Who makes the cut? My projections for USL players jumping to MLS

Ropapa Mensah’s youth makes him a good fit to move up with Nashville SC. Ryan Lassan Photography/For Club and Country.

Nashville SC has seven players currently signed for the inaugural MLS season (with two more on the way the moment the MLS trade window opens next week). Who from the current – or soon-to-be-outgoing – USL side will join them?

My official projections (I should note this is not based on inside information, just my feeling on the matter. Sometimes I leave that vague for a reason. I’m also being clear about it here for a reason).

Some parameters here – with a Cliff’s Notes version of the relevant MLS roster rules. Teams are able to have 20 players on their rosters who count against the salary cap. The players I’m expecting NSC to sign from the USL roster are those who fit into an “off-budget” category. To keep things simple, those categories (for this purpose only, it’s more complex than that in other contexts) are:

  • Supplemental Roster, which consists of players making exactly $70,250 (the senior minimum salary), and
  • Reserve Roster, which consists of players 24 or younger (it’s actually determined by birth year not birth date, so it’s 1996 or later for the 2020 season) and making exactly $56,250 (the reserve minimum)

Again, more complex in a general sense. In terms of projecting from USL, the only thing that’s important is finding guys who qualify for one of those two off-budget categories. It’s important to note that both of these roster designations have no bearing on how much playing time a player gets in 2020. They relate only to being on- or off-budget and the salary restrictions that apply.

Centerback Forrest Lasso (currently on loan from FC Cincinnati). Lasso has MLS experience, and would likely have a lot more if not for a managerial change in the Queen City. He played in five of FCC’s first 18 games (four starts, one 33-minute substitute appearance) before joining NSC on loan in July. He was open that an English manager is best-suited for his game, and Gary Smith is one of those. In addition, it would not surprise if his season-long loan came with a purchase agreement or a handshake deal regarding the Expansion Draft (wherein NSC selects a player from Cincinnati only if it’s Lasso, or trades for Lasso in exchange for not taking a player, etc. etc.). Lastly, he’s on a senior minimum salary, making him eligible for the Supplemental Roster.

Midfielder Matt LaGrassa. LaGrassa has consistently been one of the players Gary Smith mentions as underrated by other observers in comparison to Smith’s own opinion of his abilities. He’s also a very good link to the USL franchise, given his personality and popularity among fans. I would imagine he’s available for a senior minimum salary as well, having yet to break in to MLS (despite playing with Reno 1868 – San Jose’s MLS2 side from a technical perspective – prior to leaving for Nashville).

Winger/forward Ropapa Mensah. Mensah checks a couple very important boxes. First, he’s the youngest player on Nashville SC’s team, making him eligible for the Reserve Roster by age. He’s also a recent call-up to the Ghana U-23 team, though he unfortunately had to withdraw from the squad due to a late-season injury (about which: if NSC didn’t have a reason to have him stay in the United States, might he have headed to Egypt anyway, hoping to be fit for one or two games?). A potential national team future increases sell-on value if he’s able to meet or exceed expectations. Finally, he’s a three-year USL vet, so most likely well within the salary range that makes $56,250 a bump up. Importantly, he is an international player, taking up one of the eight allotted slots, but he’s the only one on this list.

Midfielder/forward Lebo Moloto. I think it’d be fair to say that, as important and productive as Moloto’s been for Nashville SC from the USL perspective the past couple years, the weaknesses in his game make him a little more questionable as he translates up a level. However, he’s extremely popular among his teammates, is an incredible community guy (see: Chebeng Cup), and if he’s able to fit in at a senior minimum salary, still has mileage left in his legs as a depth player, even at age 29. Although a native of South Africa, he qualifies under MLS rules as a domestic player, not requiring an international slot.

Centerback Jimmy Ockford (currently on loan from San Jose Earthquakes). Ockford’s playing situation is similar to Lasso’s: he doesn’t fit with the current manager at his parent club, because of a style change. Matias Almeyda’s man-marking scheme requires more mobile CBs than Ockford, and a more traditional English style is good for him – he’s even more accomplished at the MLS level than Lasso, with 1,085 minutes in 2018 before the managerial change. It’s also worth noting that Nashville has traded for another of San Jose’s players (defensive midfielder Aníbal Godoy), indicating a bit of a stronger relationship between the front offices of the two franchises, making it more likely there’s some sort of handshake agreement in place as it relates to making his loan permanent. Finally, he made $70,875 from the Quakes this season, putting him in spitting distance of the senior minimum (and the potential drop in salary of $625 is more than made up by Tennessee’s lack of a state income tax).

Winger Alan Winn. Like Mensah, eligible by age (and likely salary demands) for the Reserve roster, an d also like Mensah, a high-potential guy whose continued development should see him with a decent sell-on value. He’s also been willing – as was the case when he signed with NSC over the Colorado Rapids – to do what it takes to best advance his future, so if he doesn’t see playing time in the short-term, he can stay on NSC’s books but be loaned out.

Others: Defender Kosuke Kimura, goalkeeper Matt Pickens (technical staff). Defender Justin Davis (front office).

This trio has worked multiple capacities with the club. All have obviously been key players in the past two years, but they’ve also contributed as a fitness coach, the goalkeepers coach, and a marketing intern, respectively. Continuing their roles with the club as they transition from their playing days would also help bridge the gap from USL to MLS – without the risk of over-populating the inaugural MLS roster with players who aren’t proven (or at least not proven in the past few years) at that level of play.

So?

With Lasso, LaGrassa, Moloto, and Ockford, NSC’s entire Supplemental Roster can be spoken for, while Mensah and Winn can account for two of the six Reserve Roster slots (though NSC will only be able to have four in their first year, for reasons that aren’t worth explaining here). The other two would likely be filled by SuperDraft picks.

That means, with the seven announced signings and the two yet-to-be announced, Nashville only needs to be looking for players in compensation ranges that make them on-budget players if they sign this group. That’s what they want to be in the market for at this time, so it’s a good fit.

 

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