MLS is going to have another expansion draft, but it probably shouldn't

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

A five-round expansion draft will help stock LAFC, but the league would be better off handing out allocation.

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MLS will hold an Expansion Draft for incoming club LAFC this winter, multiple sources said earlier this week.

The sources said LAFC will likely have five selections in the draft, the same amount that 2017 expansion teams Atlanta and Minnesota had in their draft last winter. As was the case in past drafts, it’s expected that the 22 existing MLS clubs will each be able to protect 11 players from LAFC. Homegrown Players on supplemental or reserve rosters and Generation adidas players will likely not be eligible for selection.

The news won’t come as much of a surprise to most MLS observers, though there has been some chatter over the past 18 months that the league would eliminate the Expansion Draft and instead give incoming teams additional allocation money.

That’s not such a radical idea. Plenty of executives around the league think expansion drafts are more trouble than they’re worth, and they’ve got a pretty good argument.

The Expansion Draft is unquestionably a headache for existing teams. Not only do they have to deal with the possibility of losing a potentially valuable player, but they run the risk of angering players they don’t protect. Locker rooms are occasionally fragile places, and the ramifications of alienating an unprotected player who isn’t selected and returns to his original club can be real

It’s not exactly an easy process on the players, either. The Expansion Draft is a nice post-MLS Cup diversion for fans and media, but for those who might be taken, it’s a real-time exercise in career and personal upheaval. Being traded wouldn’t be much easier, but at least players rarely learn about those moves at the same time as the public. The Expansion Draft adds that element.  

Did the expansion draft help Atlanta or Minnesota? (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Did the expansion draft help Atlanta or Minnesota? (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Those negatives could be easily overlooked if the Expansion Draft was a strong tool for new MLS teams to directly acquire talent, but recent history indicates otherwise.

Of the 10 players selected last December by Atlanta and Minnesota, only four are still with the team that picked them. Only two of those players – Atlanta goalkeeper Alec Kann and Loons midfielder Collen Warner – have played significant minutes this season.

The story was largely the same in the 2014 Expansion Draft. Of the 20 players selected by New York City FC and Orlando City, only five were still with the teams at the end of the 2016 season. Only two of those five – NYCFC’s Tommy McNamara and Jason Hernandez, who is now with Toronto – could be called major contributors. Seven of the players chosen were no longer in MLS at all at the end of 2016.

When expansion teams have found value in the Expansion Draft, it’s usually been through the trade market. Atlanta and Minnesota were both active in that regard last year.

The Five Stripes dealt Expansion Draft picks Donny Toia to Orlando and Clint Irwin back to Toronto almost immediately after picking them, receiving the No. 8 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft – which they used on Rookie of the Year frontrunner Julian Gressel – for Toia and nabbing Mark Bloom and General Allocation Money from TFC.

The Loons immediately dealt Chris Duvall to Montreal for Johan Venegas, and ended up shipping out three of their other Expansion Draft picks later. Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella was sent to Portland for a second-rounder and the rights to winger Miguel Ibarra in December, forward Femi Hollinger-Janzen was traded back to New England for goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth in February, and midfielder Mohammed Saeid was part of a package that landed Marc Burch and Sam Cronin from Colorado in March.

There’s value in those deals, but I suspect it’d be preferable for expansion teams to just take extra allocation money instead of having to participate in an Expansion Draft. In the draft, they’re picking from other clubs’ castoffs. At best, they’ll nab a part-time starter. At worst, they’ll select a player that doesn’t even make the opening day roster.

With extra allocation money, expansion teams are freer to do what they want. They can use the cash to sign players from abroad or free agents from within MLS. If a trade is more their bag, a little extra allocation – of which expansion teams already receive more than their older MLS counterparts – is always a valuable commodity. And it can be used to target any player in the league, protected list or otherwise.

It’s not like MLS would have to “create” any extra allocation money, either. Sources said that each team that has a player selected in the Expansion Draft receives $50,000 in General Allocation Money from the league. That’s a total of $250,000 in GAM passed out for five Expansion Draft picks. It wouldn’t be difficult for the league to eliminate the Expansion Draft and redistribute that allocation money directly to incoming teams, who could then use it how they see fit.

There are positives to the Expansion Draft, but the costs of the process are beginning to outweigh the benefits. With an easy alternative on the table, it’s time MLS considers eliminating the mechanism entirely.

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