The MLS offseason is a wild one, with a variety of phases and mechanisms available to teams to build and re-build their rosters. The scariest ones – when teams have limited control over holding onto players they want to keep – is the expansion draft. In that event, Austin FC will have the opportunity to pick five players from around MLS (more robust details in the link above, but Nashville SC is one of 16 teams they can pick from), and existing squads are only allowed to protect 12 of their current players.
Let’s take a first stab – before Nashville SC officially announces its post-season roster moves, giving the exercise a little more clarity – at which players Nashville SC will protect.
While teams typically wait until their seasons are completed to announce any sort of roster moves, Cameron Lancaster’s new-old team has already announced his signing. Lancaster’s first club in the U.S. was Louisville City, and he was back on loan there from NSC this season (his only time in the States not with LCFC was his year with Nashville SC’s USL side in 2019). That franchise has signed him to a full contract.
He’ll still technically be available in the draft as a player whose team option was declined, but Austin certainly won’t trade for the MLS rights of a guy who wants to be in a specific place.
Homegrown players born 1995 or later, and players in the Generation Adidas program are not subject to expansion drafts, and do not need to be protected.
Obviously, Nashville SC has yet to develop any of its own Homegrown players, but has traded for three of them – along with their Homegrown rights, rendering them not subject to the Expansion Draft. Jack Maher is a first-year member of the Generation Adidas program (the mechanism through which MLS convinces college players to give up the remainder of their eligibility to turn professional – since he played just one year at Indiana, he should be in the GA program for three total, two more years).
Theoretically, a team composed entirely of Homegrowns under 25 and Generation Adidas players would be fully protected from every Expansion Draft.
By MLS rule, teams with four players in international slots – like Nashville has – must protect at least three of those players.
Nazarit – who literally did not see the field this season – is the obvious option to leave unprotected here. HOWEVER, there’s a galaxy-brain option for this thing, assuming NSC wanted to keep him, but protect the bare minimum of international slots.
Austin FC has two players signed right now: both international, both wingers. With the idea that they wouldn’t likely use an Expansion Draft pick on a player who: 1) requires significant financial investment as a DP, and 2) would require an international slot, 3) occupies a position they’ve already addressed with their only two players… do you risk leaving Leal unprotected? It’d be a risk, but one that wouldn’t look highly likely to bite NSC.
Of course, I don’t think NSC is that keen to go out of their way to protect Nazarit (not least of which because Austin’s going to have a lot of options out there with MLS minutes under their belts). If the rules let you leave two international players unprotected, though, I might risk it.
Almost certainly not back regardless of circumstances
That heading’s pretty self-explanatory, no?
|Bryan Beckeles||CB||He’ll be 35 this week, and got sparing playing time this season. Using a senior roster slot on that player profile is not moneyballin’. A green-card holder who managed to use the last year of his career to find a home in the United States?|
|CJ Cochran||GK||When Cochran signed, it was presented as a short-term loan until the end of the season with his rights remaining in USL. He’s already returned to OKC.|
|Ken Tribbett||CB||While he earned a shot to return to MLS, a guy with a long, long history of injuries who didn’t see the field (in part because of those injuries) can’t occupy a senior roster slot.|
|Alan Winn||W||A high-potential guy who couldn’t put it all together, Winn doesn’t likely bring enough to justify taking up a roster slot. It’s a bummer – because of that potential – but such is life.|
There are a few guys in the next section who could borderline be on this list, but there’s at least a strong argument for each of them.
