MLS always transitions from one season to the next rather quickly, at least as it relates to roster construction and personnel mechanisms. There may be a months-long wait before a ball is kicked in an MLS game again (the rest of the 2020 Concacaf Champions League resumes this week for four MLS teams), but the preparations for 2021 began as soon as Columbus polished off its second MLS Cup title late Saturday night.
Perhaps it's a bit poetic that the focus this winter turns from Columbus to Austin given the inescapable connection between the two. Instead of the transition of moving one club from Columbus to Austin that was expected just a couple of years ago, though, the transition is from focusing on the reigning champion to focusing on the league's newest club. One with roots 25 years old, resilient and still growing, and another whose roots are just being planted.
No one, arguably, is more eager to prepare for 2021 than that expansion side, Austin FC. That was evident during Sunday's half-day trade window, one in which Austin was rather active as it keeps building out its squad.
Paraguayan forwards Rodney Redes and Cecilio Dominguez, respectively, were the first two players in club history, both signed over the summer and spending time on loan in their native country with Guarani while the wait to begin life in MLS continues. After Sunday's window, that roster count stands at seven, with the additions of fringe U.S. national team fullbacks Ben Sweat (Inter Miami) and Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), center back Julio Cascante (Portland Timbers), midfielder Ulises Segura (D.C. United) and forward Jon Gallagher (Atlanta United) for a total of nearly $1.2 million in general allocation money.
That number of players grew to 11 following Tuesday's expansion draft, in which Austin plucked players from 16 participating squads (the 10 clubs that lost players in last year's expansion draft involving Miami and Nashville were exempt) in the five-round affair. The benefit of not sharing a draft with Charlotte, as had originally been intended before a byproduct of the pandemic was postponing the entry of Charlotte, St. Louis and Sacramento into the league by a year, was that Austin had free rein to scroll the unprotected lists and pick.
“For us, it has helped that we are the only team picking in the expansion draft,” Austin's director of player personnel, Sean Rubio, told the club's official website prior to the draft. “Watching players and understanding that we don’t have to wait to see who another team will be choosing is a huge benefit.”
Austin made quick work of the draft proceedings, taking Danny Hoesen (forward, San Jose Earthquakes), Jared Stroud (midfielder, New York Red Bulls), Brady Scott (goalkeeper, Nashville SC), Joe Corona (midfielder, LA Galaxy) and Kamal Miller (defender, Orlando City).
In the immediate aftermath, Austin wound up dealing Miller to the Montreal Impact in exchange for $225,000 in allocation money–recouping some of Sunday's spending spree–and a first-round draft pick (11th overall) in 2021.
The expansion draft has a history, especially recently, of being rather unspectacular. Clubs aren't looking for unprotected players spread across MLS for their marquee talent. That comes through their scouting networks, from swinging trades and from investing in either already-accomplished stars or talent on the rise ready to break out. Yet the expansion draft still offers potential value if utilized wisely. Players can be picked and spun off for other assets, whether it be international roster slots, allocation money, draft picks or other players. Nashville, just last year, turned its expansion pick of Zarek Valentin into Joe Willis, acquiring its starting goalkeeper.
Two years prior, LAFC extracted immense value out of the draft, landing goalkeeper Tyler Miller and attacking midfielder Latif Blessing, while combining its last two picks in a deal for center back and eventual captain Laurent Ciman. Play the draft correctly, and you can wind up with some bedrock assets.
"We want a team that's very offensive, energetic, plays together, collective," Austin FC sporting director Claudio Reyna said. "We're not building a team around one player. Everyone needs to participate and feel comfortable on the ball, understand their role on the team offensively and defensively."
The part about not building around one player hits a bit differently considering that Reyna effectively built his last expansion team, New York City FC, around the star-is-first approach. David Villa was the centerpiece, while Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo were largely complementary as they played out the string of their respective careers. There's a different kind of ownership in Austin, a different market, a different fanbase and a completely different mentality (not to mention a proper soccer-specific stadium in the works), and so just like there's no one way to play the expansion draft, there's no one way to build an expansion team.
"Our depth is just as important as our star players," Reyna said. "The expansion draft is an important part, because we're adding players to the squad from potential starting caliber players to also players that will provide depth and also competition, and that's what's really important."
With Tuesday's exercise over, Austin still has more than half of its roster to craft. Another benefit to being the only expansion club and not sharing the spotlight with Charlotte is that it's first in line for all of MLS's various mechanisms, including the allocation order and college SuperDraft, but those areas are also largely useful for depth and complementary-piece purposes. The ticket-selling and higher-compensated side is still a glaring area of need, though.
With the starting date of next season still unknown and other byproducts of the pandemic altering how and when players may otherwise be signed, the run up to the club's inaugural year has certainly been unique. Then again, nothing about the creation of this club has really gone by the book, though every step of the road has been compelling, for better or worse, and the end product actually appears to be quite intriguing and promising. That same, analogous description could be used for how Reyna, Rubio and manager Josh Wolff are building their first squad, though time will tell whether the final descriptors remain accurate as well.