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Atlanta United Big Board: Center Backs

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Often overlooked, this could be the most important section of the Big Board

2013 MLS SuperDraft Presented By Adidas Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Big Board is the lifeblood of building a team. You track your depth chart, your needs, and your targets. Let’s take a look at some possibilities for Atlanta United’s Big Board.

Goalkeepers

The summer transfer window for MLS teams opens July 4 and runs through August 3. At the moment, it is unknown whether there will be an expansion draft after MLS Cup or not. In the past, teams have added a large portion of their inaugural rosters through that process.

In 2015, Orlando only signed Kaká in the summer window and loaned him to São Paulo FC through early December. New York City FC acquired five players in the summer window. David Villa signed a designated player contract and was loaned to Melbourne City of the A-League. Jeb Brovsky and Andrew Jacobson were acquired via trade and then loaned to Norwegian clubs. Kwame Watson-Siriboe (trade) and Josh Saunders (free agent) were signed and loaned to NASL clubs.

Atlanta is in a different situation with four players already signed prior to their first summer window. Alex Tambakis and Jeffrey Otoo are playing in the USL with Charleston this year, Junior Burgos is on loan to Tampa Bay of the NASL, and Andrew Carleton will split time between the US U17’s, Charleston, and the Atlanta United academy in order to fulfill the terms of his Homegrown Player contract.

What does the Atlanta United Big Board look like? We will be taking a look at some potential realistic targets for the club, grouped by position, to help prepare for the upcoming transfer window.


Center Backs

Orlando went with veterans at center back and primarily played a combination of Aurélien Collin (acquired via trade during expansion draft) and Seb Hines (brought in on loan from Middlesbrough in February). Hines’ experience was specifically cited by coach Adrian Heath upon his arrival. Tommy Redding was also signed as a Homegrown player. Redding has become a regular in 2016, making Collin expendable.

Center back was a huge issue for New York City FC in 2015, something they never truly solved. Jason Hernandez was a mainstay, but never had a consistent partner. It was a rotating cast of characters that never solidified.


MLS Options

Walker Zimmerman, FC Dallas: Zimmerman is 23 years old and played his youth career with Gwinnett Soccer Association. He has cracked the FC Dallas starting lineup this season and has been one of the best center backs in the league. It will not be easy, but Zimmerman is exactly the type of young center back you would like to build around for a long time.

David Horst, Houston Dynamo: At a $91,000 cap hit, David Horst is one of the best bang for your buck defenders you're going to find in MLS. He's prone to making a bad tackle in the box once in a while, but show me an MLS defender who isn't. He's a physically imposing center back who can score on set pieces and shut down the opposing team's best attackers on his good days. While he's a streaky player, he's worth the risk. The hardest part of acquiring him will be prying him away from the Dynamo. The 30-year-old is in the middle of his prime and could be a great cheap option to squeeze a few years of solid production out of.

Kevin Ellis, Sporting Kansas City: Ellis is the third man in the SKC rotation at center back and his contract is up at the end of this year. He was a Homegrown signing for Sporting in 2011 and has played in over 50 games for them since joining the first team. He was a regular in 2014-15, but seems to be the odd man out this season. He is strong in the tackle and has enough experience to be a good fit. Sporting has some good depth at center back and if they decide to keep Ellis, other players could become available.

Eriq Zavaleta, Toronto FC: Another player whose contract expires at the end of this season, Zavaleta has bounced back and forth between the first team and Toronto’s USL affiliate this season. He has nearly 50 games of experience in MLS during his time with Chivas USA, Seattle, and Toronto. He is also still 23 and has time to develop further.

Jimmy Ockford, Seattle Sounders: Ockford is spending his second loan stint with the New York Cosmos this season. His contract is up at the end of this season and he has not been able to break into the Sounders’ rotation at center back due to veterans Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, and Brad Evans. He has been consistent with the Cosmos and could be available after the season ends if Seattle does not bring him back.


Americans Abroad

Zak Whitbread, Shrewsbury Town: Born in Houston, Whitbread has spent his whole career abroad. He played the most for Millwall before injuries derailed his career. Last season, he played the most games he had since the 2011-12 season with Norwich. If he is deemed healthy, his experience could be very useful with an expansion team.

Shane O’Neill, Apollon Limassol: The 22 year old has had a strange time since his move to Europe from the Colorado Rapids. He remained a key part of the US U23’s through Olympic qualifying, but he was not getting many games in his various loans from his club in Cyprus. He was last with Cambridge United in England’s League Two. His contract is supposed to expire at the end of this month, but nothing has been heard about next steps for O’Neill.


International Players

Fabian Balbuena, Corinthians: If Atlanta United wanted to make a splash at center back in Year 1, Balbuena could be a strong option. The Paraguay international is 24 years old and dominant in the air, starring at this summer’s Copa America Centenario. He joined Corinthians in February, so it might take a fairly large transfer to gain his services.

Kolo Toure, Unattached: The last thing you want to do as an MLS club is become a retirement home for old players. That doesn't mean you can't have some veterans there to help out, especially as an expansion franchise. Kolo Toure is right on the cusp of being over the hill. At 35 years old, he's got one, maybe two good years left in the tank. The fact that he's available for free makes him an attractive option. If you bring on young defenders, it wouldn't hurt at all to have a veteran there like Toure to show them the ropes. Celtic have already shown interest in the former Liverpool man, so it would behoove any MLS team to snatch him up fast.

Michael Boxall, SuperSport United: The New Zealand international has experience in MLS and could be worth a look to see how his development has progressed since he left the league. He was drafted out of UCSB by the Vancouver Whitecaps and played 19 games with them before being waived in 2012. He went to Wellington Phoenix to play in the A-League, then joined SuperSport United of South Africa in 2015. The 27 year old is under contract through summer 2017 and could be worth a look.


Other Domestic Options

Shawn Ferguson, Charleston Battery: Ferguson is in a promising position to become an Atlanta United player. He's a star player for the club's USL affiliate. With defenders most likely coming cheap and from domestic teams, it makes perfect since to use one of your three USL affiliate priority spots on one. Ferguson, 25, is a big, strong, and fast defender and was a First Team All-USL selection in 2015 and looks well on his way to repeating that feat in 2016. Rule of thumb in building an MLS roster is spend your money on the attack and look for bargains in the back. This would be one easy way to do just that.

Rafael Alves, Ottawa Fury: The 31 year old veteran was named to the NASL Best XI last season as he led the Fury to the Soccer Bowl where they lost to New York. He even added four goals to his strong defensive play. With his contract up at the end of the season, he should be monitored as an inexpensive option for depth.


Recommendation

Center back is a position many expansion teams have neglected in their planning, but it could be the most important in terms of affecting the team’s success on the field. Orlando showed a new way forward last year by pulling in veterans at this position and definitely found more stability than New York City did.

The market within MLS is a little thin though at a glance, and this might be a position where Eales and Bocanegra’s connections are put to the test.

Zak Whitbread would be a very interesting option as an experienced American center back and he seems to be healthy now. Shane O’Neill’s situation has been very intriguing since leaving Colorado and he could be available. If both of these players are available this summer, they should be considered.

Ferguson at Charleston is quite a prospect. He came to the game late and still has a lot of learning to do. I’m sure he is being evaluated by the Atlanta staff through their partnership with the Battery.

Depth can be found at the position, but getting the two starters right is very important for the 2017 season.