Two United Technical Directors: Lagos and Bocanegra. Image credit to Nick Rogers.

The Angle

Previewing the Coin-Toss: What’s at Stake in Sunday’s Priority Draft

by on 13 October 2016

On Sunday, Minnesota United and Atlanta United will take part in an Expansion Priority Draft (1:00 p.m. CDT, October 16). The draft will mark the first major excursion into MLS for the Loons and, as such, it will be a crucial moment for building their roster. The event will be streamed on YouTube.

The last time MLS held a Priority Draft was in 2014 for the entry of NYCFC and Orlando City SC, so we looked back to see if there are any lessons that can be learned. The draft consists of each team choosing which draft they want to prioritize for building their rosters. Yes, it’s a draft of drafts. Welcome to MLS.

If you’re dying to know what you’re in for during this absolute pinnacle of soccer entertainment, you can watch the previous iteration.

The biggest takeaway from the event? Despite being called a coin flip, there was no pocket change involved. An unlucky NYCFC fan drew a name from an envelope and gifted Orlando the first pick in the draft. Here’s how Adrian Heath (former OCSC manager) and Jason Kreis (former NYCFC manager) drafted from there.

  1. Orlando: Expansion Draft

  2. NYCFC: Allocation Ranking

  3. Orlando: SuperDraft

  4. NYCFC: Discovery Ranking

  5. Orlando: USLPro/NASL Priority

  6. NYCFC: Waiver Order/Re-Entry Draft

  7. Orlando: Lottery Ranking (extinct)

  8. NYCFC: Designated Player Ranking (extinct)

There’s a lot to unpack here. Kreis admitted during the draft that he was confused between what the discovery ranking and USLPro priority are, taking the former when he meant the latter. Discovery rankings are used as a “dibs” system to have priority on incoming talent from other leagues in the world; USLPro/NASL priority allows a club to have first right of refusal at a lower-division talent wanting to join MLS. Hopefully, Manny Lagos has done his homework.

Most notable, though: New York City and Orlando City each walked in with very different priorities for the draft. Knowing they were in a major market and in contention for the likes of David Villa, Pirlo, and Frank Lampard, NYC made sure to have rights for major players that weren’t already in the league. With Kaká in the fold, Orlando wanted to build through youth and the Expansion Draft, making sure to claim both pieces.

Jason Kreis, learning the MLS roster rules with the rest of us. 2014- MLSsoccer.com.

Jason Kreis, learning the MLS roster rules with the rest of us. 2014- MLSsoccer.com.

The priority draft is absolutely vital to how Minnesota United will be able to maneuver this offseason. Using NYCFC and OCSC as guides, let’s analyze at all six pieces up for grabs in the priority draft, ranked by my opinion of their importance to MNUFC.

Expansion Draft (Picks for Grabs: 1/2)

This is the one with the most pressure (and the best-documented for each team). It’s also the one that can most directly influence a club’s first season. Traditionally, the expansion team(s) have ten picks from a list of players left unprotected by other MLS clubs. Existing clubs can protect eleven from their current roster, leaving them immune to the Expansion Draft and ensuring they’ll keep these players for the next season. (Homegrown players on their supplemental rosters are automatically protected, too.) Orlando and New York City drafted on December 10, 2014.

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As a whole, neither team really hit a home-run with their drafts in conclusion. The best pickup was NYCFC’s 8th pick of Tommy McNamara, who has lit New York on fire since being picked up. Patrick Mullins was a top prospect at the time and has since found his feet in DC, but never really did much for NYCFC.

Things get murkier given the rule change for this year, where MNU and ATL will only get five picks instead of ten. That means picks like Tommy McNamara, Eric Gehrig, and Mehdi Ballouchy (three contributors since day one, though none are bigger gems than McNamara) wouldn’t have been made.

There are lots of ways Minnesota could use the Expansion Draft to their advantage, and our site will have plenty of coverage from after the priority draft to prepare for that. That said, there’s a real chance that the club could pick up three opening-day starters and two legitimate diamonds in the rough like Patrick Mullins and McNamara. That’s massive for a club that’ll need to fill a 28-man roster before January training camp.

