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We really don't need the MLS Expansion Draft anymore

Sounders did well to get out of it without significant pain, but this seems like a rather pointless exercise.

Last Updated
4 min read

Of all the machinations that make MLS stick out like a sore thumb in the soccer world, the Expansion Draft might be the most notable. While such things are pretty commonplace to the North American sports consumer, as far as I know there’s not another soccer league in the world with anything quite like it.

Over the years, this has become a bit of a terrifying experience for Seattle Sounders fans, even though they benefitted pretty significantly from it when they came into the league. In case you’ve forgotten, the Sounders got seven players out of that draft who played a pretty significant role for them during their early years. Among them were Nate Jaqua, James Riley, Jeff Parke and, most notably, Brad Evans.

There have been 11 Expansion Drafts since the Sounders entered the league, and they’ve lost seven players in the process. For the second straight time, however, the Sounders managed to get out of it relatively unscathed.

Although it’s not the official explanation — apparently this was literally just a handshake agreement — the Sounders were able to keep their roster safe in part by agreeing to send St. Louis an international roster spot at what appears to be a 50% discount. The Sounders got $100,000 in General Allocation Money a day after St. Louis sent twice that much to Nashville SC for another international roster spot.

Even if St. Louis wasn’t really planning to take any Sounders — and it’s fair to assume that’s the case — this is still a pretty good piece of business by GM Garth Lagerwey. Before the trade, the Sounders had five open international roster spots and there’s probably a decent chance that they’ll be able to open up at least one more by getting a green card for either Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Abdoulaye Cissoko or Nouhou. Last year, they ended up with more unused international spots than they had unused roster spots. Getting $100,000 for a roster spot that was reasonably likely to go unused while also gaining the peace of mind to not worry about losing someone like Stefan Cleveland and Jackson Ragen is a pretty good deal.

Still, I’m of the mind that the Expansion Draft becomes less and less useful every year, and that’s fine. You’d have to go all the way back to 2017 to find the last time a team actually got several useful pieces. That year LAFC were effectively able to get three players out of the draft who played significant roles for them. In the last four, the “successful” picks have mostly been used as a way to bulk up the expansion team’s allocation-money reserves. I’m not saying it’s a completely useless exercise, but I think it’s one mechanism we could do away with that makes the league feel a bit more accessible to new fans.

Are the Sounders too quick to punt on youth players?

Sam Rogers, a Seattle native who spent most of his youth career in the Sounders Academy system, is quickly emerging as a favorite of USMNT fans who track players in Europe. It’s not hard to see why. He’s starting regularly for Rosenborg, one of the top teams in Norway, and just scored his sixth goal of the season.

This comes on the heels of a breakout season with HamKam of the Norwegian second division, who he helped gain promotion and then sold him for about $700,000. The USMNT is now at a point where a player like Rogers probably needs to “prove it” in a league better than Norway’s, but that he’s now fulfilling the promise many saw in him here is definitely notable. It’s also notable that all of this is happening after he left the Sounders organization.

It won’t take long to find people — especially on USMNT Twitter — who seem Rogers as illustrative of a trend that sees the Sounders failing to give their young players opportunities. I don’t think this idea is completely without merit — heck, Lagerwey even complained about it recently — but I think the size of the problem is easily overstated.

Rogers is obviously an extreme example. But I’m not sure who else is a player the Sounders “obviously” mishandled (and even in his case, I think you can argue it has worked out just fine for everyone). Henry Wingo is another former Sounders player who is doing well in Europe — he starts regularly for Hungary’s Ferencvaros, a team currently playing in Europa League — but his story is actually a great counter-example. In Wingo’s case, the Sounders helped him find his way to Europe and they retained a sell-on fee when he was transferred to Ferencvaros from Molde for close to $1 million.

Sure you can find other examples of Sounders Academy prospects that are still playing professionally somewhere, but that’s mostly in MLS Next Pro or the USL. I’d argue that’s actually a display of health. If the Academy is working how it’s supposed to, it should be producing players every year who can play professionally somewhere. Ideally, the best of those players will stick with the Sounders and the absolute best of those will eventually fetch massive transfer fees. Inevitably, that will lead to Sounders “missing” on a few but that’s just a symptom of talent production. It’s a good problem to have.

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