By Ridge Mahoney
A flurry of player moves has followed in the wake of MLS Cup, with the Expansion Draft and numerous trades indicating another busy offseason is underway.
Yet another tweak to the Sporting Kansas City midfield marked a day of limited yet intriguing movement of players among MLS teams that seems to signify one of the most active offseasons in recent years.
Brazilian midfielder Paulo Nagamura, a linchpin for much of his two stints with Chivas USA, is bound for SKC in exchange for its first pick in the 2012 Supplemental Draft. The same pick had been exchanged last week in a trade that sent midfielder Ryan Smith to join Chivas USA, which had also surrendered its third-round Supplemental selection to acquire the 25-year-old Englishman.
Nagamura joins a list of prominent players to change clubs in the week and a half following MLS Cup.
Davy Arnaud, Bobby Burling, Justin Braun, Brian Ching, Justin Mapp, Sanna Nyassi, Donovan Ricketts and Robbie Russell are among those filling out change-of-address cards. (We’ll see if Ching goes back to Houston in yet another trade-back deal, possibly for Andre Hainault.)
MARKET FORCES. Several factors are contributing to a more competitive market for MLS players; those who meet certain parameters of age and time of service in the league have greater leverage than in the past; the SuperDraft to be held in January has been cut down from three rounds to two; the rapid rate of expansion – eight teams, including Montreal, have been added since 2005 – has forced teams to expose more good players, who if they are selected have to be replaced; and more products of player development programs run by MLS teams are finding their way onto game-day rosters.
These factors in many ways intertwine, which SKC coach Peter Vermes believes contributes significantly to increased player volatility. “Every year with the Expansion Draft it puts you under pressure to figure out who you’re going to keep and all those things,” says Vermes. “Along with the Re-Entry Draft Stage 1 and Stage 2, there’s a lot to deal with in a short period of time.”
On Monday, SKC traded 10-year veteran attacker Arnaud to the expansion Montreal Impact to re-claim left back Seth Sinovic, whom Montreal had picked in the Expansion Draft last Wednesday. The move further reshaped a midfield that has been in flux since last March, when SKC midfielder Jack Jewsbury went to Portland in a trade. The emergence of Graham Zusi and signing of Brazilian Julio Cesar this season covered Jewsbury’s loss, and a potent group of attackers made Arnaud expendable. The process continued last week when one of the club’s summer signings, Jeferson, was waived. Nagamura thus replaces a Brazilian who, unlike Cesar, didn’t work out.
As a player at least 30 years old with at least eight years in the league, Arnaud is eligible for the Re-Entry Draft if his option isn’t picked up or his contract is allowed to expire. Another player traded Tuesday, Jeremy Hall, represents a different class of player: in 2012, he will be in the final year of his original contract. In 2013, he will be eligible – as a player at least 25 with four years of service – to enter Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Draft if not offered a contract worth at least as much as his 2012 deal.
Hall played 17 games for Portland in 2011 before being traded to FC Dallas, for which he made just four appearances. FCD has sent him to Toronto FC since he doesn’t fit into their plans, but his relatively high salary ($80,000 base salary/$129,000 total compensation in 2011) also means he could cost at least that much to re-sign with the same club for 2013, and that’s a possible burden better parceled to someone else’s roster.
YOUNG GUNS MOVE ON. Coaches Robin Fraser and Jason Kreis, of Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake, respectively, complained about having to expose good, young players in the Expansion Draft. Last week, Montreal claimed rookie defender Zarek Valentin off Fraser’s roster and Kreis had to surrender second-year midfielder Collen Warner.
“It’s a bummer to lose Collen,” RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said on a media conference call following the Expansion Draft. “I think Montreal is getting a really good player.
“You always lose a good player. Look, you are losing a first round draft pick [in 2010] and that’s not a good thing, but it is what it is. It’s the system we live in.”
Montreal coach Jesse Marsch has been lauded, rightly, for using the system shrewdly to stock his roster through the Expansion Draft and subsequent trades. Yet the stark fact is as MLS raises its level of play – slowly, it must be said –- more good players will potentially be lost by teams who can protect only 11. With greater player movement afforded by procedures written into the collective bargaining agreement approved in the spring of 2010, MLS teams are growing more competitive off the field as well as in the games themselves.
SUPPLEMENTARY CASES. Another change to the league’s player mechanisms adopted last year was revival of the Supplementary Draft, which had been abandoned after the 2008 season. It will consist of four rounds next year and several slots for 2012 and 2013 have been utilized in trades.
On Tuesday, RSL swapped Robbie Russell, a key member of its back line since 2009, to D.C. United for a third-round pick in the 2013 SuperDraft. As there are only two SuperDraft rounds in 2012, that pick will revert to a first-round Supplementary Draft pick if the two-round SuperDraft format is retained.
In the span of eight days, SKC traded and re-acquired the same Supplementary pick from the same league rival in the Smith and Nagamura deals. A few years ago, that would have been regarded as bizarre; in current conditions, it’s just a way to stay competitive.
Next up: Players’ contract options for 2012 need to be exercised by Wednesday, after which the Re-Entry scramble begins. Stage 1 is set for Monday.
“I thought we were pretty well-equipped last year,” says Vermes of going through all the phases: Expansion Draft, two stages of Re-Entry Draft, SuperDraft, and Supplementary Draft. “There were a few teams that passed and didn’t trade their [draft] spots. I thought that was kind of interesting, why you wouldn’t trade for some value if you weren’t going to pick. I didn’t understand that strategy, so I wasn’t prepared for that, per se.
“The other thing was to get a deal done for a player in the very limited time available, especially when we see all the guys who are going to be available in the Re-Entry Draft. You get a chance to see where their salaries are and if you’re willing to pick up the option where [the salary] is, or re-negotiate. Having gone through that process last year will be helpful this year.”