SuperDraft (1/2)

The MLS SuperDraft mirrors every other US professional sports league in being an entry for college prospects into the league, with the worst teams picking first. With the second pick in the SuperDraft, New York City drafted forward/winger Khiry Shelton. A quick player who made waves at Oregon State, he’s a key part of their rotation and figures to stay that way for another five years. All of that would be well and good if it weren’t for Orlando’s selection in front of them: Cyle Larin.

Larin is one of the best SuperDraft picks in the last five years, having already become the main scorer for both Orlando and the Canadian national team. With that being said, it may seem like getting the first pick in the SuperDraft should be most important. However, there are two absolute gems in a loaded draft class and Minnesota will have a crack at one of them no matter what.

Most notably is Minnesota-raised Jackson Yueill, a central midfielder currently playing at UCLA. In June, he confirmed to FiftyFive.One’s Brian Quarstad that he intends to go pro this winter and just last month he recorded a mind-boggling three assists in 32 seconds in a UCLA match. Taking him wouldn’t just be a move to appeal to Minnesota fans, it’d be a legitimately smart pick.

The other major prospect is former Duke Blue Devil Jeremy Ebobisse, a striker who signed with MLS in August and finished the year with the USL’s Richmond Kickers. He’s a US youth international, having trained alongside current Arsenal prospect Gedion Zelalem in academy play, and he isn’t eligible to be a Homegrown claim by any team. Whether Minnesota takes Yueill or Ebobisse, the pick should be a major part of their foundation.

It may seem like getting the first pick in the SuperDraft should be most important. However, there are two absolute gems in a loaded draft class, and Minnesota will have a crack at one of them no matter what.

USL/NASL Player Priority (1/2)

The first two items up for grabs are by far the easiest to investigate. They’re singular, well-publicized events and tracking them requires almost no effort. The priority rankings are far more complicated to follow, as they can be traded as commodities to other teams (usually to the Los Angeles Galaxy if there’s a major player who wants to sign with them). Both NYC and OCSC will be passed up in these by Minnesota and Atlanta in 2017. In turn the two Uniteds will be passed by Los Angeles FC (and possibly a second team) in 2018, so using them within twelve months will be important for whoever chooses to prioritize these.

In theory, the USL/NASL Priority rank should be a very useful asset. It allows clubs to have priority on promising players in the second and third division if they’re looking to join MLS during their first transaction window. It’s another way to help build parity into the league, giving the newest teams in the league the first chance at rostering these unproven talents. Minnesota and Atlanta will each have priority on one lower-division player that isn’t on United’s current roster or isn’t on an MLS team’s USL discovery list. #PeakMLS

In the single most exciting moment of the priority draft, Kreis forgot which priority was which, gifting Orlando the USL Pro/NASL Priority. In turn, the Lions hoped to sign Miguel Ibarra, wanting to line the former Loon up across from 2014 USL MVP Kevin Molino on the opposite side of Kaká. That would’ve been a truly formidable line to run out behind Larin. Instead, Club Leon purchased Ibarra in the summer of 2015.

This is where it gets even murkier, as there’s no explicit mention of this ranking being used by either (or any MLS club) since that priority draft. So why, then, is this more important for Minnesota than the others? Two-fold: first, two of the remaining three slots are 21st/22nd, making them less appealing than a top-two pick of any kind. Second, and most importantly: Minnesota has been inadvertently scouting NASL talent all season long. Like Ibarra before them, NASL has some MLS-level talent who haven’t played at the top level, such as Tampa Bay’s Joe Cole, FC Edmonton’s Papé Diakité, Carolina’s Nazmi Albadawi, or New York’s Jimmy Maurer. Securing the first spot in this rank would give United the first crack at locking them down alongside their own holdovers, who they have priority over anyway.

Allocation Ranking Order (1/2)

MLS’s Allocation Order is used to give priority to struggling clubs in terms of acquiring certain types of players. These players are either notable USMNT (or youth USMNT) players or they’re players who were previously transferred out of the league and had their rights renounced by their previous clubs. The order is the reverse of the previous season’s final standings, with expansion teams jumping to the top. The full list of eligible players is available on the league website and features the likes of Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, and Obafemi Martins.

Minnesota United has been inadvertently scouting NASL talent all season long. Like Ibarra before them, the NASL has some MLS-level talent who haven’t played at the top level. Securing the first spot in this rank would give United the first crack at locking them down alongside their own holdovers

New York City chose this with the second priority and walked away with USMNT midfielder Mix Diskerud. Orlando City used their claim on USMNT winger Brek Shea. Both have been poor claims, with Diskerud in first-year NYC manager Patrick Vieira’s doghouse all year and Shea a liability at full back and on the wing. That said, a well-researched allocation claim can be a major boon, as has been the case for clubs like Colorado (Tim Howard) or Philadelphia (Alejandro Bedoya).

