Deciders around MLS are still trying to get their arms around these expansion drafts, still learning how best to exploit the process. No one has unlocked the secret just yet.
Two years ago Seattle used the expansion draft to scoop up established players, for winning games right away. The strategy appeared to pay off handsomely as the Sounders FC has qualified for the playoffs in both years of its fledgling existence.
On the other hand, Seattle has yet to go anywhere in the postseason. So we could certainly debate where a doctrine that secured players in the "good-not-great" mold has ultimately positioned the club.
A year later Philadelphia chose a slightly different tact as coach Peter Nowak leaned on a few more young projects. The way forward at PPL Park would be a slower go, apparently. Eight of the 10 players selected remained on roster by season's end, which isn't too bad. On the other hand, six of those eight were just left unprotected, which isn't ideal. And while there are certainly some exciting young players around PPL Park, most didn't come via the expansion draft. (The one who did, of course, was Sebastien Le Toux, who may wind up being the best selection ever to come from one of these things.)
Before all that, Toronto was the poster child for expansion drafts gone wild. The inimitable former GM Mo Johnston had so many players coming and going it looked like shift change at a local hockey rink. Clearly, they didn't have it figured out either.
On Wednesday, MLS' newest entries, Portland and Vancouver, began stocking their rosters through the expansion draft. We'll need a little more time to sort out how the league's 17th and 18th clubs did, but we know they are testing a new approach: both sides used Wednesday's draft not just to collect players, but largely to collect bargaining chips to go get other players.
Portland picked first and, to no one's surprise, used the selection to take the gem of the draft, Dallas midfielder Dax McCarty. But in a sign of things to come, coach John Spencer immediately sent McCarty, who may have been Dallas' best player in last Sunday's MLS Cup final, to D.C. United. The Timbers received defender Rodney Wallace.
McCarty's availability had been the big talking point of the 2010 expansion draft, as the 17th and 18th MLS sides began taking shape.
In Dallas, McCarty had apparently patched things up with coach Schellas Hyndman after rocky going initially between the pair. Both had very good things to say about the other this season, each admitting mistakes during their time early time together at Pizza Hut Park. Still, Hyndman and his assistants apparently adjudged rookie midfielder Eric Alexander as a more valuable commodity to protect.
Later, Portland would return fullback Anthony Wallace to Colorado for allocation money, which can be used to help acquire more pricey talent from abroad or for U.S. internationals who may be returning stateside. And the Timbers took another of Wednesday's selections, Arturo Alvarez, and swapped with Real Salt Lake for a second-round pick in the upcoming college selection draft.
So two days later, only seven of the 10 selected will actually have a chance to start the year at PGE Park.
Portland also gambled in selecting U.S. internationals Jonathan Bornstein and Robbie Findley. Bornstein is already set for a move to Tigres in Mexico in January, and Findley wants to test the European market, although nothing is set. So, those moves were more about future options, too.
Otherwise, as for potential starters collected by Portland on Wednesday, only Eric Brunner fits the bill. The former Columbus Crew center back usually looked up to the job in 2009 over 13 starts. But he was stuck hopelessly behind U.S. international Chad Marshall and Andy Iro, who began maturing into a quality defender in 2009. So Brunner looks like a great pickup for Spencer and technical director Gavin Wilkinson.
Vancouver was similarly aggressive in player movement after Wednesday's draft. Guided by director of soccer operations Tom Soehn, the former D.C. United coach, the Whitecaps have already traded three players picked up Wednesday -- all for something to be used in player pickups future.
Whitecaps FC traded Sanna Nyassi to Colorado for an international roster slot. They received allocation money for moving former Toronto striker O'Brian White to Seattle and more allocation money (plus an international roster spot) for sending Alan Gordon and Alejandro Moreno to Chivas USA. Gordon had come from Chivas USA in the expansion draft, so he just remained in place. To top it all off, Vancouver obtained a first-round pick in the upcoming 2011 SuperDraft for midfielder Nathan Sturgis.
"I think getting the right blend of experience and youth and leveraging deals to come was important," Soehn told MLSSoccer.com.
What's interesting about Vancouver is that even after moving four players, they still acquired some players that could start in MLS tomorrow. That's the blend Soehn mentioned.
From Wednesday's draft, Whitecaps FC got Atiba Harris to provide some size and athleticism at one wide midfield spot and Shea Salinas to provide some attacking verve on the other side. Harris was a starter in FC Dallas' midfield when he wasn't filling in at striker, as he did in Sunday's MLS Cup final. Meanwhile, in former Chicago Fire midfielder John Thorrington, Vancouver obtained a player that could be a key in the center of the park.
Goalkeeper Joe Cannon, who is coming off injury, could prove a valuable pickup. Cannon is 35 and did show signs of fading in 2009 at San Jose. But goalkeepers in their mid-30s still have a plenty of time left if they manage their bodies and attitudes correctly. Kasey Keller and Pat Onstad, both north of 40, just had solid years for Seattle and Houston. And Kevin Hartman, 36, just had an amazing season for Dallas.
So Cannon's pickup looks prudent. The Whitecaps already have U.S. international center back Jay DeMerit to build around in defense. So presumably Soehn, president Bob Lenarduzzi and coach Teitur Thordarson will now go use those allocation resources to chase a name brand striker and another attacker.