By Ridge Mahoney
The season is barely over, and Galaxy Nation is still recovering from its victory and lavish Staples Center celebration, yet preparations for the 2012 campaign have already begun.
Eighteen teams submitted their list of protected and non-protected players Monday; on Wednesday, expansion entry Montreal will pick 10 of them in the Expansion Draft.
Each team can protect 11 players and can lose no more than one. Doing the math reveals eight teams won’t lose any players at all directly, though trades or other related moves could affect their rosters.
The drama – such as it is -- can’t be as intense as last year, when a flurry of trades accompanied the 20 combined selections made by Vancouver and Portland, but there are juicy storylines present.
MAJOR PLAYERS. This is the sixth straight MLS postseason -- and seventh out of the last eight -- that will feature an Expansion Draft, and on every occasion prominent names pop up who shouldn’t surprise anybody.
Montreal coach Jesse Marsch played 14 seasons in the league for D.C. United, Chicago and Chivas USA, and knows his fellow coaches well enough to have worked the back channels about what his plans are. Those arrangements, plus the massive salaries paid to players like Omar Bravo (Sporting Kansas City), Julian de Guzman (Toronto FC), Andres Mendoza (Columbus), Freddy Adu (Philadelphia) and the like probably preclude their selection. One of the protected big names on the TFC roster is former German international Torsten Frings, a midseason DP arrival who greatly shored up a leaky midfield and is being tempted by offers to return to Europe.
Still, any exposed starter from a good team is an opportunity Marsch may not be able to pass up but there are always considerations beyond talent and salary. In Houston, for example, Honduran on-loan attacker Carlo Costly has said he’s headed to Mexican club Atlas. Though veteran Brian Ching is exposed, with a history of injuries he’s a risk. Winger Danny Cruz is enticing but the 21-year-old might not adjust to a radically new environment.
The Quakes’ Bobby Convey is anxious to move on, and has been left unprotected. He needs to sign a new contract and is not eligible for the Re-Entry Draft, so even if Montreal is interested, it could wait and use another acquisition mechanism rather than burn an expansion pick on him.
On the other hand, there could already be a deal in place for Convey to play in Montreal or elsewhere. Also on the Quakes’ unprotected list is midfielder Joey Gjersten, who came to MLS in 2010 after two excellent seasons with Montreal in the USL. The Quakes protected him last year but not this time around.
Marsch’s task is affected by laws in Canada, where residency and employment requirements for spouses and girlfriends differ from those in the U.S. Several MLS players have left Canadian teams partly because their spouses were not qualified to work in Canada.
As did Vancouver last year and Toronto in 2007, Canadian teams must juggle the issue of slots filled by domestic players. TFC has exposed Canadian international defender Adrian Cann, who missed most of the season while injured.
KEEPER CONUNDRUMS. Three teams -- Los Angeles, Toronto FC, and New England – protected two goalkeepers, while several teams, including Vancouver, didn’t protect any.
The excellent play of Josh Saunders enabled him to retain the No. 1 Galaxy jersey after regular starter Donovan Ricketts recovered from a broken arm suffered in a match at San Jose, and TFC’s Milos Kocic did well enough in his relief stint to plant Stefan Frei on the bench. The Revs are keeping both Matt Reisand Bobby Shuttleworth.
As the league expands and the available goalkeeper slots increase, the value of those players also escalates. Since Kocic, formerly with D.C. United, and Saunders have proven they are of starter caliber, it makes sense for their teams to protect them and retain their rights, if necessary, so their appeal can be measured in the trade market. There are always deals to be done in conjunction with the SuperDraft and Supplementary Draft to be staged in January.
The value of having two good goalkeepers on hand was confirmed last year when a broken ankle sidelined ex-Quakes goalie Joe Cannon. Jon Busch, who had won the No. 1 shirt previously before Cannon re-claimed it, stepped back into the nets and finished out a season that took San Jose into the playoffs and past New York before it lost to eventual champion Colorado.
A year ago in the Expansion Draft, San Jose left Cannon unprotected and the Whitecaps claimed him. This time around, after Cannon and Jay Nolly split time in the Vancouver goal during a very rough expansion season, both keepers are exposed to possible selection by Montreal.
New York and Seattle also didn’t protect any keepers. Reports abound that Frank Rost, one of four goalies on the Red Bulls’ long unprotected list, is leaving MLS for a return to Germany, and the Sounders are in discussions with Austrian goalie Michael Gspurning to replace retiring veteran Kasey Keller.
Another young keeper who proved himself in 2011, Dan Kennedy of Chivas USA, has been protected. Veteran Zach Thornton is on the unprotected list.
SLEEPERS. Can Marsch find a solid player capable of blossoming into a vital component of his new team, as Portland coach John Spencerdid last year by selecting SKC veteran midfielder Jack Jewsbury and transforming him into the team captain?
There are plenty of solid candidates on the rosters of playoff teams such as Real Salt Lake and Seattle, yet there’s also promise on a squad such as D.C. United. Austin da Luz and Stephen King, to name just two, are the type of young players who could improve greatly with regular match time.