How USL to MLS expansion sides built their rosters

Hey, that’s a couple MLS guys!

MLS is a league that’s growing at a rapid pace: since 2009, the league has added 11 teams, with three more (including our own Nashville SC) slated to join over the next two years.

The franchises that have joined MLS have built their inaugural rosters through a variety of mechanisms – basically any way you can do it, they have. Let’s take a look at the squads that are going through a similar growth process, and compare how they’ve built their rosters. There are seven teams that have effectively moved up from lower divisions. How did they build their rosters, and who did the best job?

2009 Seattle Sounders

Previous league: USL (USSF second division)

2009 Outcome: (12-7-11), 4th MLS

2009 Signings
Mechanism Players Signed Minutes per player
Expansion Draft 7 1344
Signed from USL Sounders 5 460
Signed from overseas, loaned to USL Sounders to join in 2009 1 305
Loaned from overseas 2 2276
Signed from overseas 3 1788
MLS SuperDraft 3 664
Traded for 2 1634
Signed from other USL team 1 2207

Three of Seattle’s top four field players in terms of minutes came from the Expansion Draft, including a man who will go down as one of the all-time great Sounders: defender Brad Evans, who they picked off the roster of the Columbus Crew. If you have good scouting, you can certainly get gems through this mechanism.

Two of the other top signings were loaned from overseas clubs: Fredy Montero and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (who would both go on to sign on permanent transfers to Seattle) were loaned from Costa Rica’s Deportivo Cali and played the second- and fifth-most minutes among field players on the inaugural team.

Signing USL players from the existing roster does not seem to be a way to get surefire contributors. Of Seattle’s four signed, one never played in 2009 (indeed, Taylor Graham got all of one appearance in three years), and while Sébastian Le Toux (the top minute-getter from this group) managed to carve out a decade-long MLS career – mostly with the Philadelphia Union – he was only 10th on the inaugural MLS Sounders in minutes for field players. A solid contributor, hardly a can’t miss signing. Keeper Chris Eylander played only when Kasey Keller was on red-card suspension (exactly 90 minutes all year).

Seattle signed one player during the 2008 season and loaned him to the USL Sounders: Gambian Sanna Nyassi (worth noting because Nashville has done that with three of its signings, though all were signed domestically).

Signing players from overseas was a major boon for the Sounders primarily through the form of one man: Seattle-area native Kasey Keller ticked a lot of boxes as a Premier League and USMNT veteran, and his return home filled the keeper spot almost exclusively. Defender Leonardo Gonzalez got about 11 games’ worth of minutes, while forward Freddie Ljungberg – who signed on a free after departing West Ham midseason the previous year – would get a solid fifth place in field player minutes on the season.

The SuperDraft has gone through ebbs and flow reputation-wise (we’re currently in one of the down cycles, and it’s one that may be longer-lasting unless and until the NCAA stops ruining college soccer as a developmental pathway for professionals), but Seattle added three players to the roster using it in 2009: Evan Brown and Michael Fucito did not see rookie-year minutes (Brown would never play professionally, in fact), though Brown did contribute from the bench in subsequent years. Meanwhile, top overall pick Steve Zakuani was No. 8 in field player minutes as a rookie, third in scoring, and enjoyed a solid six-year career.

This will be one of the important lessons of this piece (I assume, since I haven’t written much of it yet): SuperDraft picks are generally low in value, except for the top few in the first round. The depth has diminished in recent years with the rise of academies and young guys starting professional careers instead of going to college, but almost all of the 15 first-round picks in this SuperDraft had (or are still having, in many of the cases) lengthy and successful professional careers.

2011 Vancouver Whitecaps

Previous league: USSF Division-2 (temporary combined USL and NASL)

2011 Outcome: (6-18-10), 18th of 18 MLS

2011 Signings
Mechanism Players Signed Minutes per player
Expansion Draft 5 1304
SuperDraft (and Supplemental Draft) 5 798
Signed from USSFD2 Whitecaps 9 1143
Transfer from overseas 5 1342
Signed on free in MLS 1 1042
Traded for 1 1257
Signed from other USL 1 437
Academy 1 0

Jonathan Leathers accounts for about a third of the minutes played by gentlemen selected in expansion, so the Whitecaps didn’t get much in the way of production from guys who’d had the chance to prove it at the MLS level the previous year (they also traded for Jordan Harvey and picked up Peter Vagenas on a free for their other intra-MLS acquisitions).

