The protected list isn't the best 11 players. Building a list takes in a combination of talent, form, salary, and age to judge how attractive a player would be to an expansion team. Columbus players have been very attractive as the team has lost at least a player in every expansion draft since 2005. With the new rules, each team takes five players, and the poor 2016, Crew SC may break that trend.
The list of protected players can be broken down into several groups. There is the core, these are the key members on the team and the ones you can't afford to lose. Then there is the value picks. These players are MLS contributors who don't make a big cap hit. They may not be every week starters, but they know the league and are effective. Then there is the future. These players haven't broken through, but the promise is there for all to see.
The core group for Crew SC has much of the current starting lineup. Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ola Kamara, Nicolai Naess, Wil Trapp, Ethan Finlay, and Gaston Sauro are the core of the next good Crew SC team. There may be concerns with some of these players, but with age and past performance they should be key contributors for years to come. You lock them down and protect the core. Trapp was protected as a Home Grown is believed to have graduated and needs to be protected.
The next group is the value players and Crew SC has two that fit the profile of low salary and significant impact. Mohammed Saeid has been a consistent spot starter in MLS at three different midfield positions. His 2016 salary was $120,000. I'd make him a top pick if he were available in an expansion draft. He's not the most physical, but it's rare to find such a pure passer who can control tempo.
The other is Gregg Berhalter's trusted utility player, Hector Jiménez. Jimenez's talents may not be self evident, they are that he's extremely coachable and acts as the connective tissue for a team. Jimenez can play on both wings, both outside back positions, and at attacking midfield. That versatility has value. Adam Jahn may have been an option at this spot and perhaps given to do it over again, the staff might have flipped to leaving Jimenez exposed.
The last group on the protected list is the future. Cristian Martínez and Zack Steffen are part of the future on Crew SC. Martinez made a solid impact at 19 down the stretch. He improved as he saw the field more and didn't look overawed getting thrown in. At the minimum salary, his ceiling would have been attractive to a team that is well stocked and could bring in a player to play slowly, like Atlanta. Steffen may be the Crew SC starting goalkeeper as soon as next season and at 21, there is a bright career ahead. Ben Swanson falls here due to his home grown player contract.
Now who isn't on this list? Some are obvious. Cedrick Mabwati, Matt Pacifici, and Corey Ashe aren't coming back and aren't protected. Michael Parkhurst, Steve Clark, Chad Barson are in a similar situation are likewise available. You don't protect players you've already passed on.
The more interesting decisions are around the players that are part of the future of the team. This includes depth players like Adam Jahn, Brad Stuver, Marshall Hollingsworth, Rodrigo Saravia, and Dilly Duka. Players like Duka and Jahn would be attractive options with friendly cap numbers, but falls prey to the numbers game of the protected list with Hector Jiménez and Cristian Martínez getting the nod over Jahn. The rest listed have played minimally in their time in Columbus and will likely fly under the radar.
Tony Tchani and Waylon Francis are also left unprotected by the staff. Francis had a very rough 2016, falling out of the starting lineup and then suffering a season ending injury. He's young enough to rebound, but his cap charge is over $200k. The thought is that picking Francis is risky for an expansion team. It's a similar situation for Tchani. He had a mixed season and his salary is approaching $300K. That is a significant salary for a player who appeared to regress.
The one name not mentioned, Federico Higuain. He's unprotected on our list. At 32 and making over a million dollars, that's a giant risk for an expansion team to make to pick up a player who can still change the game, but is coming off of a major injury. Higuain's DP salary acts as extra protection against getting picked up in the draft. Also Atlanta will have three DPs by the start of the season and Minnesota has shown limited interest in bringing in high dollar players and would be more likely to bring in one that they've scouted and are prepared to build around.
Protected: Cristian Martínez, Ethan Finlay, Gastón Sauro, Harrison Afful, Hector Jiménez, Justin Meram, Mohammed Saeid, Nicolai Næss, Ola Kamara, Wil Trapp, Zack Steffen, and Ben Swanson (HGP)
Available: Adam Jahn, Brad Stuver, Cedrick Mabwati, Corey Ashe, Dilly Duka, Federico Higuaín, Marshall Hollingsworth, Matt Pacifici, Michael Parkhurst, Rodrigo Saravia, Steve Clark, Tony Tchani, Waylon Francis, and Chad Barson.
NOTE: The article originally had Ben Swanson available, but he is not expansion draft eligible due to his home grown contract. This has been corrected.