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Who Should Sporting KC Protect in the Expansion Draft?

We break down the rules of the expansion draft, who is auto protected and who KC must choose from for their list.

Sporting Kansas City v Sacramento Republic FC Photo by Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The Major League Soccer offseason is about to kick into high gear. The MLS Cup just went down on Saturday (and what a memorable game it was) and now the offseason schedule really gets going for Sporting Kansas City and the rest of the league. A trade window opens at 11:00 AM CT on Monday and runs for 48 hours in preparation for what is nearly a nearly annual, awful tradition — the MLS Expansion Draft.

Austin FC, Atlanta United, D.C. United, LAFC and New York City FC are all exempt having lost players in the draft to Charlotte FC last year. The rest of the league has until the 10th to announce their list of protected players. St. Louis City SC should still have a solid crop of players to choose from on the 11th when they make their five picks.

There are a significant number of rules determining who does and who doesn’t need to be protected. Let’s simplify them as much as possible:

  • Teams can protect up to 12 players
  • Out of contract players can still be protected (Sporting KC’s contracts)
  • Protecting a player with an option doesn’t mean the option must be triggered
  • Free agents and Designated Players are NOT automatically protected
  • Non-graduated Generation Adidas players and Homegrown players 25 and under don’t require a protection slot
  • Players with no-trade clauses must be protected
  • Clubs with four or more international players must protect at least three

Automatically Protected Players

Cam Duke, Felipe Hernandez, Ozzie Cisneros, John Pulskamp, Kaveh Rad, Kayden Pierre, Jake Davis

That’s the list of Sporting KC’s eligible Homegrowns. They don’t have any Generation Adidas players under contract.

Daniel Salloi is a Homegrown, but is already 26, so he won’t be automatically protected. Additionally, sometimes the league lists Korte Ford as a Homegrown, but that was technically with the Colorado Rapids, and he’s 26 as well.

Radoja and No Trade Clauses

The Blue Testament has confirmed with Sporting KC that new signing Nemanja Radoja, won’t be officially on the roster until 2023. So there will be no need to use a protection slot on him.

The no-trade clause is much more complicated. The Blue Testament reached out to the team and they aren’t able to release who has a no-trade clause in their contract. In past expansion drafts, many of us advocated for leaving high dollar players exposed because teams were unlikely to absorb those salaries (and often those players were older). Then those players ended up being protected. It could be the team just wanted to protect them or it could be they had to protect them. We’ll likely never know.

While we have no idea who does and doesn’t have a no-trade clause, it’s likely to have an impact in who is on the team’s list. If I were an MLS veteran or even a high value player’s agent, I’d probably push to put this in a contract. I could absolutely see stars like Graham Zusi, Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell having this in their deal, even if there may be a calculation in leaving a high value player exposed hoping St. Louis City SC won’t want to take on their wages (2022 Sporting KC wages).

International Players

Andreu Fontas, Gadi Kinda, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Logan Ndenbe, Robert Voloder, Marinos Tzionis, Willy Agada, Erik Thommy

Sporting KC must protect at least three of the above seven players. This is really not an issue as notable transfer fees were paid for four of them (Kinda, Voloder, Tzionis and Ndenbe) and Thommy and Agada are impact players already.

Players Eligible for Protection

Graham Zusi, Tim Melia, Roger Espinoza, Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell, Andreu Fontas, Khiry Shelton, Alan Pulido, Gadi Kinda, Kendall McIntosh, Remi Walter, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Ben Sweat, Uri Rosell, Kortne Ford, Logan Ndenbe, Robert Voloder, Marinos Tzionis, William Agada, Erik Thommy

Yikes! That’s 20 players, so you have to leave eight of them exposed. I think we can all look at the list and quickly see a few we are fine with exposing and maybe even a player or two we’d love to see picked to get them off the books. There are still some hard choices.

TBT Staff Protected Lists

Chad Smith:

Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell, Remi Walter, Erik Thommy, Willy Agada, Logan Ndenbe, Robert Voloder, Marinos Tzionis, Kortne Ford, Graham Zusi, Alan Pulido, Tim Melia

First I have to say, I hate the expansion draft. Another team just gets to come take one of your players that you scouted, potentially paid a fee for, etc., instead of doing the work themselves. Give them even more allocation money and stop this nonsense. It hurts your ability to recruit players who are already coming from leagues where trades are rare, now they can get taken off the team? Nonsense!

With my list, I protected the first five guys because they feel like the team’s five best players, outside of guys coming off catastrophic injuries. Then I protected the three U-22 guys, even though they aren’t probably all in the best 12 players, because fees of at least $1 million were paid for each and they’ve only been here a season. Up next was Kortne Ford because he’s very inexpensive and I think he could/should be a starter in 2023.

