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The Expansion Draft: Not-Losing is Winning

The Timbers will have to make some nerve-racking decisions in choosing who to protect in the upcoming Expansion Draft.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

MLS’s least fun player-allocation event is coming up in less than three weeks. Two teams will win on December 10th, a small handful will come away unscathed, but the majority of the remaining 18 teams will lose. And some will lose badly.

Unless you’re an expansion side, the Expansion Draft is just no fun.

On Wednesday morning MLS released its "complete set" of 2014 Expansion Draft rules.   The primary rules are:

  1. Teams can protect 11 players. Those players cannot be drafted.
  2. No team can lose more than two players.
  3. When a team loses their first player in the draft, that team can protect one additional player at that time.
  4. The only players exempt from bring drafted (i.e., do not need to be protected because they cannot be selected) are players who are currently on a team’s supplemental roster (in essence, the approximately 10 roster spots of primarily young, low-salary players that do not count against the salary cap) who are also designated as an ungraduated-Generation Adidas player or Home-Grown Player. The only Timbers that meet those criteria are Steven Evans, Schillo Tshuma, and Bryan Gallego.
  5. Teams losing a player in the draft will receive $50,000 in allocation money per player lost.

Like every other current team, the Timbers have some decisions to make before the protected lists are released on the afternoon of December 8th. Assuming the Timbers roster looks on the second Monday in December as it does today (there is a half-day trade window on the morning of the 8th – intentionally placed before protection lists come out), here is what the Timbers’ protected and exposed lists will likely look like at the time of the Expansion Draft:

Likely Protected: Fanendo Adi, Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Alvas Powell, Maxi Urruti, Diego Valeri, Jorge Villafana, and Rodney Wallace.

Exempt: Steven Evans, Bryan Gallego, and Schillo Tshuma.

Likely Unprotected: Kalif Alhassan, George Fochive, Jake Gleeson, Michael Harrington, Jack Jewsbury, Pa Modou Kah, Rauwshan McKenzie, Michael Nanchoff, Danny O’Rourke, Norberto Paparatto, Taylor Peay, Donovan Ricketts, and Andrew Weber.

You can probably take these portions of the list to the bank. While the Timbers would dislike losing Harrington or Paparatto, it’s hard to imagine the Timbers protecting a projected backup fullback or an expansion team absorbing a second-year contract likely in the mid-$200,000 range for a centerback who has yet to put together a lengthy stretch of productive, healthy MLS play. And while Jake Gleeson certainly had a nice season in USL-Pro, considering the glut of solid, affordable goalkeepers that will be available in the draft, it’s hard to see Orlando City or NYCFC plucking the Kiwi.

And that leaves four players: Gaston Fernandez, Will Johnson, Liam Ridgewell, and Ben Zemanski. Unfortunately, the Timbers only have three remaining protected spots for these four players. At this point it’s worth noting that designated players with a no-trade clause in their contract must be protected, so if Ridgewell’s contract contains such a clause the Timbers will be required to spend one of their eleven spots on the English centerback.

But, assuming the Timbers have full latitude to protect any three of the above four, what are the benefits and drawbacks of each?

Will Johnson

Chance of Selection: Medium. Normally you’d say a 27-year-old, 2013 All-Star, captain-type central midfielder would be guaranteed to go if left unprotected in an expansion draft. Also normally you’d say a player who just suffered a tibia-fibula fracture and who is slated to take up at least $300,000 of salary-cap space in a 2015 season that he is likely to miss a considerable part of would never get selected in an expansion draft. Enter the odd case of Will Johnson. Adding to the intrigue here is the fact that his former coach with whom he has a great relationship, Jason Kreis, is now calling the shots for one of the poaching teams. But then consider that same coach salary-dumped Johnson for fifty-cents on the dollar at the end of the 2012 season when Johnson was making more than $50,000 less than he is now. But then consider Kreis now has a higher (perhaps much higher) salary cap and deeper-pocketed owners to work with. In sum, you could defensibly classify Johnson’s chance of being selected as Low, Extreme, or anywhere in between. We’ll go with Medium.

Consequences of Selection: Moderate. Johnson wasn’t the player in 2014 he was in 2013, and the Timbers’ stellar form after his injury has raised questions about whether Johnson perhaps isn’t an ideal fit in the Timbers defensive central midfield. In particular, Chara’s borderline-Best XI form in September and October has some daydreaming about the prospect of Chara playing full-time with a more stay-at-home six. But still, Johnson is a good player and has been captain for two years in which the team has shown remarkable resolve – suggesting a change in leadership is not something the club should be looking for. It would be a pity to lose Johnson, even if perhaps not an insurmountable one considering the Timbers would still have Zemanski to fall back on and $300,000 in new salary-cap space to find a replacement who fits with Chara.

