To Protect, or Not to Protect? This is the Justification
By Vaughn Pollman and Brian Maurer
Earlier this week, we outlined our predictions for who Charlotte FC will look to protect in the upcoming St. Louis City SC Expansion Draft, on November 11th. Now let’s dive into the players we think could be left unprotected and why that decision may be made by the club.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that the decisions that clubs have to make in who they do and do not protect in the expansion draft have real ramifications both on and off the pitch. How a club delivers the news and justification to a player of why they are left unprotected is highly important in managing the long-term morale and performance of that player within the organization.
By being left unprotected a player and their family is subject to being out of control of their future home, which is part of the business of being an athlete, but is a consideration that clubs, players, and fans must all keep in mind in making these difficult decisions.
In selecting who we feel the club should or should not protect we had to take into account many factors, as the club will, including a player’s contract length and status, position on the club depth chart, past and future investment of assets in the player, trade and/or transfer value, and the net loss or benefit to the club if that player is ultimately selected.
As a reminder, if a Charlotte FC player is selected by St. Louis City SC, the club will receive $50,000 GAM (General Allocation Money) and exemption from having any more players selected when MLS inevitably expands to 30 teams in the future.
Below we’ve tried to provide context and justifications for each of the players that we collectively predict could be left unprotected.
The primary reason to leave Alcívar vulnerable is that the team would gain considerable roster building flexibility if he were selected by St. Louis. Since he occupies a Young Designated Player Spot, we would open up that roster spot as well as an international roster spot. Zoran Krneta has stated that Alcívar’s contract can be bought down, meaning the team can apply Allocation Money to change Alcívar’s roster designation status.
The team also could be working to clear his international status by helping him acquire a green card. There is investment in that process as well. If the team is unsuccessful in acquiring his green card, or other player’s green cards, the club may need to spend the going rate of approximately $250,000 GAM to acquire additional international roster spots later this offseason.
If Alcívar finds himself off the roster via Expansion Draft selection, the club could save and reinvest somewhere between $150,000 to $300,000 of Allocation Money that they could otherwise be on the hook for if he is on the roster at the start of the 2023 season.
Alcívar is one of the young players on the Charlotte FC roster who could also end up being picked up by St. Louis in the draft depending on their strategy. An expansion draft is an ideal opportunity for new clubs to take a bit of a riskier chance on a player because the transfer is free.
Alcívar did not have a standout inaugural season with Charlotte FC, but his potential absolutely showed in flashes. St. Louis could be interested in finding out if those flashes can become more consistent by taking a chance on him and his growth potential in the expansion draft while maintaining the salary cap budget benefit if he remains classified as a Young Designated Player.
Gaines is a difficult call because we all witnessed his progress as a player, especially late on in the season, as he worked his way into serving a serious role in the club in both starting minutes and as a bench threat to stretch the field and challenge opposing defenses. Leaving him unprotected boils down to Vaughn’s belief that the club will look to protect their investments in three other wingers in Kerwin Vargas, Kamil Jóźwiak, and Andre Shinyashiki. Those three are on long-term contracts whereas Gaines has one remaining club option for 2024.
Brian’s belief, in a similar vein, is that Charlotte will have likely spent at least four protection slots on the attack, making it difficult to justify another on Gaines. With that being said, if Gaines were selected, Charlotte would actually net a positive return and not compromise their overall long-term squad depth. Gaines’ pace is something that St. Louis would likely covet, but they would need to decide if they want to take him on as an unfinished, developing player project.
ESPN analyst, Alejandro Moreno, discussed Gaines’ potential on a broadcast when Charlotte FC played the New York Red Bulls. On the broadcast he mentioned how good a player Gaines could be if he could figure out the final third production. In Gaines’ last ten appearances of the season he played 539 minutes* and had five goal contributions (1g/4a) in that time. Gaines may have found his stride in the final third in MLS. It’s a small sample size, but again, expansion drafts are an ideal time to take a risk. Gaines is another player that St. Louis could be willing to take that risk on.
Oh Danny boy, what do we do with you? Ríos showed towards the end of the season how impactful he can be in MLS. He played his way into having his club option picked up and can easily be viewed as a 1500+ minute player for Charlotte. He may not make the Brandon Vazquez jump that FC Cincinnati enjoyed this past year, but Ríos is in the prime years of his career and performed at a high level in Charlotte’s system, especially down the stretch.
His trade value is suppressed a bit by the fact that he is on an expiring contract, so St. Louis may be hesitant to pull the trigger on selecting him for that reason, but leaving Ríos unprotected would be enticing both for St. Louis and other teams looking to grab him via trade. Karol Ṥwiderski and Vinicius Mello will be more likely protected due to their long-term contracts, budget friendly deals, and significantly higher transfer values compared to Ríos.
When a team can only pick 12 players to protect out of a possible 22 some good players in their prime are going to be available. Ríos fits that bill for Charlotte. He is a player that Charlotte FC cannot be faulted for being left unprotected and yet he is also a player that could be selected by St. Louis, as many teams in MLS are constantly looking for more attacking options.