Next I protected Graham Zusi for two reasons. I feel confident he has a no-trade clause (though I absolutely don’t know this). Second, I think St. Louis is much more likely to pick a player off Kansas City because the name value is already there in the state. That actually played heavily into why I protected Pulido (a free $9.5 million transfer??) and Melia (what a name to put into net to start a franchise).

Most Likely to be Picked: Ben Sweat or Kendall McIntosh

I don’t see St. Louis giving over $1m to a CB with their unique roster building strategy. I feel like Espinoza either retires or threatens to if they pick him. But Sweat had been picked in these drafts before and McIntosh is an up and coming goalkeeper. I did leave Gadi Kinda unprotected, but hopefully the concerns around his injury save him from selection as it sounds unlikely that he’s ready to return to start the season (though I’d be disappointed if he were picked). If the team is ready to give the reigns to Pulskamp, then I’d swap Kinda for Melia and know you won’t lose more than one of your GKs (edit: Protecting Melia probably doesn’t make sense as he’s a Free Agent and could just re-sign if he was drafted).

As for some of the others I left unprotected:

  • Shelton is on an option year and I’ve already made the case SKC should move on from him.
  • Fontas is out of contract and Isi is on an option year and they could be moving on, and I’m not as high on him as Robert below.
  • I actually came around on Ben Sweat, but I think Ndenbe is the better long-term player and if you lose a 30+ year old LB, you go bargain bin shopping.
  • As for Rosell, I hope they pick him. It’ll save Sporting a buy out.

Robert Rusert:

Erik Thommy, Willy Agada, Logan Ndenbe, Daniel Salloi, Remi Walter, Kortne Ford, Gadi Kinda, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Graham Zusi, Johnny Russell, Robert Voloder, and Marinos Tzionis

Looking at who Sporting Kansas City needs to be successful in 2023 and the future (and who they don’t) and who St. Louis City SC has already signed played the biggest roles in my choices. I protected Isi because a) I am not as big on Kortne Ford as many are b) Isi is overall a good-to-very good center back who is more important to Sporting being successful in 2023 than is Fontas. Of course, we are all making choices ignorant of what signings Peter Vermes and company are confident in closing for 2023.

I nearly left Voloder unprotected and protected Pulido. However, St. Louis City SC has a DP striker, and it would be insane of them to take up $2.2 million of their salary budget for another. They could, however, choose Pulido and trade him. But with his injury history and apparent desire to go back to Liga MX after this season, I doubt there would be any takers.

I did leave Fontas exposed. Though I understand his value as an important playmaker from the back, St. Louis City SC already has three center backs. And Fontas’ $1.1 million salary would be tough to ingest for them. Other choices to leave exposed: I agree with Chad regarding Espinoza if St. Louis City SC pick him. Lastly, if St. Louis City SC wants Melia as a backup for their international goalkeeper, he would be a good one. Sporting has a good investment in Pulskamp and McIntosh.

Most likely to be picked: Melia, Shelton, or Sweat

See above per Melia. St. Louis City SC will be a high-pressing team and Shelton can provide that as a backup striker or a winger. Lastly, they need wide backs and, like he can for Kansas City, Sweat can soak up minutes as an able left back, but Sweat is not one to build around for the future.

Mike Kuhn:

Thad Bell:

I wanted to add my two cents but was late so I added them in anyway. Protected in order of who will be most needed/expected to contribute in 2023

1 – Russell (Captain, the heart and soul of SKC)

2 – Salloi (next in line for the heart and soul of SKC)

3 – Thommy (the man can flat out play)

4 – Agada (Joy, goals and back-flips, what is not to love)

5 – Walter (contributes in multiple spots and runs for miles and miles…. Literally)

The first five were extremely easy.

6 – Tzinois (attacking flair but just needs to make final pass/shot a bit quicker)

7 – Voloder (solid, may be needed to step up in 2023 and probably can)

8 – Ndenbe (Really good at times but needs to contribute offense a little more)

Those three were pretty easy, all showed potential, none were able to claim a full-time starting spot in 2022 but “might” be able to take the next step in 2023.

9 – Ford (needs another chance to claim a starting spot)

10 – Zusi (not knowing contract info but want him to stay “if” he wants to play)

It was a debate between Zusi and Sweat. Ben improved throughout the season and was better in the offense than Ndenbe. Zusi is a club legend that can contribute to the team still.

11 – Pulido

12 – Kinda

Both of these players are coming off a major injury and we can’t know how they will return for sure. Pulido is further along than Kinda but both are a risk. It might be wiser to protect someone else, but I think the better move is to show the loyalty to two DP’s.

The biggest concern would be Espinoza being selected. If Roger wants to play another season it should be in Kansas City with a conservative amount of minutes.