The 2011 Major League Soccer season isn't even over yet, and yet somehow the start of the 2012 league year is less than a week away. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo will meet for the right to hoist the MLS Cup trophy, and yet each team might lose one of its key players just three days later.
That's right: it's the MLS expansion draft! That cruel annual ritual in which professional soccer players are forcibly yanked from their current clubs and sent to some far off locale like Portland or Vancouver. In this case, its the Montreal Impact who will be the new entrants to the league, and they'll have their first chance to begin building their roster Wednesday Nov. 23.
On that day, Impact head coach Jesse Marsch will select 10 players from around the league. But he won't be able to select more than one player from each club, and he won't be able to select any of the 11 players that each team will be able to choose to protect. Homegrown players who have graduated from their teams' developmental academies are also exempt from selection, but don't need to be among the 11-man protected lists.
For D.C. United, this last clarification is an important one. United is fortunate in that three of its major contributors happen to be among the team's homegrown list - U.S. National Team goalkeeper Bill Hamid, 2010 Rookie of the Year winner Andy Najar, and former University of Maryland defender Ethan White. If the homegrown rule wasn't in place, these three players would absolutely be on Ben Olsen's list of 11 protected players. But due to the success of United's Academy in churning out young stars, Olsen will get to protect three different players, increasing the odds that United may not lose any player to the Impact.
With 18 teams currently in the league, and with the expansion draft lasting only 10 rounds, eight teams won't lose any players at all. United very well could be one of those teams. But that doesn't mean we should take the draft lightly.
There are several players on United's roster that are obvious choices for the 11-man protection list. MLS MVP candidate Dwayne De Rosario is an easy selection, as he led United with 13 goals and seven assists despite playing only half of this season's matches with D.C. The versatile Rookie of the Year runner-up Perry Kitchen will be included on the list as well.
United collapsed late in the season when defender Dejan Jakovic and attacking winger Chris Pontius each got injured, further erasing any doubts that the the two roommates wouldn't find each of their names written on the protection list as well. The same can be said for Jakovic's top defensive partner Brandon McDonald, who has emerged as the leader of United's back line.
The list gets just a bit murkier after those five building blocks are secured, but Santino Quaranta, Chris Korb, and Josh Wolff should all be protected with little question. Quaranta missed much of the season with concussion symptoms, but was a vital piece for United's attack late in the year. Whether starting in place of the injured Pontius or coming on as a substitute, Quaranta was always involved, and finished the season with a goal and four assists. Korb is one of United's promising young players who was called into action more often than many would have guessed due to injuries to other defenders. D.C.'s second round draft choice earned two assists in 12 games in 2011. On the opposite side of his career, Wolff took over Jaime Moreno's job of veteran leader of the attack quite capably, notching five goals and seven assists on the year.
The final three spots on United's expansion draft protection list face some steep competition. The team could choose to protect Montenegran designated player Branko Boskovic, who saw the field only four times in 2011 due to injury. Boskovic has shown the potential to be an elite MLS player, but has not yet made an impact on the league, and carries a heavy price tag that would likely prevent an expansion team from drafting him. Charlie Davies is also a candidate for protection after scoring 11 goals for D.C. this season, but he is only in MLS on a one-year loan, and appears more likely to return to Europe this offseason. The Impact would be taking a major risk by selecting either Davies or Boskovic, therefore rendering them unlikely to earn protection from United.
The players most likely to occupy the final three protected spots are Clyde Simms, Stephen King, and Daniel Woolard. Simms has been a starter for United in the defensive midfield since 2007, but looks likely to lose his job to Kitchen going into next year. Still, Simms has a high value for Olsen as a substitute, and would be a starter for many other teams in this league. United wouldn't want to lose him without receiving compensation in return, so Simms should make the protection list. King and Woolard each appeared in more than 20 matches for United in 2011 and are two of Olsen's favorites, making them also the favorites to earn the final two spots on the 11-man protected list.
This will leave Austin Da Luz, Blake Brettschneider, and Joe Willis on the outside looking in, and as the most likely candidates to be selected by the Impact. Da Luz arrived in D.C. in a trade with the New York Red Bulls midway through the season and was a frequent contributor, while Brettschneider earned a goal and two assists for his work as a forward this season after getting drafted by United in the fourth round. Willis filled in admirably for Hamid in goal when necessary in three matches, and could be a capable backup again next year. But each of these three players is fairly replaceable if selected. While United would certainly hope not to lose them, moving on without Da Luz, Brettschneider, or Willis wouldn't be impossible.
The most likely scenario for United next week though remains that the team will not lose any players. With the Impact having the opportunity to choose only 10 players, they will probably look outside of D.C. to fill their roster. After all, this is a team that missed the playoffs and was in the bottom third of the league in goals allowed.
By the time Thanksgiving comes around, Olsen’s Army could be one player lighter. But other teams are much deeper, and so a high probability remains that Marsch and the Impact will leave United unscathed.