one else on this Union squad does on offense. If Tanner has a replacement in mind, that’d be different. But I think he still has enough in the tank for a season or two and that there’s a high chance he gets picked. Austin may not want him, but I’m sure that there’d be a decent number of contenders who’d give Austin something they do want for him.

  3. While I don’t see Austin taking him, I would hate to see Gaddis leave the team. He’s the best right back we have, and with positions other than right back needing to be addressed this offseason (midfield depth, striker?), I think it would be unwise to let Ray walk.

  4. Man…. whaaaaaaat a conundrum. I love the autheticity of McConaughey… then have to weigh these feelings of him in an inauthetic league as the ‘Minister of Culture.’
    .
    what to do.
    .
    oh, was this an article about how Austin may affect the Union? Shrug.

    • I understand, mighty trumpeter.
      .
      But as Tanner and Albright have been bringing today’s headline across the finish line, they have also been thinking about the draft.
      .
      And they have been working on the other bit of news announced today that is — very understandably — being totally ignored, … that UNION II have withdrawn from the United Soccer League Championship. Not dropped down to League One. OUT of USL altogether.
      .
      and MLS reserve league for next year HAS to be real.
      .
      On the day that the old system pays off, the new system’s first step is being announced.

  5. I think Wooten would be a perfect fit for them.
    .
    Interesting theory on Picazo, that was not on my radar. I also like the idea of the Union playing expansion draft defense and getting ahead of the game.

    • John O'Donnell Jr says:

      Picazo puzzles me and now with the theory of selling him to Austin in some form makes sense. That being said I think they should get something more as I love his game. He plays with a flair and is a joy to watch. The theory seems solid though.

  6. Vince Devine says:

    There’s no way Gaddis is left unprotected. He’s Curtain’s favorite human. Ever if Tanner signs a top RB, Gaddis is needed depth at both outside back positions. Like him or not, he’ll be a Union lifer with a post playing career at the academy or front office in some capacity.

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