By Jeff Rueter – SAINT PAUL, MN (Dec 14, 2017) US Soccer Players - With an ownership group boasting stars ranging from Mia Hamm to Magic Johnson to even Will Ferrell, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Los Angeles FC would buck some trends The team was the lucky winner of the multi-year Carlos Vela lottery, finally checking the boxes for the Mexican international. LAFC joined the league at the right time to land Bob Bradley, likely the greatest American coach in the history of the game. Now, they may have found value in the expansion draft.
LAFC has jumped into the MLS off season with aplomb. Taking advantage of the extra allotment of allocation money granted expansion teams, they capitalized on the FC Dallas face lift and nabbed young US international center back Walker Zimmerman. Since day one, the club has looked incredibly ambitious. Signing Zimmerman gives an anchor for its back line for up to a decade. Their next move, however, may end up sending even greater shock waves across the league.
Following the example from other leagues, MLS has used the draft since the first expansion for the 1998 season. Expansion teams pick from unprotected players on existing rosters, padding their numbers. In some cases, there’s true starting quality to be had. Dax McCarty, Tommy McNamara, and Sebastien Le Toux all went on to give their new sides valuable minutes.
Usually, however, the draft gives teams squad players rather than starters. In 2016, Atlanta United and Minnesota United went back-and-forth picking five players per side. Of them, only Alec Kann (18 starts) and Collen Warner (25 games) saw regular minutes. Instead, the teams were able to trade their picks. Minnesota parlayed goalkeeper Jeff Attinella into the rights for Miguel Ibarra. Even then, coach Adrian Heath used Ibarra in rotation. Now, the player's future in Minnesota is in question.
Leading into the 2017 iteration of the draft, many (including this writer) saw the expansion draft as obsolete. Rather than drafting ten players each as in past years, Minnesota and Atlanta agreed there was more value in additional allocation money. The logic is sound. FourFourTwo's Sam Stejskal explained this.
“With extra allocation money, expansion teams are freer to do what they want. They can use the cash to sign players from abroad or free agents from within MLS. If a trade is more their bag, a little extra allocation – of which expansion teams already receive more than their older MLS counterparts – is always a valuable commodity. And it can be used to target any player in the league, protected list or otherwise.”
With few exceptions, teams are stuck with players not among the 11 “most important” and protected players. For a team like LAFC, it seemed as if getting five bit-part players wouldn’t be satisfactory. So the team approached it from a different angle.
Usually, expansion teams choose two types of players. The first are the rare starters left unprotected, usually as teams try to save upcoming talents from availability. These players, like Kann, Jeb Brovsky in two previous iterations, and Orlando’s attempt at Donovan Ricketts, are able to fill in roles across the field and let teams focus on new talent at fewer positions. The second are young prospects who haven't seen enough time with their clubs. Minnesota seemed to target one of these guys last year with Femi Hollinger-Janzen. Well, until they traded him back to New England for Bobby Shuttleworth after failing to get local talent Teal Bunbury from the Revolution.
Los Angeles’ approach was closer to the second than the first. The Black and Gold looked at this as an asset collection process. Quality players were available and could have filled roles on the field. Instead, LAFC seemed to nab the five guys teams were most afraid of losing.
Seattle has seen Tyler Miller as the heir to Stefan Frei’s post at goalkeeper. Now, he’ll get a chance to be LAFC’s goalkeeper for the foreseeable future. In Sporting KC’s Latif Blessing, Los Angeles saw a young, versatile attacker poised to break out after settling into the league at age 20. Meanwhile, Marco Urena gives veteran guile at age 27, able to do the dirty work up top to free up Vela and company.
From there, the club closed its draft with left back Jukka Raitala and winger/wing back Raheem Edwards. These picks seemed to be savvy. Raitala could hold down the LB post while Edwards had time to figure out if he was an attacker or defender.
Instead, LAFC shipped both players to Montreal for the 2016 Defender of the Year. Laurent Ciman joins LAFC after his shakiest season in the league thus far. That doesn’t mean he’s washed up. Sources near him say he wasn't happy of late in Montreal and a new surrounding should do the trick. If that’s not enough to get him amped, his position on the fringe of the Belgian national team in a World Cup year should.
Meanwhile, he’ll serve as the on-field mentor Zimmerman so desperately needs. Since 2015, Zimmerman has partnered on the field with Matt Hedges. While this worked at first, the duo never quite seemed to complement each other well. Meanwhile, both Zimmerman and Hedges are potential players for the USMNT. Being out of the elder Hedges’ shadow should better showcase the Georgian’s abilities.
If LAFC keeps these four players from the day, this may be the best expansion draft class in league history. Three of the four have a real shot at starting, with Blessing and Urena in competition for the center forward spot. For a league that’s moving past cycling through the same players and toward more financial freedom for clubs, Los Angeles was able to take advantage of both philosophies.
Jeff Rueter is a reporter and analyst covering Major League Soccer for The Guardian, ESPN FC, The Athletic - Minnesota, and US Soccer Players. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffrueter.