With Tuesday’s news about the MLS Expansion Draft format behind us, let’s take a look at the methods Atlanta United will be able to use to acquire the rest of its inaugural roster.
At the moment, here are the seven players on Atlanta’s roster:
GK, Alex Tambakis (on loan to Charleston)
M, Junior Burgos (on loan to Tampa Bay)
M, Andrew Carleton (on loan to Charleston)
M, Chris McCann (on loan to Coventry City)
M, Hector Villalba (on loan to Xolos)
F, Kenwyne Jones (on loan to Central FC)
F, Jeffrey Otoo (on loan to Charleston)
MLS rosters are divided into three sections. The Senior Roster can have up to twenty players and they count against the team’s salary cap. Teams have to fill at least eighteen slots on the Senior Roster, or they will see a salary cap hit against them for the unused spots.
The Supplemental Roster can have up to four players, and their salaries do not count against the salary cap. These slots can be filled with Homegrown Players, Generation adidas players, or others who were eligible for the SuperDraft. They must be paid a base salary which is at least the Senior Minimum Salary ($62,500 in 2016).
The Reserve Roster can have up to four players as well. These are players earning the Reserve Minimum Salary Budget Charge ($51,500 in 2016) or Homegrown Players earning more than that. The players also must be 24-years-old or younger during the league year. Generation adidas players cannot fill these slots.
Of the three players on the last MLS Players Union salary report issued in May, Otoo would qualify as a Reserve Roster player while Burgos and Tambakis could fill Supplemental Roster spots. We know Villalba is a Young Designated Player who will be on the Senior Roster and count $200,000 against the salary cap (charge subject to change in 2017). McCann and Jones will be on Senior Roster contracts. While we do not know Carleton’s contract details, he should be on the Reserve Roster as a Homegrown Player under 24-years-old. Homegrown Players can earn up to $125,000 and still fill a spot on the Supplemental or Reserve Roster.
If everyone comes back in 2017, that leaves up to seventeen spots on the Senior Roster, two spots on the Supplemental Roster, and two spots on the Reserve Roster to fill.
Here are the ways Atlanta can acquire players ahead of Opening Day 2017:
- Expansion Draft, December 13: With this year’s draft only having five rounds, Atlanta United would hope to select five players who remain with the club through their first season at a minimum. This would be consistent with previous expansion clubs in MLS, who, on average, used their other five picks for trade bait or speculative picks that did not pan out.
With fewer picks that before, you should see less speculative picks and teams will likely expect each of their picks to contribute to the team in 2017.
- MLS Free Agency, December: 2015 saw the first year of a limited free agency system within the league. Players who qualify for this process are at least 28 years old, out of contract or had their option year declined, and have a minimum of eight years of service in MLS. They are free to negotiate with any other team in the league. In 2015, those negotiations were able to start two days after MLS Cup. Clubs are limited to signing a maximum of two free agents through this process in a given year.
In the first year of the process, 27 players were eligible. Ten signed with new clubs, six re-signed with their previous club, two retired, and one signed with a NASL club. Drew Moor has been a mainstay on Toronto’s backline after leaving Colorado. Corey Ashe has provided depth in defense for Columbus. Chad Barrett has been a key forward off the bench for San Jose. Jeff Larentowicz has been a key contributor in midfield and defense for the Galaxy. Mike Magee returned to the Galaxy after three seasons in Chicago and has scored six goals this season. Ned Grabavoy has played in twenty games for Portland, mostly off the bench. Michael Harrington has played over 1,000 minutes at outside back this season for Chicago. Also in Chicago, Nick LaBrocca has provided needed depth in midfield.
Free agency will be a place to sign veteran players who know the league. Last year, most teams used it to build depth. In Atlanta’s case, it could be a spot to find a couple of starters.
- Waiver Draft, December: Last year, the Waiver Draft took place three days after MLS Cup. The timeline might change slightly this year due to squeezing in an Expansion Draft in the same time period. Players eligible for this draft have been waived by their club, but do not qualify for the Re-Entry Draft or Free Agency. Players who are currently contracted to MLS will be immediately added to a roster if selected, clubs who draft out of contract players must issue a genuine offer to the player selected.
In 2015, the only player selected was Michael Azira by Colorado. After eleven games in two seasons with Seattle, Azira has flourished in Colorado and been a key part of their squad. He has appeared in 26 games so far this season and has been among the better defensive midfielders in the league.
- Re-Entry Draft, December: This is divided into two stages, which took place six days apart from one another in 2015. Stage 1 consisted of two types of players. Players who were at least 23-years-old with at least three years of MLS service whose option years were not exercised by the current club were available at their option salary for 2016. Players who were at least 25-years-old with at least four years of MLS service who were out of contract were available as well, they had to be signed for at least their 2015 salary.
