NEW YORK – Nashville SC Chief Executive officer Ian Ayre and Mike Jacobs descended on Major League Soccer’s offices in Midtown Manhattan Sunday to draft… drafts. With the Boys in Gold entering the league as an expansion team come January, they’ll have access to a number of roster-building methods. They’ve already used a few: signing two players to their USL side a year in advance of the “promotion” to the top flight, trading domestically for three players, and signing two more from leagues abroad.
Sunday’s choice was to determine which roster-building mechanisms for which they’d get first priority over fellow expansion side Inter Miami CF, and which David Beckham’s side would get priority. The options were first pick in the Expansion Draft (during which each team selects up to five players from current MLS teams), first pick in the SuperDraft (the traditional American-style college entry draft), first spot on the Allocation Order (through which players overseas with US National Team profiles or previous MLS experience at a certain benchmark return to the domestic league), and then penultimate choice in each of the Waiver/re-entry order and the Discovery process resolution order.
One decision was very easy. Picking up re-entry/waiver priority and discovery resolution priority over Miami were the last options for the Boys in Gold. Those processes aren’t particularly useless – though probably less important to an expansion team regardless – but the rub is that the choice is only to get second-last preference in the entire league (ahead of only the fellow expansion team). There’s little value in that.
“The idea of where your most value is,” Jacobs explained, “Our analytics and scouting staff very early on in the process, looking at the value for the penultimate selections for re-entry and waiver or discovery, because you’re second-to-last or last, those have the least amount of value. Those tend to kind of be the fourth or fifth choices.”
After losing the coin flip and seeing Inter Miami pick first slot in the Expansion Draft, Nashville knew its two realistic options were to pick up first spot in the allocation order, or to get the first pick in the SuperDraft. Jacobs and Ayre went with the former.
The combination of the intrinsic value in earning the top allocation spot order, and its value as a tradable asset made it Nashville SC’s top choice. Having the opportunity to use the spot to acquire a top-line player is great, but it’s even better to have the chance to do that or trade the spot away if that fits the club’s needs when a player on the Allocation List returns to the States.
“Any player who’s a US International who came back to our league – you’ve seen in recent years: this season [Toronto FC defender] Omar Gonzalez, [Chicago Fire defender] Jonathan Bornstein, previously [Atlanta United goalkeeper] Brad Guzan – you also have players who leave our league on a transfer of $500k or more that want to come back, they have to come through Allocation,” Jacobs explained. “[Sporting Kansas City midfielder] Krisztian Nemeth previously, [DC United striker] Ola Kamara this year. To have that top spot in allocation, not just being in the pole position for any player who wants to come back through that mechanism, but also tremendous value regards to other clubs wanting to acquire that player.”
While Nashville is keeping the option open to trade that allocation spot, they’re also monitoring the situation with the players currently subject to the allocation process, evaluating whether some of them might eventually be a fit.
“There’s clearly players that we’ve talked about, that we’ve thrown around,” Jacobs admitted. “I think the strategy involved in it is, do you select the player straight away, or do you see how you can maximize that asset? I think you’ve seen the clubs that do a really good job… turn it into quite a bit of allocation money before they end up selecting someone.
“For us, it’s not even a Plan A or Plan B. We knew we’d have an expansion draft pick, whether we were the first or second. In regards to allocation, if you’re No. 1 [in the order], you can use it right away: you can select a player, you can trade that asset. If you’re No. 2 you kind of have to wait [for the asset to generate value when the team ahead of you gives up their spot]. We have some players we have some eyes on, when it comes to re-acquiring them back to the league, but you also can see this as some really valuable asset that every club wants.”
Jacobs managed to not call me an idiot – though certainly I seem to deserve it – for believing that the quality difference between the top two picks in the SuperDraft justifies opting for that mechanism over the allocation order.
“The irony is that in the last time two teams shared an expansion draft, Minnesota selected No. 1 and they take Abu Danladi, Atlanta selected two they took Miles Robinson who’s now a full US International,” Jacobs said. “I think you need to look more at who’s selecting, rather than assuming the first player is the best player. It’s really, really relative. I would say too, I think the challenge that the SuperDraft presents is – not that there’s not a value on college soccer in our country anymore, but the reality is there’s a romanticism to like, ‘The Draft.’ Look at our city, more than anywhere else, where we just had the NFL Draft: it’s not the same thing [in MLS]. I think the idea of this romantic notion of putting the hat on the kid’s head, and the scarf around his neck, and seeing him on the stage…. We’re not saying that we don’t want to have a SuperDraft selection, but I think where you’re off quite a bit is the difference between the first and second I just don’t think there’s as much as it’s made out to be.”
“At least you didn’t make fun of me for Julian Gressel being even later in that same draft as Robinson,” I replied.
“He actually was the eighth pick and [Atlanta] traded for him, but he counts as well. It wasn’t just the first team [selecting]. With Julian Gressel, seven teams passed on him. I just think it’s relative.”
With plenty more time to continue building a roster – including the five picks in the Nov. 19 Expansion Draft, and four picks in the SuperDraft in January – Ayre is very pleased with how things are going so far. As important as building a roster that meets certain benchmarks is, the far greater priority to Nashville SC is putting together the strongest possible team.
“We feel really good about the trades we’ve made so far, or the acquisitions we’ve made so far,” he said. “I think we’ve talked about being uniquely Nashville and wanting to build this great thing for Nashville and everyone in Nashville, and it’s great that Mike and the rest of us go about that work just trying to find the best players for Nashville. It’s fantastic that there’s a big diversity in that group of players, but that can’t be your sort of decision on that side of things. It comes together because they’re great players. I think we’ve been very thoughtful about how we’re utilizing our funding and our money, and we’ll continue to be so.”
While those types comments – talking about shrewd use of monetary resources – have at times been interpreted as a club that isn’t planning to spend, Nashville’s signings to date may begin to shed light on the bigger picture, and we’ll continue to build a clearer picture of what the inaugural roster looks like come mid-November.