The off-season transaction period is fast approaching for Orlando City. The biggest date at the beginning of the calendar this time around is the Expansion Draft for FC Cincinnati ahead of its first season in Major League Soccer. The rite of passage for all new clubs comes with a bit of unease from existing clubs, who could see one of their players poached.
Almost every player on Orlando City’s 2018 roster at the end of the season could potentially be available on Tuesday afternoon. Even though eight players had their 2019 options declined and Earl Edwards Jr. is out of contract, the rules apply to them. Naturally, because it’s MLS, this Expansion Draft is unlike the others before it. Clubs that had players selected by LAFC last season are exempt from this year’s version, meaning only 18 of the current 23 clubs will make up FC Cincinnati’s player supermarket. The Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, San Jose Earthquakes, Columbus Crew, and Toronto FC will all get to watch from the sidelines.
For every other club, Orlando included, the rules from previous years apply. City will select 11 players to protect and dangle the others in front of Cincinnati and wait to see what happens. Clubs can lose a maximum of one player in the Expansion Draft and only five teams will lose a player again this time around. There are also a handful of restrictions on who does and does not need to be protected.
Players on the Supplemental and Reserve rosters with either a Homegrown or Generation Adidas tag are automatically protected and will not count toward Orlando’s 11. For the Lions, the Homegrowns are Cam Lindley, Mason Stajduhar, Shane O’Neill, and Jose Villarreal. Richie Laryea has yet to graduate from Generation Adidas and will also be automatically protected. Even though Villarreal and Laryea may not be in the plans for Orlando going forward, Cincinnati won’t be able to select them on Tuesday — the newcomers will have to go through other channels if they want to add them to their inaugural roster.
On the flip side, Orlando must protect at least three of its international players. It seems pretty safe to say that City would protect at least three of Carlos Ascues, Josue Colman, Mohamed El-Munir, Uri Rosell, Lamine Sane, and Yoshimar Yotun without the restriction. If any of Colman, Dom Dwyer, or Sacha Kljestan have a no-trade clause in their contracts, Orlando must protect them as part of its 11 — Designated Players aren’t exempt and can be exposed if clubs wish to.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three questions the Orlando front office is facing ahead of Sunday’s protected list submissions:
Is a high earner left exposed?
The idea of leaving a high-profile, big-wage player unprotected isn’t a foreign concept when it comes to Expansion Drafts. If a protecting club thinks the player’s contract — combined with other factors — would be unappealing to the expansion side, it can make the player fair game. That plan backfired for the Houston Dynamo in 2011, when the Montreal Impact selected club captain Brian Ching anyway and ransomed him back to the Texas outfit.
With that in mind, the Orlando brass has a decision to make around a handful of players, predominantly DP Kljestan. The veteran midfielder does not fit neatly into James O’Connor’s preferred 3-4-3 formation and came with a hefty $1.1 million salary in 2018. If the Lions are willing to take the risk and leave Kljestan unprotected, would the paltry $50,000 in General Allocation Money from the league for having a player selected be worth the salary dump when Sacha could almost certainly fetch more on the trade market if Orlando is committed to moving on?
Other players like Lamine Sane fall into the high-earner category, but with only four players capable of playing central defense on the roster, it’s safe to say the Senegal international is likely to be protected. Will Johnson, on the other hand, is part of a platoon of central midfielders, has high wages, and could be more easily replaced if he was a surprise pick by FCC.
If it comes down to protecting a player on the top end of the wage bill vs. someone younger and cheaper, there will be difficult decisions in the Orlando camp.
How risky can Orlando afford to be?
Even with a smaller pool to select from, the odds are long that of the hundreds of players available, one of the five that Cincinnati will select is from Orlando. While the club will still take every precaution to prevent the likelihood of a player being picked, chances are there are better values to be found elsewhere. Last year, Orlando left highly touted prospect Pierre Da Silva exposed and the young winger was passed over by LAFC. While Cincinnati will be building its roster in a different way than Bob Bradley’s side, perhaps the Lions can afford to be a little cavalier in who they decide to protect.
Will they need to use multiple spots to protect all of the roster’s central midfielders or spread the wealth? Adam Grinwis earned his spot on the roster, but did he play well enough to catch the eye of other clubs and thus need to be protected?
Are moves made in the half-day trade window?
Just prior to the Expansion Draft roster freeze, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday, clubs will have an opportunity to make some last-minute moves before submitting their protected lists. It’s a chance to make a deal or two and pocket some assets — potentially even with Cincinnati.
Orlando is in an interesting position of having several players that have already departed potentially being intriguing takes for Cincinnati or even other clubs around the league. With Scott Sutter, Jonathan Spector, and Joe Bendik having already said their goodbyes to the club after having their respective contract options declined, they could provide a tempting opportunity for FCC without putting a dent into Orlando’s 2019 roster. However, Orlando will retain its MLS rights through this window and could potentially field an asset for a player otherwise walking for free.
Just how active Orlando City will be in the trade market is a question of its own. Without a general manager in place, will the club rock the boat too much and potentially add a player? O’Connor is leading the way on personnel decisions but will the club take on a contract without a defined idea of how the roster will be built?
There are a lot of questions facing the club ahead of an important stretch of the club’s off-season and not a lot of time left to answer them. The decisions could have major impacts on the 2019 campaign.