Gaston Fernandez

Chance of Selection: Medium. Let’s get one thing straight – Gaston Fernandez will not be making $150,000 next year as he did in 2014 according to the fallible Player’s Union numbers. But Fernandez is also a heck of a player who a team can deploy as either a playmaking midfielder or an underneath forward. That’s attractive for an expansion side, especially if his cap hit isn’t breathtaking in light of the new salary cap. Accordingly, La Gata probably weighs on the higher side of medium in this respect.

Consequences of Selection: Significant. Fernandez was arguably expendable before Diego Valeri tore his ACL in the last game of the season. Now facing the first couple months of the season without La Gata would put many of the Timbers’ eggs in the basket of whomever the club acquired to fill Fernandez’s spot – a highly uncertain proposition. Darlington Nagbe could certainly help fill the void, but without Valeri and Fernandez the once-Hydra Timbers attack would look pretty barren. Perhaps the only thing keeping the consequences of losing Fernandez from ranking in the "Catastrophic" range is the fact that Caleb Porter and Gavin Wilkinson would have a hefty sum and a January transfer window in which to search for a replacement – something they’ve been pretty successful at with attacking players.

Ben Zemanski

Chance of Selection: Extreme. At a salary in the ballpark of the $80,850 he was reported to make in 2014, Zemanski is gone if unprotected. His very solid finish to 2014 certainly didn’t help things in this respect.

Consequences of Selection: Significant. At this point the Timbers are counting on Zemanski to start the first few months of the season. Although Zemanski may not be the most irreplaceable player in MLS, the Timbers probably wouldn’t have a ton of money to do it with because his salary savings would be modest and $50,000 in allocation money doesn’t get you very far. Simply put, Zemanski is great value, which is why he would be certain to be picked and very difficult to replace.

Liam Ridgewell

Chance of Selection: Low. It’s unlikely either Orlando City or NYCFC will be willing to use a designated-player spot on a centerback, much less a centerback that had a solid but unspectacular MLS debut in the last half of 2014. Nevertheless, the Timbers defense improved enough with Ridgewell in the lineup – posting five shutouts in their last nine games after only logging two in the previous 25 games – that somebody around MLS may have taken notice. Thus, there is a modest chance the Timbers could taste a little bit of their own medicine if a team traded with OCSC or NYCFC for Ridgewell. On the whole, however, Ridgewell has the lowest chance of selection by quite some distance.

Consequences of Selection: Catastrophic. Operating under the fairly safe assumption that the Timbers are parting ways with Pa Modou Kah, here is what the Caleb Porter’s depth chart at centerback would look like if Ridgewell were to go: Norberto Paparatto, Danny O’Rourke, Rauwshan McKenzie. I’ll wait here while you breathe into a paper bag.

Ready? Oh, no, no. Take your time.

Okay. So that’s somewhere south of ideal. The consequences may be mitigated somewhat if the Timbers, as I suspect may be the case, have a significant centerback addition lined up. And if Ridgewell were to go, the Timbers would have a new big chunk of cash, a designated-player spot, and a January transfer window in which to pursue a replacement. So the Timbers would have an opportunity to avoid the catastrophe. Still, after the Timbers spent all of 2014 struggling to get their backline in order to finally have success in doing so late in the season, going back to square-one at that position is far from attractive especially with a shorthanded start to 2015 looming. Moreover, defensive signings have been less than consistent for the Timbers and without defensive progress from the outset in 2015, it once again may not matter how many nets the Timbers light aflame. So while the unlikeliest to be pinched, the prospectof losing Ridgewell carries with it the greatest uncertainty.

So what’s the takeaway here? In short, this is a tremendously difficult decision for Porter, Gavin Wilkinson, and Merritt Paulson. While leaving Ridgewell exposed (at least until the Timbers’ first player gets plucked) gives the Timbers the best chance of getting through the Expansion Draft with their core unscathed, on the outside chance he is poached the Timbers would be in a pretty precarious spot. But the Timbers are also in a position in which they need early-season production from Zemanski and Fernandez’s positions, complicating the task of replacing them because they can’t afford to allow for an adjustment period. Finally, the club would be loath to run the significant risk of watching a player and leader of Will Johnson’s quality walk away in exchange for a measly $50,000 in allocation money.

Like every other current MLS team, the Timbers will have to make a clam-handed decision between now and December 8th.

And they’ll make that decision with one principle in mind: Not-losing is winning.