Devil’s advocate: Why not to play the kids

(Published on the Philly Soccer Page in Aug. 30, 2010.)

So here’s why Philadelphia Union couldn’t play the young guys constantly this year:

If you play them too much, you could lose them in the expansion draft.

The Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers will each pick 10 players in the expansion draft this November. That’s 20 players from the current 16 teams, which means some teams are going to lose two players (but likely not more).

The Union can protect 11 players from their roster, provided the rules stay relatively constant from past drafts. As the league’s youngest team, they’d be a prime target to lose more guys.

Generation Adidas and home-grown players are typically exempt from the expansion draft and don’t have to be protected, however. That gives the Union a big advantage because they have four Generation Adidas players: Danny Mwanga, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Chris Seitz. J.T. Noone could potentially qualify as a home-grown player, which would exempt him too, though it’s unlikely.

Players graduate from Generation Adidas based (at least in part) by how much they play. If you play too much, you graduate. (Seitz remains Generation Addidas despite being in his fourth season but is almost certain to have graduated by year’s end.)

If the Union’s prized teenage trio is exempt from the draft, then it allows the team to protect other players, a huge benefit.

Major League Soccer roster rules have always been somewhat murky though, with the single entity keeping many things behind closed doors, andexpansion draft rules change a little each year. The league hasn’t officially released this year’s rules, but Vancouver breaks down some projected rules on its web site. Likewise, until we know who graduates from GA, we won’t know who’s exempt from the draft.

If Toronto FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei was the measuring stick, then the Union would be well positioned, but chances are he’s an exception to the rule. Most thought Frei would have graduated from GA last year because he started 26 games and played 2,282 minutes as a rookie. Somehow, he didn’t and was exempt from the expansion draft, freeing up another protected slot for Toronto.

In contrast, fellow GA players Steve Zakuani, Kevin Alston, Omar Gonzalez, Patrick Nyarko and others graduated and were not exempt from the expansion draft after each started more than 20 games last year, and their clubs had to spend protection spots on them. MLS officials never explained the distinction between them and Frei. As a result, we don’t know it. (Are there different rules for goalkeepers?) Chances are that Frei was a special case, something not unheard of in MLS circles.

Of the Union’s three GA players, only Mwanga has played more than 300 minutes or started more than two games. Okugo is unlikely to crack the starting lineup as a regular, so don’t expect him  to graduate. McInerney could start after Saturday’s performance. With 267 minutes played and one start so far this year, he could theoretically crack 1,000 minutes and double digits in starts if he went the full 90 in each remaining Union game. Mwanga has started 11 games and appeared in 16, playing 1,006 minutes. Considering last year’s graduations, it looks like a coin toss on whether Mwanga graduates GA or not.

Union fans should hope that none of the three do. That would allow them to protect 11 of their other 20 players.

That means the Union could protect:

  1. Roger Torres
  2. Andrew Jacobson
  3. Chris Seitz
  4. Sebastien Le Toux
  5. Shea Salinas
  6. Danny Califf
  7. Justin Mapp
  8. Juan Diego Gonzalez
  9. Jordan Harvey
  10. Michael Orozco Fiscal
  11. Kyle Nakazawa

That leaves only four players under age 30 exposed: Nick Zimmerman, Toni Stahl, Brad Knighton and potentially Noone. If Orozco leaves, it means you could protect Zimmerman. Alejandro Moreno, Stefani Miglioranzi, Eduardo Coudet, Fred and Cristian Arrieta should not be protected due to a combination of age and performance. Of those, you probably lose Zimmerman or Nakazawa if they’re unprotected, or possibly Arrieta.

But that’s all contingent on the GA kids being exempt. As much as I’d love to see Mwanga and Union Jack starting the final nine games, there may be a good case for sending the vets out to play, at least for a bit.