What Vancouver did do was rely heavily upon its USL/NASL squad: other than minutes leader Camilo, the only other players over 2,000 minutes on the year came directly from the second-division Caps. If you ignore Phillipe Davies (who didn’t see the field) and Alexandre Morfaw (who got under 200 minutes), this group played by far the most on average, and on aggregate played more than a third of the team’s minutes.

They also didn’t get a ton of value from their non-Camilo overseas signings: Jay DeMerit and Eric Hassli were already pretty old when they signed, and didn’t provide much. For a Canadian team, signing a former US International in DeMerit wasn’t even likely to be a ticket-mover. That’s a waste of the allocation spot – though more recent teams have wasted said spot in even more incompetent fashion, to be fair.

Vancouver began showing the risk of relying on the SuperDraft here: while the majority of their picks were still playing pro soccer within the past year (a couple retired after 2018), none of them made a massive early impact on the team. Michael Boxall and Jed Brovsky got the only meaningful rookie minutes of the group.

Lessons: Don’t massively screw up your first overall pick. It’s the primary one you can get value from, and Vancouver very aggressively did not do that. Additionally, if you sign plenty of USL players, don’t count on them to play a large proportion of your minutes (we’ll see this with Cincinnati down the line, too, I’m sure). Only the top few guys from that signing mechanism are likely to play significant time, and others should be depth or fan service.

2011 Portland Timbers

Previous league: USSF Division-2 (temporary combined USL and NASL)

2011 Outcome: (11-14-9) 12th of 18 MLS

2011 Signings
Mechanism Players Signed Minutes per player
Traded for 8 1631
Signed from USSFD2 Timbers 10 700
Expansion Draft 4 1053
SuperDraft (and supplemental draft) 3 550
Signed from overseas 3 2372
Signed from other USL 1 265

Portland fared far better on the pitch than its fellow expansion brethren (to the tune of nearly half a point per game), so comparing the duo may be a little informative here.

The Timbers took a slightly unconventional (for the time, at least) approach to the expansion draft: they grabbed two guys who they knew were leaving MLS (Robbie Findley and Jonathan Bornstein), and a few of the others they picked, they almost immediately flipped to other teams. They also did this with other players they acquired (including USL-promoted Steve Cronin), so this was a much more hot stove-oriented approach to preparing for the inaugural season than others we’ve seen. They did grab Eric Brunner – their eventual leader in minutes – from the Columbus Crew, but got vanishingly few minutes from anyone they actually picked in expansion.

With all those trades, well, they got the most important part of their roster. They played an average of 1,631 minutes a pop – despite a couple significant injuries in there. It’s interesting they opted to trade rather than to pick some of these players in the expansion draft (without knowing who was available, of course). Instead, they used their drafted players as tradable assets, and had to spend assets to acquire their other intra-MLS players. Seems like in some cases the middleman could have been cut out (and they could have saved some money).

Portland also signed a bunch of their USSFD2 roster: 10 players joined through that mechanism. However, outside of the top couple – 2337 minutes for Kalif Alhassan and 1999 for Futty Danso – they played at best backup minutes, and in a few instances, didn’t play at all. They also signed Eddie Johnson from the Austin Aztex, which is way less exciting when you realize it’s not former US International Eddie Johnson. He got only a handful of minutes.

Their SuperDraft results are a little misleading: they picked three players, but only one of them got any playing time. That would be No. 2 overall pick Darlington Nagbe, whose 1651 minutes as a rookie were nice. He got around 2500 minutes per year for the next six years (and only injuries have prevented him from getting there in the past two seasons after being traded to Atlanta). He’s going to go down as an all-time great Timber.

They only signed a few players from overseas, but they were big ones. Diego Chara is the best player on the team to this day, while Kenny Cooper was the only player to get action in every single game all year and Jorge Perlaza was sixth among field players in minutes, well over 2000.

