Clubs coming into Major League Soccer for their debut seasons have an incredibly powerful tool they’re able to use to get players: The Expansion Draft. On Tuesday, Dec. 15, at 5 pm CT (livestreaming on AustinFC.com, Twitter, Facebook and other MLS platforms), Austin FC will be able to acquire up to five players with valuable MLS experience.
Though there are some limitations to who’s available and how Austin FC is able to make those selections, it’s an opportunity to land players who are already battle-tested in the League. A quick look at recent Expansion Draft results shows just how important Expansion Draft can be in building a full roster of players.
Both Austin FC Sporting Director Claudio Reyna and Head Coach Josh Wolff are familiar with the process. In fact, Reyna was directly involved with the 2014 draft that brought players into the NYCFC camp prior to that team’s inaugural season in 2015. Now, Reyna and Wolff will have a unique opportunity to grow Austin FC’s roster beyond its initial pair of players, Rodney Redes and Cecilio Domínguez, who will both make the move to Austin from Paraguay in early 2021.
“It’s an important draft for us to add players into our squad for our inaugural season,” Reyna noted. “We’ll be able to bring players in who will be able to contribute right away. As well as being players who will help the team on the field, they’ll be players who understand MLS. It’s important to have guys who understand the league … who simply know what MLS is about.” Reyna added that Expansion Draft players include potential starters as well as reliable subs who can help a team navigate the intensity of a full season in the league, understanding the travel and training demands as well as what happens on the pitch.
Unlike last year, when Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC alternated picks, Austin FC will have this draft all to themselves due to Charlotte FC’s postponed entry into MLS until 2022.
The draft itself will be a relatively quick affair. According to the 2020 MLS Expansion Draft rules, Austin FC are allowed to draft five players, getting up to three minutes per pick, picking one player from each of five different squads who did not have players selected in the 2019 Expansion Draft.
That means 16 clubs will have players eligible for the taking: Chicago Fire FC, Colorado Rapids, D.C. United, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, Inter Miami CF, LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact, Nashville SC, New York Red Bulls, Orlando City SC, Philadelphia Union, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
Each of those clubs will be allowed to protect 12 players from their Senior, Supplemental, and Reserve rosters, with the rest going into the player pool. Generation adidas players who have not graduated at the end of the 2020 MLS Season, and Homegrown Players 25 and under (born in or after 1995) on a club’s Roster at the end of the 2020 MLS Season are automatically protected.
“There are many teams in MLS who have strong squads, who are not able to protect all their players,” Reyna remarked. “That gives us the opportunity to add players who have played significant minutes last season and in prior years. With that, we’re confident that we’ll be able to add some real good players to our squad.”
While Reyna and Wolff are comparing notes on the players they believe will be available, a few factors could impact who’s available prior to the Expansion Draft. A number of teams are already announcing who will and won’t be under contract for 2021, impacting who might be available in the free agency period beginning Wednesday, Dec. 16 at noon CT. MLS also had a half-day trade window open from 8 am-noon CT on Sunday, Dec. 13, which Austin FC used to secure five players.
On Monday, Dec. 14, at 1 pm CT, MLS released the list of eligible players, allowing fans a day of speculation before Austin FC makes their picks from their draft headquarters at the Fairmont Hotel.
This draft will certainly be more streamlined than the one Reyna did in 2014. That draft involved redistributing players from Chivas USA, which ceased operations in 2014, with the League allowing all MLS teams to choose Chivas players, before NYCFC and Orlando City SC took ten players each.
Reyna notes that while in that draft NYCFC and Orlando had the luxury of ten picks, his team also had to react to picks Orlando made as they worked through their list of preferred players. He also notes that each team can protect 12 rather than 11 players, and have built-in protections for the Homegrown players becoming more of a presence in the league — making it slightly more challenging to draft the right difference-maker.
“There’s certainly learning from that Expansion Draft, but in the years since I first participated in it, it’s different,” he said. “For us, to be the only team drafting really allows us to look at the players available. We can control all the picks that we have, and don’t have to react to another team and wonder what they’re going to do. In many ways, being on our own is an advantage, but there are more ways that teams can now protect players.”
In recent years, some recognizable players moved in the Expansion Draft and played roles in successful inaugural seasons. This past year, both first-year teams made the expanded playoff format, utilizing Expansion Draft day pickups in their runs to the postseason.
Inter Miami acquired defender Ben Sweat, who played in 22 of Inter Miami FC’s 23 regular-season matches, among its five picks. (Sweat was announced Sunday as a new Austin FC player via a trade.)
Nashville brought in forward Abu Danladi, who saw action in 17 2020 matches, and defender Jalil Anibaba, deployed in 12 matches. (Anibaba was also drafted in the 2014 Expansion Draft — by Orlando.)
Nashville also selected defender Zarek Valentin, trading him to Houston for Joe Willis, who served as the team’s starting goalkeeper throughout 2020. Willis helped Nashville upset Toronto, registering five saves in the extra-time playoff win, en route to pushing eventual Eastern champs Columbus to extra time in their semifinal matchup.
LAFC had one of the most notable recent expansion drafts, landing a starting goalkeeper in Tyler Miller and a versatile field player in Latif Blessing. FC Cincinnati, with its Expansion Draft, landed one of MLS’s all-time leading scorers, Kei Kamara, before dealing him to Colorado, as well as former FC Dallas midfielder Roland Lamah, whose impressive resume included stops at Belgian powers Anderlecht, La Liga side Osasuna, and then-Premier League team Swansea.
The Expansion Draft livestream will be a historic moment for Austin FC fans. While the Expansion Draft is ultimately just one step on the way to building a roster, it’ll be an important one, providing insights into how Austin FC might look when they start play this coming spring.