Most Sounders fans agree on the core group of players the team should ensure return next season; what should the team's approach be for the rest of their allotment of players to protect from the Montreal Impact?
This coming Wednesday, the Montreal Impact will do the lion's share of the work involved in building their roster ahead of their inaugural MLS season. The MLS Expansion Draft will take place on November 23rd (just two days after the MLS Cup) and it's almost certain the Sounders are going to lose a player, and a pretty decent one at that. Last year the Sounders lost Sanna Nyassi and Nathan Sturgis to the Vancouver Whitecaps (although neither ended up playing a game for our Cascadia rivals) and though Nyassi blossomed into a respectable MLS player this season neither loss was exactly rued by Seattle. This year promises to be a bit different, as a side effect of the Sounders improved depth in a still-growing MLS means the hole left by the player chosen is likely to be quite a bit bigger.
To put it bluntly, the Sounders are a victim of their own success in building a strong and deep roster. The good news is that, unlike last season, Seattle won't lose two players. The bad news is that the player they do lose will likely be worth more than Nyassi and Sturgis combined. Save the Impact doing something totally unexpected (and likely pretty dumb) there's no way Seattle doesn't emerge from the expansion draft without losing an important player. The key to the Sounders emerging from the other side with minimal damage will be their ability to accurately measure the downside of each possible scenario.
This is an imperfect attempt to examine what the Sounders have and to come to a completely subjective conclusion as to what they should do. There are, of course, several important caveats that must be addressed before we begin; first and foremost, there's the fact that the team knows a whole lot more about its personnel than we do. As much as we may all love Player X, if Adrian Hanauer and Sigi Schmid know that Player X is less than crucial to the team's plans, is somewhat unhappy in Seattle and/or is a big fan of poutine then it may well make plenty of sense to leave him unprotected. Similarly, we don't know of any possible avenues towards signings and/or trades the team has in the works. Player Y may be the clear first choice at his position, but iif the team is confident that Player Z is willing to sign and will offer an upgrade, risking Player Y may well be worth exposing.
Finally (and of course directly related to the above) are financial considerations; actual compensation and how it is figured as it pertains to the salary cap is guesswork at best. We have a general idea how much cap space Seattle had last season (enough for a designated player, roughly) and we can make an informed guess as to how much they'll have after extensions, performance bonuses and the like are taken into consideration (slightly less!) but for the purposes of this exercise, that's about all. Player Q may well be someone that lends the team some value, but the cost-benefit ratio may well be more favorable to an expansion team that it is to an elite MLS team looking to hit the next level.
Now, let's get to it.
El Corazón indeed. In terms of on-field contribution coupled with salary cap hit, there's likely not a better value in the league than Osvaldo Alonso. It's unlikely he's ever going to be the best player on any team, but he's almost always going to be the most important player on any team.
One of the ten best players in CONCACAF,a multi-faceted threat and a player that is destined to bring the club a pretty hefty sum of cash when the time comes for him to move on, Fredy Montero is nearly as big of a no-brainer as Alonso, with the only difference being the slight possibility Montreal may pass on his contract. (They wouldn't though.)
As amazing as Mauro was last season, his health and age are enough to raise some question. It's a really stupid question though; Mauro is amazing.
Quite a few people see Flaco as expendable.He takes up a Designated Player spot, he's likely second choice at left midfield behind a healthy Steve Zakuani and it's unknown whether he's capable of playing in the center. On the other hand, he takes up a designated player spot because the Sounders paid a transfer fee for him (which they will likely recoup,) Steve Zakuani may very well not be healthy until several months into the season and any team that can't find a way to utilize a player as good as Alvaro Fernandez probably doesn't deserve to win.
Steve Zakuani carries a fair amount of risk. That risk is pretty enormously drowned out by the potential reward. Coupled with the emotional ties the fanbase has to Zakuani, leaving him unprotected would be a pretty reckless decision.
Hurtado is far from a perfect player, but even last season he was pretty clearly in the upper tier of center backs in MLS and given that he is just now 18 months removed from ACL surgery (and was pretty clearly a better player for the latter half of the season) he's a guy the Sounders will want to keep around. He's shown that he can be an elite-level defender in this league, and there's little reason to think he's incapable of getting back to that level.
Parke is last on this list of players that should be a given in terms of their being protected, but he still quite comfortably makes the cut. At 31 Parke isn't likely to improve a great deal, but that's far from the zone of inevitable decline phase for a central defender and of all the players on Seattle's roster it's tough to find one with fewer objectivelly poor performances. Parke may not be spectacular, but he's as solid as they come and the fact that an expansion team would likely see him as an ideal player to turn to for veteran leadership in the middle of defense makes him look quite vulnerable.
The Rest Of The Core
Leo Gonzalez and Tyson Wahl are two very different players, but in terms of value they're roughly equal. Gonzalez is a better defensive player and slightly more composed in possession while Wahl is more of a weapon in attack and a major asset from set-pieces. Neither would be especially pleasant to lose, but in terms of overall value it's tough to make the case for protecting either.
Patrick Ianni has pretty clearly reached the end of his time in Seattle, and though he's a legitimate first-choice defender for a lot of teams in MLS the durability of Parke and Hurtado means his value to other teams is going to be quite a bit higher than it is to the Sounders. Ianni seems a reasonable selection for the Impact, and if he's not picked he'll likely be moved via trade at a later point in the offseason. Behind Ianni are roleplayers such as Zach Scott and Taylor Graham; they will not be picked.
