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Why there might be a surprise on the Sounders’ Expansion Draft protected list

It’s time for some game-theory...

Leo Chu (23) celebrates scoring a goal with team mate Dylan... Photo by Angel Marchini/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On Thursday, the Seattle Sounders and every other MLS team will have to make public their list of players excluded from the 2022 Expansion Draft. That list of excluded players will include all Homegrowns 25 years old or younger, as well as 12 others. The next day, St. Louis City SC will be allowed to pick five players, but no more than one player from any team.

Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting, Ethan Dobbelaere, Sota Kitahara, Danny Leyva, Dylan Teves and Obed Vargas are all exempt from the draft as Homegrown Players younger than 26.

Most of the Sounders’ protected players are pretty straightforward, I think. In fact, I’m almost 100% sure of 11 players. Here’s who I think is on that list (in alphabetical order): Xavier Arreaga, Yeimar Gomez-Andrade, Nicolás Lodeiro, João Paulo, Jordan Morris, Jackson Ragen, Cristian Roldan, Alex Roldan, Raúl Ruidíaz, Albert Rusnák and Nouhou.

I think the final spot is potentially going to have a bit of game theory rolled into it. This isn’t necessarily about who is the best or most important player, but might be more about who the Sounders feel like they can most afford to expose.

I think it probably comes down to Stefan Frei and Léo Chú.

I know what some of you are probably thinking: “How is this even a question? Chú wasn’t even a starter, while Frei was arguably the Sounders’ most important player last year and one of the league’s best goalkeepers ever since he arrived here. He’s won the Sounders two MLS Cups and was named the Concacaf Champions League’s Best Player and the Best Goalkeeper while leading them to that title. That happened just a few months ago, dude! Show the man some respect.” I’ll add to that: Just this last year, the advanced metrics credited Frei with preventing 3.1 more goals than would have been expected and he was ranked as the sixth-best goalkeeper in the league by both that metric and goals prevented per 90 minutes. He does this all while making a very tolerable $500,000, which is pretty close to the median for starting goalkeepers in MLS. Just for good measure, he seems to love playing for the Sounders and living in the area, even building his dream house on Bainbridge Island.

Given all that, it would probably a little crazy for the Sounders to just dangle him out there for someone else to take for the bargain basement price of $50,000 in general allocation money.

Except, that’s not exactly how this works.

The first thing to keep in mind about the expansion draft is that St. Louis City only has five picks. That gives them a lot of incentive to have a clear plan for each of them. I can say pretty confidently that St. Louis is not looking for a starting goalkeeper. They’ve already committed to paying Roman Bürki more than $1.6 million next year, effectively twice as much as the second-highest paid goalkeeper in the league. There is no scenario where the former Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper isn’t the starter and no team in the league is going to sign a player they know will be a backup at $500,000.

I’m sure you’re now ready to jump in to say something like, “But couldn’t St. Louis pick Frei anyway and just trade him?!?”

Yes, they absolutely could. I’d even agree that he’d be a starter on most MLS teams and if he were a free agent, he’d probably get a fair amount of interest. But that’s not the issue here. For Frei to have value to St. Louis, there needs to be a robust trade market where a team is willing to give up at least $250,000 in GAM to make it worth their while to pick him.

I won’t pretend to have that good of a handle on the offseason trade market, but I’m skeptical there would be many teams falling over themselves to pay for the rights to a 37-year-old goalkeeper who’s entering the final year of his admittedly bargain contract. I suppose if you’re a team entering what might be the final year of a championship window and goalkeeper is the one spot you need to fill to push it over the edge, ponying up that kind of money might make sense.

Looking around the league, Toronto FC might make the most sense. They’ve got a team obviously built to win now, have two expensive goalkeepers at the end of their contracts and have a history with Frei to boot. Toronto is probably one of the few MLS cities where Frei would willingly relocate. I have no idea how TFC’s salary-cap situation looks or if they have allocation money to spend, but I could see them making a play for Frei. Of course, I would imagine Bob Bradley is just as likely to believe he can take the equivalent of $750,000 in cap space — the $250,000 in allocation money he’d need to trade plus the $500,000 he’d have to pay Frei — to find a higher-upside option on the international market. As a point of comparison, Steve Clark was a free agent last year, had similar advanced metrics as Frei, was about two years younger than Frei is now, and ended up getting about $620,000 a year.

I’ll add that even if the Sounders lost Frei, they’d be in okay shape with Stefan Cleveland. Although not as confidence-inspiring, the advanced metrics really like Cleveland. His post-shot xG per 90 is .27, which ranked as second-best in MLS among goalkeepers with at least three starts. I think there might even be a decent chance that Cleveland is a more attractive target for St. Louis than Frei is, since his salary is perfect for a backup.

One more wrinkle that will need to be considered: based on our most recent reporting, the Sounders have three internationals on their roster, Yeimar, Chú and Abdoulaye Cissoko. Assuming one of them has not received a green card since August, the MLS Expansion Draft rules dictate the team would need to protect at least two of them.

This is where I think we need to trust the Sounders a little. They will hopefully know what the trade market looks like for Frei before deciding whether or not to protect him. If they think there’s a good chance they lose him, they probably need to protect him.

But if they do protect Frei, there’s a good chance they’ll lose Chú. Based purely on his 2022 performance, there’s an argument to be made that St. Louis is doing the Sounders a bit of a favor. That would open a U22 Initiative spot the Sounders could then use to sign another young player.

I’m not sure the Sounders see that as the preferred outcome, though. Not only did the Sounders pay a $2.75 million transfer fee to acquire Chú a little over a year ago, but they did so with the understanding that it might take a little while for him to adapt to his new league. Chú has not been great, but probably not as bad as is the perception. He’s very good on the ball, is quick and has been reasonably productive. For all the frustrations with his play, Chú does have two goals and three assists in about 1,100 minutes with the Sounders. That translates to about .39 goals+assists per 90 minutes, which would have been tied for fifth-best on the Sounders this year. He’s also still just 22 and I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility the Sounders can still recoup their investment. I don’t know exactly how the rules work if a U22 player changes teams, but the new team probably doesn’t even need to recoup the transfer fee in order to receive allocation money in a move abroad.

None of that makes me think the Sounders should just give up on Frei in order to protect a potentially sunk cost. If they think it’s likely that someone like TFC is going to be willing to make a trade for Frei, the Sounders need to protect him and take a risk elsewhere. My larger point is that the expansion protected list isn’t as simple as picking the 12 best players, so it’s at least possible there will be a surprise or two in there.

Editor’s note: We plan to revive the Protectionator by next week.

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