How USL to MLS expansion sides built their rosters: The lessons

Rounding out the “already-signed MLS players”  photo album to close the series.

We’ve seen how the seven teams moving up from USL (or other second-division leagues) in recent seasons built their rosters, so what are the lessons we can take away from their processes and results?

Be judicious in bringing USL players along

This applies to both players from the final roster at the Division-2 roster and guys signed from other teams in the lower league. A few each season can make the jump, but the temptation to sign the whole roster because of familiarity or ease (or in FC Cincinnati’s case, perhaps hubris based upon USL success) has to be avoided: FCC and Vancouver learned the hard way that you can’t over-rely on this cohort.

However, Portland Timbers also signed plenty of former USSF D-2 (in that weird year where USL combined with NASL) players for their first year in MLS. The catch? Only a few of them got significant playing time. There’s some value in continuity and fan-service by having recognizable names on the roster. There also has to be an understanding that the majority of these guys are ultimately depth or bench players – or, like, brand ambassadors – not significant contributors.

SuperDraft wisely

The top pick in the draft is almost always a first-year contributor (including Frankie Amaya for FC Cincinnati this year), and through about the first half of the first round, there’s going to be a pretty solid chance that a guy you pick can have some role on the team, even a major one if you’ve scouted well and pick for fit.

However, the further down the list you go, the less likely that chance is. For an expansion team especially (building a roster from scratch, rather than finding specific players who fill small niches on a more-established team), the deeper down the board you go, the tougher it is to hit. Being very thorough in scouting can reveal some undiscovered gems, but the cost-benefit analysis has to come into account for year one. If you can find a taker (paging Jeff Berding!), you’re probably better off trading later picks for something of more-guaranteed value like allocation money.

Here’s a big one: pick Generation Adidas players as much as possible. Those are the players that MLS and Adidas sign to pro contracts to forgo their remaining college eligibility (however much they have left, including as much as all of it) to enter the Draft.  Unless there’s a player outside of the GA class who’s too good to pass on – which is unlikely, given that he wouldn’t likely have stayed his four years of college – take GA players.

That’s for multiple reasons: For starters, they tend to be the best players in the draft anyway. Secondly, these guys don’t count against the salary cap, so you can get a player making decent money (and performing like he deserves that compensation) while saving cap space to spend elsewhere. From a real-world budget (not salary cap budget) perspective, you also literally don’t have to pay GA players: Adidas takes care of their salaries until they graduate from the program.

Smart scouting

When you have a chance to scout guys, do it. The common thread of success is not about using any one particular mechanism for finding the players you eventually sign (though some are obviously better than others), but making sure that the guys you pick are the right talent level and a good fit for your team.

Squads like Seattle and Portland did this, Vancouver and Cincinnati did not. In fact, I’d say Vancouver actually handled it worse than Cincinnati, because the Caps signed a bunch of guys through various mechanisms that didn’t work out in Year One, whereas Cincinnati essentially gave up on Year One before it even started, hoping to build for a future where they have more cash on hand.

Unless you’re doing it for off-field reasons (a big name to sell tickets, regardless of performance), don’t sign aging European stars unless you’re sure they can remain healthy and effective. Those have tended to not work out, with rare exceptions. Scouting can help find those exceptions, but either way the risk-reward balance is off unless you knock it out of the park.

Pick potential contributors in the Expansion Draft

This is one I’m not super-confident in stating as a hard-and-fast rule: there’s reason to grab guys to flip (or to have on the bench). However, it does seem the smartest way to use the expansion draft is to get players you want to use.

Since other MLS teams only get to protect 10 of their players apiece, the 11th-best player – minus homegrowns and the current Generation Adidas group – on a lot of teams is a guy who can make an impact for an expansion club. Certainly there is trade value in a guy with that profile, but there’s no more accessible way to scout and sign a proven player, whereas there are plenty of easy ways to grab guys to flip. Don’t pick a USL player like FC Cincinnati did last year – you can get USL players in a lot of different ways, whereas the Expansion Draft is the only way to get guys as heavily scouted (and as proven) as those left unprotected by their current clubs.

Picking from the best and deepest teams is almost certainly the way to go, as well: the 11th-best player on LAFC is better than the 11th-best player on FC Cincinnati. (Side note: the 11th-best player on LAFC is almost certainly better than every player on FCC).

There is a slight wrench in the works in comparison to some recent years, since this is a two-club expansion year: good players will be half as available because Inter Miami CF will be picking some, too. The pool will effectively be diluted by half, including each club being off-limits for the rest of the Draft after either NSC or IMCF picks one of its unprotected players.

Use loans and the transfer market wisely

Using international loans to grab short-term help from guys who may not play in the second half of their European seasons is an interesting avenue to explore, and something past clubs have done effectively. It obviously requires a little more patience on the scouting (and more relationship-building with those teams), but the payoff can be worth it.

Also: don’t let other teams play you for a rube in the transfer market. You can certainly use transactions across MLS for the better. Too many expansion teams have done it poorly, though: flipping expansion draft picks plus allocation money to acquire a guy who was available in the expansion draft is lighting money on fire. So is picking guys who were released by their clubs at the end of the season, since they’ll be available in free agency or the re-entry draft.

Teams have had a lot of success focusing on undervalued South Americans (Paraguayan Miguel Almirón from Atlanta United is the obvious example here), demonstrating the importance of scouting, wherever you look. For whatever reason, Deportivo Cali in Colombia has provided effective players for multiple MLS expansion teams across different eras. I’d at least give that club’s current roster a sniff.

What we know so far

Nashville SC has signed four players to MLS contracts, through three different mechanisms: Cameron Lancaster and Daniel Ríos were signed to MLS contracts and loaned to the USL franchise after being plucked from other USL teams. Derrick Jones was signed from Philadelphia Union (in an allocation money trade) and loaned to the USL team. David Accam will effectively be signed from Columbus Crew by the MLS team come January (though in practical terms, it’s more like NSC signed him from the Union and loaned him to the Crew for the remainder of 2019).

As I’ve illustrated above, I think the Expansion Draft is a major opportunity, and the SuperDraft less so (once you get past the first couple picks, at least). Since NSC and IMCF are coming in the same year, they’ll flip a coin with one getting first Expansion Draft pick and the other getting first SuperDraft pick. It’s probably better to get the first SuperDraft pick, since the difference between the first- and second-best college player is probably greater than the difference between various mid-roster players already in MLS.

The following teams can’t have a player picked in expansion because FC Cincinnati grabbed one of their dudes last year, and they can’t be victimized two years in a row:

  • DC United (FC Cincinnati selected Darren Mattocks)
  • Vancouver Whitecaps (FC Cincinnati selected Kei Kamara, immediately traded him for an international slot)
  • FC Dallas (FC Cincinnati selected Roland Lamah, even though he was out of contract. They are extremely bad at this)
  • Houston Dynamo (FC Cincinnati selected Eric Alexander)
  • New York Red Bulls (FC Cincinnati selected Hassan Ndam)

I’d be out here scouting the heck out of LAFC, Atlanta United (not having the best season, but certainly you’d expect their roster depth to be very good), Philadelphia Union (though it’s possible there’s an unspoken agreement to leave them alone for having taken two of their players off their hands already), Seattle, et al.

For the SuperDraft, it’s early but Portland’s Jacobo Reyes is considered the top prospect (and he’d be a Generation Adidas player if so, given that he’s a freshman this Fall). There’s plenty of scouting to be done – and research on my part – before that’s all locked-in, of course.

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