In a matter of five minutes Wednesday, what was already expected was confirmed. Out-of-contract players in MLS have more freedom in the offseason than they've had before, but teams aren't going to overpay for aging commodities when they have nobody to bid against and have the option to do otherwise.
The first stage of the first MLS Re-Entry Draft could have been conducted during stoppage time of any league match, with just two teams making selections and the scheduled 2 p.m. ET draft finishing promptly at 2:05.
D.C. United selected forward Joseph Ngwenya, formerly of the Houston Dynamo, with the first pick in the draft. After eight teams passed without hesitation, Columbus scooped up former Sporting Kansas City defender Aaron Hohlbein, followed by the remaining eight teams passing.
See you next week; same time, same place.
Even with players such as Juan Pablo Angel, Jimmy Conrad and Guillermo Barros Schelotto essentially up for grabs, it should hardly come as a surprise that teams weren't willing to fork over the necessary money to land one of the big names out there, not with next Wednesday's Stage 2 of the draft being more team-friendly.
In Stage 1, teams were required to exercise existing contract options or extend "bona fide offers" (i.e. a salary meeting certain conditions contingent on age/years in the league) to any players they selected while guaranteeing a contract at that rate for 2011.
Toronto FC's interim director of soccer, Earl Cochrane, put it succinctly, saying on TorontoFC.ca after the draft, "While there certainly is quality available in the draft, we felt that in the cases where the quality was there, the costs associated with those players didn't match up with our present situation."
In Stage 2, teams can select players without being shackled by current contract terms. A team that makes a selection has a week to extend an offer, and if no agreement can be reached, the team still maintains the right of first refusal to that player. After both stages are complete, any unselected players are essentially free agents, able to negotiate with any team.
In the 29-year-old Ngwenya, a journeyman striker with an MLS Cup goal (2007) to his name, United used Stage 1 to acquire depth at a position of need at a reasonable cost (Ngwenya's 2010 base salary was $72,000). Had United addressed that need with Angel ($1.62 million base salary) or plugged a hole at centerback with Conrad ($232,750), it would have essentially been bidding against itself unnecessarily when it was pretty clear that no other team was going to take the bait.
As for the 25-year-old Hohlbein, who made the league minimum of $40,000 last season, he provides defensive depth to Columbus, which declined options on longtime fullbacks Frankie Hejduk and Gino Padula and lost Eric Brunner in last month's expansion draft to Portland.
By all accounts, next week's Stage 2 will yield more action among teams vying for the 33 players who remain available for selection, although it should be noted that players who weren't selected in Stage 1 can negotiate exclusively with their former teams until Monday and remain with those clubs. With the aging-but-still-capable Angel, Conrad, Schelotto, Hejduk, Jeff Cunningham and Josh Wolff, among others, potentially ripe for the picking at the right cost, the league will be taking a step closer to something that resembles the sort of free-flowing movement the MLS Players' Union has craved for so long.