Mora was selected by Charlotte FC in their expansion draft, so he clearly fits the profile of both a player to be left unprotected and to be selected in large part due to his 100+ games of MLS experience. In Vaughn’s prediction, he has Charlotte leaving both Mora and Adam Armour unprotected, exposing our already thin left-back depth. The club has been pretty open about wanting to add to its left-back core in the offseason, which indicates that Mora and Armour should not be viewed as shoe-in top-of-depth-chart players for Charlotte heading into 2023.
If Charlotte were to lose one of them, left-back is one of the positions in MLS that you can most easily fill via trade, without destroying your Allocation Money budget, or can draft a pro-ready starting-caliber player in the MLS SuperDraft.
Leaving Mora unprotected on expansion draft night could lead to a nervy time for the Charlotte FC Front Office if they do not have some other options at left-back lined up. Losing Mora in the expansion draft could mean that when the transfer window opens the only left-back on the roster is Armour.
If this is the case, Charlotte could find themselves going from being a team shopping for a left-back, to a team that is in desperation mode and getting price gouged for one. If Mora is unprotected Charlotte will need to have a strong alternative plan in place to fill the gap on the roster so that they are not a desperate team looking for a last minute spot starter.
In Brian’s prediction he left Andre Shinyashiki unprotected, electing to protect Mora for left-back preservation. As Brian highlighted, we have considerable winger depth that could see players like Gaines or Shinyashiki being left as the “odd man out”. With Shinyashiki’s recent contract extension, if left unprotected, he could be viewed as a “no-brainer” pickup for his value on and off the pitch.
St. Louis could make a big mistake if they miss on grabbing him to either slot in as a veteran MLS starter or to trade him for considerable GAM as we did with Tristan Blackmon and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi as part of our Expansion Draft. The one caveat to that is that Colorado retained 50% of his trade-on rights as part of our acquiring him. If Charlotte FC or St. Louis were to ever elect to trade Shinyashiki, his value as a trade asset is cut in half, which may make selecting him a bit less appealing.
There is one other point regarding Shinyashiki to keep in mind as the Expansion Draft approaches. Shinyashiki made one start in the last seven games after receiving his new contract. Whether we like it or not, this is a cutthroat business where harsh decisions are made regarding individual players to help preserve the betterment of the club. Charlotte was willing to sign a player to a new contract and not utilize his services extensively as a starter.
They will likely consider leaving him unprotected if the club feels a greater need to protect other players who we hold 100% trade right for, or positions lacking depth. While Shinyashiki absolutely has value as an asset, that value is cut in half by his trade-on, and diminished by his role status.
Reyna, like Mora, is a player with a lot of MLS experience that has proven to be an effective MLS player in the right system. Reyna, like Gaines, is a winger who is further down the depth chart than Vargas, Jóźwiak, and Shinyashiki. Reyna, like Alcívar, is occupying an international roster spot and is on a TAM-level contract that already requires the club to spend allocation money to buy down his nearly $800,000 cap charge.
If selected, there is a considerable relief to the club in shedding his contract that probably outweighs the benefits of keeping him. This is also why St. Louis or any other club would be hesitant to absorb his contract, so I expect him to be left unprotected, unselected, and part of Charlotte FC in 2023.
George Marks, Pablo Sisniega, & Adrían Zendejas
We are lumping all three of these guys together for natural reasons. We expect the club to protect at least one Goalkeeper, and it would be a surprise if our current starter, Kristijan Kahlina, is not that one. Yes, St. Louis already has Roman Bürki, and yes, they are tight on international spots, but among our four Goalkeepers, Kahlina is the one that holds the most trade and transfer value by a long shot.
Among our other three Goalkeepers, Sisniega is the only one with serious MLS minutes while at LAFC. While he is serviceable in net, he has not proven to be a consistent match winner in this league. If we were to lose Kahlina, we would have an unnecessary additional hole in our roster with Sisniega and Marks likely viewed as a stopgap to another future replacement signing.
Simply, Sobociński is an unlikely candidate to be selected in the expansion draft. His salary is at a level that he should be getting spot starts and would not be considered a budget pickup for St. Louis. There will be other center-backs available in the expansion draft and free agency that will be more enticing for either salary reasons or for MLS experience. With his limited opportunities thus far he also does not hold much trade or transfer value, yet. Lastly, like with our wingers, Sobociński will be the odd man out with Guzman Corujo, Adilson Malanda, and Anton Walkes more likely to be protected ahead of him.
Center-back appears to be a position that has had a bit of an inflating value within MLS of late. Aaron Long, for example, appears to be capable of getting a big deal in free agency even though he has been less than his former self of late. Charlotte FC received 400k in GAM, with the potential for more in the future, by trading Christian Makoun to the New England Revolution even though he had lost considerable playing time here. Valuations of center-backs are clearly trending up league-wide, but it is unlikely that that will be enough for Sobociński to be on St. Louis’ radar.
Armour is coming off a serious injury and has very limited minutes in MLS. While he did find the back of the net in his limited minutes, it would be a considerable risk and going out on a limb for St. Louis to pick him. Armour also holds little trade value within MLS. It would be a big surprise to all of us if he were protected and an even bigger shock if he were to be selected.
*All stats were found on FBref.com