James Riley as somewhere in the range of an average MLS right back (and he could float to either side of that line depending on perspective) making average MLS right back money. The options behind him (Zach Scott, possibly Brad Evans) are far from ideal and he's something of a fan favorite. Riley has his faults (far from creative in attack, poor positional awareness) but he's also better than many of his critics would like to admit. There's certainly a case to be made for ensuring he stays in Seattle.
This is where it gets interesting. There is some debate over whether Michael Tetteh counts as one of the three international players the Sounders are obligated to protect; if he is, Erik Friberg shifts up to the status of "Untouchable." If he isn't, things get a bit more muddled. In reality, much of the debate surround the choice between Friberg and Evans. Like Gonzalez and Wahl, Evans and Friberg are players of roughly equivalent value(though at a higher level); Evans is a better defender, a better ball-winner, more composed in possession and more tactically sound. Friberg is more creative, better from set-pieces and more of a threat in the attacking phase. Both are versatile, and though the terms of Friberg's contract extension are undisclosed it's reasonable to expect that their salary cap impact is similar. In the end, the only clear edge to either player goes to Friberg in terms of his less-extensive injury history, but if the coaching staff favors Evans' skillset the choice between the two is far from clear cut. This is largely a judgment call based entirely on personal preference.
Servando Carrasco has a great deal of potential, but the odds he'll be chosen are slim to none.
With all due respect (and awe!) to Roger Levesque, this is really all about Lamar Neagle. Neagle has some work to do and though he made some significant strides this season he's still a role player on a good team, he's also got a fair amount of potential and is likely to cost very little next season. Plus, he's local. That's good for a tiebreaker, right?
Nate Jaqua isn't going to be protected.
Okay, with that bit of controversy over and done with, it's really a question of Sammy Ochoa and Mike Fucito. Two very different players at similar stages in their careers, Fucito more of an established pro but Ochoa coming from something of a better pedigree. Ochoa has size and hold-up skill on his side while Fucito can boast strength and finishing ability. Sounds like a pretty good pairing to me.
Predicted Protected 11
Brad Evans is a Sigi Schmid guy, and it's not as though the reasoning behind that is tough to nail down; Evans is one of the most underrated players on this team and his versatility is tough to match. Sigi likes his central midfielders and Friberg is a good one in the box-to-box sense, and given the fact that Friberg just had an option picked up it would seem as though he's in the Sounders plans going forward. Ochoa fits the small-tall forward pairing Schmid has tended to favor throughout his coaching career. Neagle offers a great deal in terms of promise at a very low cost.
My Protected 11
As good as Brad Evans is, his injury history and relatively high cap hit should make him expendable. Friberg doesn'f do everything Evans can but he offers other things that could offset the loss. Ochoa and Fucito are a fantastic change of pace pairing, and on the off chance Fredy Montero departs over the off-season that could still be a dynamic combination at the most expensive spot on the pitch to replace.
Most Likely to Be Picked
- Brad Evans
- Erik Friberg
- Mike Fucito
- James Riley
- Samy Ochoa
- Patrick Ianni
- Servando Carrasco
Evans is the rock in central midfield a young team could do far worse to build around. If Evans is left unprotected he's by far the most likely player to be picked, and if there's any serious game theory involved he's the most likely to be involved. Friberg is likely somewhat less attractive to the Impact than he is to the Sounders, but if left unprotected he's likely gone; central midfielders are kind of important.
Fucito is an attractive player that moved from being promising on the fringes of the first team to an important regular this season. There's likely still an element of sight-based prejudice working against him, but if he's available and the Impact need a poacher, they could do a whole lot worse. It's possible Ochoa will be left exposed but despite the promise he showed in limited time with the Sounders some very poor teams thought him less valuable than a 3rd-Round Superdraft pick just three months ago and it would be a pretty huge stretch for Montreal to take him.
James Riley is a solid player at a difficult spot to fill and depending on how the rest of the teams in MLS approach the draft it's not a massive stretch to see him being the best option at the position available. More attractive than the other Sounders on offer? Likely not. But without knowing what else is on offer, it's impossible to say for sure. Ianni is far more likely to leave via trade, but if the league makes central defense a priority the Impact could see Ianni as a decent build-from-the-back option.
Servando Carrasco is a bit of an outlier; he's young and unproven, playing a position that's traditionally underrated in MLS (and the world over) but he's also shown a great deal of promise and costs very little money. Carrasco getting picked would be a pretty huge surprise, but it's not implausible depending on the direction the Impact chooses to go in building their team.
So, there it is. Ultimately all anyone knows is that the Sounders are going to lose a pretty good player, but any number of things could change the game along the way; Seattle could trade youth for a useful player they feel would be more attractive to Montreal than any of the players on offer, hoping the Impact would take the bait and working the new addition into the mix of things don't pan out. Montreal could go the youth route and take a player like David Estrada. We could find out that the folks in charge of the Impact have absolutely no idea what they're doing and watch them take Pat Noonan. But based on what we know and what we've seen in the past, none of those things are especially likely to happen. For the Sounders, the best case scenario is to lose the player they're most prepared to part with.