Stage 2 consisted of the players who were not selected in Stage 1. Clubs who selected players in this stage could negotiate a new salary with players they selected. If players were not selected in any stage, they were available to MLS clubs on a first come, first served basis.
Last year, Dallas traded General Allocation Money to Chicago to get the top pick in Stage 1 and selected Maxi Urruti. He has filled a huge need on the Open Cup champs up top. Sporting Kansas City selected Alec Kann in Stage 1. The goalkeeper has been important with Tim Melia’s back injury, starting seven games.
Two more contributors were picked in Stage 2. Orlando chose Kevin Alston, who has played in 19 games for the Lions this year at outside back. Portland selected Jermaine Taylor, the Jamaican has played 20 games all over the backline for the Timbers.
DC United used the Re-Entry Draft to great effect in 2013, effectively rebuilding one of the worst teams in MLS history by adding Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, and Fabian Espindola in the two stages of the draft. They went from winning three regular season games in 2013 to the top team in the Eastern Conference on the back of those moves.
Key starters and impact players can be had in the Re-Entry Draft.
- Lower division signings, December-February: These are handled outside of the international transfer window since they are domestic signings. Once the MLS season ends, Atlanta United can begin to sign lower division players from NASL or USL clubs. New York City signed Kwadwo Poku from the Atlanta Silverbacks on January 23, 2015. Outside of USL clubs owned by MLS teams, a handful of lower division players signed with MLS clubs prior to the 2016 season. Junior Burgos was one of those, signing for Atlanta United on February 2 of this year.
With a deeper player pool in the lower divisions than ever before, Atlanta United can find depth and a possible starter or two by scouting these clubs. They should have priority on up to three players from the Charleston roster due to their affiliation and according to yesterday’s MLS announcement, one other player from NASL/USL of their choosing.
- SuperDraft, January: Atlanta will pick either first or second, depending on the results of the Priority Draft on October 16. Orlando selected Cyle Larin with their top SuperDraft pick in their first year, New York City selected Khiry Shelton. With some of the talent this is likely to be available this year, Atlanta should expect to draft a starter with their top pick. There is also the possibility of acquiring more draft picks via trade. Philadelphia was able to stockpile three of the top six choices in last year’s draft to rebuild their roster.
- Transfer market, January-February: Players can be added either via transfer or loan during the transfer window. Players who are out of contract can be signed at any time. In 2016, the winter window opened on February 18 although players were announced throughout January and already joining training camps around the league.
One special category of players to keep in mind is the Allocation Ranking List. Atlanta will have the #1 or #2 spot in the Allocation Ranking Order going into the next transfer window. This process is how Philadelphia acquired Alejandro Bedoya this summer, which saw the Union trade a package to Chicago for the top spot. Tim Ream, who has been rumored to be returning to MLS in the near future, is on this list.
- Trades within the league: Orlando added three players prior to Opening Day via trade, while NYCFC added six. The expansion teams used allocation money, SuperDraft picks, and player rights to complete these deals.
- Homegrown Player Signings: These can occur at any time. With the strength of Atlanta United’s academy already, more players could join Andrew Carleton via this method.
Even though they had a different format for the expansion draft, there is much to learn from how Orlando and New York City built their initial rosters in 2015. When they played each other to open the season last year, neither team had more than five players that they acquired through the Expansion Draft on their first 18-man game day roster.
Orlando acquired 10 of their 18 players through the transfer market, either via signings or loans. Three were direct Expansion Draft picks, and one (Aurélien Collin) was acquired by trading a player from that draft. Two of the Lions’ first game day roster came up from the USL with them, one was acquired via trade in MLS, and one was from the 2015 SuperDraft.
NYCFC had five players on their first game day roster come from the Expansion Draft. Five more came via signing or loan in the transfer market, and another five joined the club via trades from within the league. One was signed via the Allocation process, one was signed from a lower division club, and one was selected in the 2015 SuperDraft.
With up to 21 spots left to fill on the roster, a safe bet for how those spots will be filled is this:
Expansion Draft: 5
MLS Free Agency: 2
Waiver Draft: 1
Re-Entry Draft: 2
Lower Division signings: 1
Transfer Market: 5
Homegrown Player signings: 1
These numbers can change if any of the seven players currently signed are let go, or loaned out for 2017. While building a team from scratch is never easy, the various player acquisition methods at Atlanta United’s disposal will give them plenty of opportunities to build a competitive roster in their first year.