Alternatively, the allocation ranking can be traded as a commodity to sweeten a deal. Philly, for example, acquired the pick from Chicago in exchange for a lucrative package of picks and allocation money. Looking at the list of Allocation-eligible players, there aren’t any immediate fits for Minnesota, specifically. However, trading the pick to a market like Seattle (in need of replacing Nelson Valdez up top while having three former players on the list in Martins, Fredy Montero, and DeAndre Yedlin) could bring in a much more valuable haul.

(For what it’s worth: I’m fairly certain both Shea and Diskerud will be available in the Expansion Draft this year.)

Waiver Draft and Re-Entry Draft (21/22)

The MLS Re-Entry Draft is a massive form of waivers, allowing clubs the opportunity to claim other teams’ unwanted players. These players are still under option or contract by the league and must be allocated first through this process before being able to renegotiate their deals. Teams announce their list of waiver-eligible players at the end of the MLS season, setting up the pool of players for the draft. Players taken in the first stage of the draft keep their current salary figures (most teams pass in the first stage), while players chosen in the second stage can renegotiate with their new clubs.

The fact that 80 percent of picks are passed on makes this the least entertaining draft in all of sports from an action standpoint, but teams can find serviceable players who simply were out of place in their previous setting. New York City (claiming this over two now-defunct assets) decided to pass in both stages of the draft. Orlando took Josh Ford, a backup goalkeeper who started twice, spend most of 2015 on loan and in goal for Fort Lauderdale, and was cut before the 2016 season before signing with the USL’s San Antonio FC. As for Minnesota, there’s a chance that a fringe-starter or depth player could be added. This is much less important than the first four assets listed, though.

Discovery Player Ranking (21/22)

Finally, we’ve reached the least-transparent and most-ridiculed asset available in the priority draft. Most people forgot there was a discovery player ranking until this May, when Philadelphia was revealed to have “discovered” a little-known striker from Sweden.

zlatan

Clubs are allowed seven “discovery” slots to have some sort of claim on potential targets from other leagues that don’t fit the allocation process. Teams submit their list of “discovered” players in August/September, meaning that Minnesota already has their list for the next year. This ranking would be for the next season. Much like just about any asset in the league, the claims on these players can be traded, with other teams having to pay the club with the player’s claim $50,000 to jump their priority.

While Zlatan Ibrahimovi? never came to MLS after all, another member of their list (striker Michael de Leeuw) signed with Chicago this summer, implying that the Fire payed the Union this $50,000 fee for his rights. It’s a rule intended to level the playing field a bit for clubs that aren’t in markets like New York or Los Angeles. In reality, the additional fifty stacks is a negligible additional fee if a club wants the likes of Zlatan. For this reason, it’s the least valuable commodity available in Sunday’s priority draft.

How High Stakes is This?

When Lagos and Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra meet for the draft, they’ll effectively be starting the arms race to get ready for January’s preseason. Having priority in areas like the SuperDraft and Expansion Draft will be major assets for a Minnesota club that figures to bring less than ten players along from its NASL incarnation. For the short term, these two drafts will provide up to nine players to supplement this growth.

In the bigger picture, the club can’t rely on these six methods alone to get ready for 2017 and beyond. To wit, it’s safe to say that Orlando City “won” the inaugural offseason, bringing in a highly marketable Designated Player, drafting one of the best young players in MLS, and setting themselves up for a chase at the NASL Golden Ball winner. However, the two clubs find themselves in very different spots during the 2016 season’s home stretch.

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Against the narrative of their first seasons, New York City has taken a giant leap in year two and become a front-runner for home field through the MLS Cup Playoffs. Orlando hasn’t been able to keep Kaká healthy this season, has failed to find a suitable backline or goalkeeper over two seasons, and has turned to former NYC boss Kreis to turn it around. It’s still early for both clubs (after all, Portland was able to win MLS Cup in just their fifth season and is on the brink of elimination in their sixth), but they offer a bit of solace in case Atlanta gets the advantage in this priority draft.

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