Lessons: When you have a chance to scout guys, do it:

  • Portland knew what they were getting by getting eyeballs on their international players, and they were very familiar with the players they signed from their own USSFD2 team.
  • They showed awareness that you can sign some of those guys (even if only for fan service), but only the best among them should probably be getting minutes at the MLS level.
  • They got the best player in the SuperDraft, using that first-round pick wisely.

2012 Montreal Impact

Previous League: NASL (USSF second division)

2012 Outcome: (12-16-6) 12th of 19 MLS

2012 Signings
Mechanism Players Signed Minutes per player
Expansion Draft 6 1606
Traded for 6 1396
Signed from NASL Impact 4 550
Transfer from overseas 8 1349
SuperDraft (or Supplemental Draft) 3 371
Intra-MLS free transfer 3 465
Signed from other NASL 1 0
Academy 1 66

Montreal got a pretty good core from the Expansion Draft: Sanna Nyassi and Jed Brovsky (hey, those names are familiar! these dudes love to play for expansion teams) got very healthy minutes, Collen Warner led this cohort with over 2400, and only Josh Gardner didn’t hit the 1500-minute mark (he didn’t even hit the 500 minute mark, for that matter).

Like Portland the year before – possibly learning some lessons from the Timbers’ inaugural roster build – they did a fair amount of work in the trade market. Only Justin Braun didn’t hit four figures in terms of minutes (not including keeper Troy Perkins, who they picked up by trading away starter Donovan Ricketts close to the roster-lock deadline). Having the ability to scout these guys pretty well at the same level they’re being recruited to play seems important.

Like the wiser of the expansion teams, they were smart about which players graduating up from the NALS side got minutes: Hassoun Camara got nearly 1700 on the year, while nobody else even sniffed 400. The lesson remains to sign as many of those guys as you want (this is probably a lower number than I’d expect to see), but only give playing time to the ones who are up to the level of play.

Montreal signed a ton of guys from overseas (perhaps seeing that the Sounders had the most of that go down in recent history, and also had the best success of any expansion team in year one?), but several of them didn’t work out. Felipe Martins did, coming second on the team in field minutes played. Too many of their others were aging players leaving power clubs (Alessandro Nesta from AC Milan, Marco di Vaio from Bologna, Nelson Rivas from Inter Milan, and Bernardo Corradi from Udinese) on free transfers, and only di Vaio topped 900 minutes on the year (he got 1366, still only 10th among field players).

Montreal had probably the worst SuperDraft in recent memory – at least as it relates to the expansion season – with only one player getting meaningful minutes (and even that didn’t get up to 900 on the year). Of course, that this particular player, Andrew Wenger, is still kickin’ it in MLS speaks to it being a more successful long-term play. Montreal eventually flipped him for Jack McInerney.

Their intra-MLS free transfers included Shavar Thomas, who got a decent number of minutes, keeper Greg Sutton (who was loaned to the Impact’s NASL side for the end of 2011), who got basically none – his signing was basically fan service, as he’d been a star from 2001-06 for the NASL side – other than a send-off in the final home game, and forward Miguel Montaño, who basically didn’t play.

The Impact also signed Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ Bryan Arguez, who didn’t see the field, and graduated academy player Karl Ouimette to the first team. He saw only 66 minutes, though you may recognize the name from his more recent time with Indy Eleven.

Lessons: Unless you’re doing it for off-field reasons, don’t sign aging European stars unless you’re sure they can remain healthy and effective. Montreal threw a lot of good money after bad in that respect (and wasn’t even signing, like French dude for the cultural solidarity), and would have been better-served to acquire younger guys from overseas, or guys who had recently gotten it done in MLS.

Also, if you’re going to sign a guy from another lower-division team in US/Canada, I’d make it a guy who can contribute at this level. To me, Arguez took a roster spot (until he was loaned to FC Edmonton) that might as well have gone to a returning Impact player to appease the fans.

Hey this piece is already ludicrously long. I’ll publish the final three expansion teams tomorrow.

 

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