So, from a pool of 24 players, we have the opportunity to protect nine more of them. Without further ado, your protected players:
|David Accam||W||Accam was a big-name (and big-dollar) signing, whose off-field – home destroyed by tornado while wife is pregnant does not sound ideal! – and injury issues prevented him from contributing more. This is a results-oriented business, though, and protecting a guy with that pricetag who barely saw the field is bad business when protections are in short supply. If NSC wants to keep him, the pricetag and position make is unlikely Austin takes him, anyway.|
|Jalil Anibaba||CB/FB||The combination of age and declining use (over 2700 minutes in 2018, over 1700 in 2019, under 600 this year) make it tough to justify using a protection here. The hope is that Austin doesn’t do enough research to realize what a valuable pick he could be (more below).|
|Tah Brian Anunga||CM||With two successful-but-aging central midfielders leading the way for NSC, he’s the future at the position. An easy decision.|
|Dominique Badji||F/W||Another guy whose injuries (and his production level when healthy) don’t justify using a protection. Like others, Nashville may not be risking much by leaving him unprotected, anyway.|
|Abu Danladi||W/F||This is one of the more risky players to leave unprotected, because he’s young and talented enough that he might be picked. Again, a risk NSC will have to take, even if they want to keep him. His injury issues probably make replacing his production easier, though.|
|Tanner Dieterich||CM/W||It’s unlikely that Austin would pick a Nashville native who spent the year on loan in USL, even if unprotected. I would wager NSC keeps him and loans him back out to a Championship team this time around (or he heads to the USL directly without a Nashville loan).|
|Aníbal Godoy||CM||With a semi-injury-heavy year, I’d almost leave him unprotected and hope Austin doesn’t take him, but seeing how important he was to Nashville could give Claudio Reyna some ideas. More discussion on this below.|
|Luke Haakenson||W/CM||A rookie who spent the year on loan in USL is not likely to be picked. NSC likely wants him to return (with the possibility of another loan), but they should have the opportunity even if he’s not protected.|
|Alistair Johnston||FB/W||A key member of the future of this team. Easy decision.|
|Matt LaGrassa||CM||Nashville will hope to keep LaGrassa, even if it’s primarily as a depth option. He was not crucial enough to the 2020 effort to warrant a protection (nor to worry about Austin picking him).|
|Dan Lovitz||FB||A key member of the starting rotation. Right in the age range that a youngster should start getting groomed to succeed him, but Lovitz should provide at least a few more years.|
|Dax McCarty||CM||Team captain, you’d probably risk leaving him unprotected (and hoping he doesn’t get picked) if it were basically anyone else from a measurable perspective, but the intangibles.|
|Eric Miller||FB||A rotation player, the likes of which are available as replacements (like NSC got him in the re-entry draft).|
|Elliot Panicco||GK||This is probably the goalkeeper of NSC’s future, but not protected. More discussion below.|
|Daniel Ríos||F||My ninth pick. I think protecting Ríos (along with Nashville’s HG and International forwards) provides the opportunity to not worry about protecting some of the other attacking talent on the roser.|
|Dave Romney||CB||A key member of an impressive backline. Romney likely woke up plenty of folks who doubted the “LA is sleeping on him” narrative.|
|Brady Scott||GK||A potential second-keeper contingency. More discussion below.|
|Taylor Washington||FB||A very good player, and a guy whose future likely lies in Nashville, but the scarcity of spots (and unlikelihood that Austin would pick him) means no protection.|
|Joe Willis||GK||The starting keeper for another couple years as the talent behind him develops.|
|Walker Zimmerman||CB||It’s been made no secret that he’s this team’s linchpin and probably full-time captain upon McCarty’s and/or Godoy’s retirements.|
Remember, Austin can only take one player from Nashville. While leaving any player unprotected carries obvious risk that he might be taken, if Austin grabs David Accam (alphabetically first here. Also actually a good potential Expansion Draft pick to get a former TAM player on the cheap), for example, they can’t take anyone else on the NSC roster.
So while we know the club is high on Elliot Panicco… if he were to get taken (I do not expect this: there are guys with MLS game experience who are going to be available at GK and elsewhere), they have Brady Scott as a No. 2-type keeper anyway. Nashville’s having two players with a similar development/potential profile means you can leave either unprotected and have one or both at the end of the Expansion Draft.
Basically protecting the starting lineup is sort of a cop-out, but I think a fair one: the rest of the players (even those who contributed a lot!) are more replaceable. I was between Anibaba and Ríos for the ninth and final protection. Thanks to Anibaba’s age making him less risky to keep unprotected – both because it’s less likely that Austin picks him, and because if they did, you can replace some of his locker room quality with younger legs in a tradeoff – Ríos was the choice. It’s also easier to replace domestic defenders than 25-year old green-card attackers. I almost left one of Godoy and McCarty unprotected for similar reasons: because of the likelihood that Austin would see an age/salary combination and not want to bother with it… but they (along with Anibaba) would be among my first picks if I were forming an expansion team – look at everything those guys did for Nashville SC on and off the field this year – so I couldn’t justify it.
There’s a bit of dual psychology at play here: you not only have to think about who Nashville wants to keep, but also who Austin would want to take if left unprotected. Among the unbolded guys there… well, Luke Haakenson probably isn’t at risk, even if you want to keep him (hypothetically – Nashville likes him, but I do not know his future).
Once again, we should know plenty more in the coming days when Nashville announces who remains under contract, who is out of contract, and who has option years exercised or declined.
For multiple reasons, I do not think Austin’s Expansion Draft will have a similar level of party. Photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country