One truism of MLS is that the rules aren’t static year-to-year, and Nashville SC’s first offseason will have a slightly different set of circumstances than those that existed last Winter. The most notable change from our perspective is that NSC will be one of the teams with, like, a full roster to reconfigure (and from which to possibly lose players to an expansion side – whereas NSC was the expansion side last year).
I’ll get into more specifics of how Nashville is affected and make some predictions – you know ya boy has already started to put in some groundwork, but there’s still a 2020 season to conclude before that’s front-and-center – going forward. For now, though, the parameters of note.
Readers here are probably pretty familiar with the concept of an expansion draft – it’s a fairly common mechanism in American sports, and I broke down last year’s ad nauseam. That was because Nashville SC was one of the selectors last year: they picked up Abu Danladi, Jalil Anibaba, and Jimmy Medranda in last year’s edition, as well as Zarek Valentin (flipped immediately for Joe Willis) and Brandon Vazquez (flipped immediately for $150k in Targeted Allocation Money.
This year’s edition will see Austin FC make five selections Dec. 15.
Last year, with two expansion franchises selecting, existing clubs were able to protect 12 members of their rosters (while the five franchises who had teams taken by FC Cincinnati the previous year were completely safe). With the league’s player pool growing by simple virtue of having more teams, I’d expected 13 protected players apiece, as well as all 26 clubs on the table. That’s not the case:
The following 10 teams that had players selected by Inter Miami and Nashville SC during the 2019 MLS Expansion Draft, are exempt from the 2020 MLS Expansion Draft: (New York City FC, FC Cincinnati, Los Angeles Football Club, Columbus Crew SC, Seattle Sounders FC, Minnesota United FC, New England Revolution, Atlanta United, and Sporting Kansas City).
The other 16 returning MLS clubs that competed during the 2020 season can protect 12 players from their Senior, Supplemental, and Reserve rosters.MLS Release
Homegrowns under age 25 (Nashville has three: Handwalla Bwana, Derrick Jones, and Alex Muyl – he has not fully aged out of Homegrown status even though he’s aged out of some of the benefits) and Generation Adidas players (Nashville has one: Jack Maher) don’t need to be protected. Again, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of Nashville’s likely decisions at a later date.
There are five total selections coming for Austin FC, and once a club has a player picked, they’re off-limits for the rest of it, as per typical.
MLS Waivers and Re-entry
These typically go hand-in-hand, with waivers largely consisting of players who aren’t eligible for the re-entry draft:
The MLS End-of-Year Waivers process consists of players whose options are not exercised, who are not subject to first right of refusal, and who don’t meet the minimum age and years of service requirement for the Re-Entry Draft or Free Agency – mostly young players. Players under contract for 2021 who are selected in MLS End-of-Year Waivers will be automatically added to the drafting club’s roster. Clubs that claim players out of contract at the end of 2020 must issue a genuine offer to the selected player.MLS release
It takes place Dec. 16. Worth noting, players who are eligible for waivers but not selected during a draft-style process are available on a first-come first-serve basis (the clubs then claim right of first refusal, so it’s not free agency, per se). The waiver process is followed by Re-entry, another draft-style mechanism through which MLS clubs are given the opportunity to select out-of-contract players from within the league’s player pool (including those who had their contract options declined by their previous clubs).
Last year, NSC selected Eric Miller from New York City FC through the re-entry process. Six total players were selected across two rounds last year, so while this isn’t necessarily a popular mechanism for front offices to use, it’s certainly one where there’s value. Out of last year’s selections, Miller was second this regular season in minutes played with 471 (Miami’s Juan Agudelo played 936). It’s certainly more an opportunity to pick up quality depth options or undervalued assets, rather than likely starters.
The full list of available players will be released Dec. 14, while the process itself takes place in two rounds, Dec. 17 and Dec. 22. There aren’ specific quirks to the rules this year, so I’ll just let you peruse the release – keep in mind the selection order will be updated as teams progress through the playoffs.
This has been one of the primary points of contention between the Players Association and MLS in recent CBA negotiations. While the league managed to strongarm MLSPA a bit on the front-end of the coronavirus shutdown into pulling back some of their demands, here’s where things ended up with free agency:
Four days after the 2020 MLS Cup, teams can begin engaging with players via the league’s Free Agency process in preparation for the 2020 season. Eligible players are 24 years of age and older with five MLS service years and are out of contract or have had their option declined. This allows players the freedom to negotiate a new contract with any MLS club, including their previous team, subject to certain restrictions.MLS Release
The previous benchmarks were eight years of MLS service and age 28, so that’s plenty more freedom of movement for the players (and for savvy clubs). I still scratch my head about how the league has such strong leverage over free agency – like you can literally sign with a team in any league in the world, so they shouldn’t be able to strongarm the MLSPA into less agency in this country – but it is what it is.
Free agency begins Dec. 16 and happens concurrently with the other processes: it’s essentially the Final Boss movement mechanism in the offseason for players who don’t fall into the cracks of any of the above categories.
The league has not revealed details of the college draft, and that’s not a surprise at this point: the vast majority of the college soccer world is either skipping the 2020-21 season entirely, or postponing until Spring (the ACC and Sun Belt are the two exceptions).
There will obviously be something, but either the league hasn’t determined yet – what with the uncertainty in the world around us – or is waiting to describe those plans at a later date. Figuring out when college players will be available to turn pro if their seasons are unlikely to even begin before the 2021 MLS season… there are plenty of moving pieces to be resolved here, and some of them won’t even have potential resolutions until there’s more clarity in the NCAA world. (Draft and follow! Go Go Go!).
Nashville SC is well-positioned to take more advantage of the draft than other MLS teams for a few reasons (an academy that doesn’t field teams in the upper age ranges yet, a General Manager with plenty of relationships in the college soccer world, a simple desire to take advantage of the draft, etc.), and followed through last year, getting its first choice in Maher, along with a kid who’s started 15 games in Alistair Johnston, and a few potential pieces for the future.
In the 2021, the Draft is never going to be a crucial way rosters are built, but it should remain a piece of the process, and we’ll be waiting to find out what the plans for it are.
Aside from the unknown of the Draft, there’s not too much different from past seasons. The specifics of the mechanisms are nice to have. The timing is the main revelation here – even if it’s not surprising that mid-December timing is the name of the game.
Ian Ayre and Mike Jacobs photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country