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Predicting the Crew’s expansion draft protected list

Who might the Black & Gold want to make sure isn’t going anywhere? Our staff give their thoughts.

SOCCER: AUG 10 MLS - FC Cincinnati at Columbus Crew SC Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s almost time for the seemingly annual MLS Expansion Draft. Indisputably the second most exciting draft (after the Expansion Priority Draft, of course) of any expansion year. This year, Inter Miami and Nashville SC get the right to plunder five players each from the 19 eligible Major League Soccer clubs.

As an MLS original, Columbus Crew SC has a storied history in the Expansion Draft. The Crew has had a player picked in all 11 drafts they’ve participated in and lost 16 players in the process, the most in the league. While most of the selected players were not key members of the squad when picked, the loss of Massive Champions Brad Evans and Alejandro Morena in 2008 and 2009, respectively, were particularly painful.

For the 2019 Expansion Draft, every team can protect 12 players from selection, with Homegrown players under 25 and Generation Adidas players automatically protected. Miami and Nashville will alternate picks on Nov. 19, and a team can only lose one player in the draft.

The most important Expansion Draft question for Crew fans is who will the Black & Gold protect. The Massive Report contributors donned their Tim Bezbatchenko masks to break down their picks.

Automatically Protected: Aboubacar Keita and JJ Williams (also Alex Crognale and Edward Opoku)

As a Homegrown and Generation Adidas players, respectively, Keita and Williams are automatically protected. Both are promising young players, with Keita playing well during the center back injury crisis last season and Williams leading USL’s Birmingham Legion in scoring while on loan.

The contract options for Crognale and Opoku were not exercised, but they are still protected as a Homegrown and Generation Adidas players. Crognale would have been a potential pick as a young, tall, domestic center back with a couple seasons of experience at a bargain price. But he will have to find a new team through a trade or selection via waivers. A drop down to USL seems likely for Opoku, who spent the season with Birmingham.

Protected: Harrison Afful, Luis Diaz, Hector Jimenez, Jonathan Mensah, Darlington Nagbe, Wil Trapp, Eloy Room, Milton Valenzuela and Gyasi Zardes

These players form the core of the team, and there is little controversy over protecting them. All were unanimously protected with the exception of Afful, Jimenez, Mensah, and Zardes.

Afful has been a lock starter at right back since joining the club. Always in the conversation as one of the best right backs in the league and with a newly signed contract, the Crew will want to keep him in the fold. Patrick Guldan would not protect him and commented, “At 33, Afful is well on the downside of his career. He’s still an offensive presence, but his defense has slipped to well below average in the league. Despite a new contract, I think the team is better served with upgrading sooner rather than later.”

Jimenez has been the jack of all trades for the Crew since joining in 2014. Primarily used as an outside back, he has also appeared on the wings, and at both defensive and attacking midfield. While he won’t be making Best XI lists, his versatility is a very valuable commodity and his veteran presence may be a good fit for an expansion team. However, for Guilerhme Torres, that versatility may not be enough, “I’d hate to see the Crew lose Jimenez in the expansion draft, but I think that you want to protect players who are potential starters or assets in the market and I don’t think he’s either, even though he undoubtedly brings a lot to the table, both on and off the field.”

Mensah was a lock to start at center back when not injured, but was not protected last time the Crew participated in an Expansion Draft. Jimmy Lentz chose not to protect Mensah saying, “The Crew’s defense struggled mightily this year – lack of efficient positioning, marking, and communication – and Jonathan Mensah was right in the middle of it. The Crew can play Lalas Abubakar and Josh Williams in central defense until Mensah’s replacement is brought into Columbus if he’s picked in MLS Expansion Draft (in this scenario).”

Zardes led the team in goals (13, Santos was second with 11) and expected goals (12.8, Santos second with 5.3) and remains a regular with the national team. Zardes signed a new Designated Player contract this past May and seems to be in the club’s long-term plans. However, Patrick Murphy would not protect him, “While I believe the Crew will protect Gyasi Zardes, I’m not sure it’s necessary. With a reported salary of $1.4 million, Zardes is not any sort of bargain for Inter Miami, a team I believe will look to follow recent MLS trends and make a splash with their attacking talent.” Author Note: Our editor did not realize that Nashville was also involved in the Expansion Draft

Likely Protected: Lalas Abubakar, Artur and Pedro Santos

This group includes (potentially) important pieces for the Crew, however, they were not universally seen as indispensable.

Abubakar had a successful loan with the Colorado Rapids, appearing in 22 games, and winning Defender of the Year for the club. The Rapids reportedly want him back, and the feeling is mutual. However, he remains in the Crew’s plans and it may take a record-breaking return to let him go. A number of our contributors thought Columbus will cash in on the center back prior to the Expansion Draft and did not protect him. [Note: this did not happen].

Artur, the 23-year-old Brazilian, had a bit of a down year last season. Jimmy Lentz did not protect him, writing “Artur performed similarly to past seasons, but he still made several fundamental errors that caused the Crew to concede far too many easy goals and he wasn’t a physically imposing complement to Wil Trapp’s size and skill set in the defensive midfield. Additionally, I believe Keita would be a strong and dynamic replacement to Artur, which would be a positional change for Keita akin to Javi Martinez being moved from central defense to a central defensive midfielder role on Bayern Munich in 2017. Bayern Munich and Martinez mutually benefited defensively and offensively from this transition, and Keita (who has a similar build and broad skillset to Javi, though at a vastly different talent level) would have a similar impact for Columbus if given proper preparation and coaching.“

Santos had his finest season with the Crew, scoring 11 goals and providing six assists while putting in his trademark, and underrated, defensive efforts. Santos’ move to center attacking midfielder after Federico Higuain’s injury provided a boost for the squad now left without their attacking maestro. That said, I would not protect him in the Expansion Draft. I believe that his international status and high salary would make his selection unlikely. Additionally, he far exceeded his expected goals this past year, scoring 5.7 more goals than expected, according to American Soccer Analysis. I would expect only around five goals from him in 2020.

Potentially Protected: Luis Argudo, Chris Cadden, Youness Mokhtar, Josh Williams and Romario Williams

While most contributors would not protect these players, they were protected by at least one person.

In his second year, Argudo showed flashes of his potential this season. He appeared in 21 games, including a man of the match performance with a goal and assist against the New York Red Bulls in July. Argudo proved to be a solid depth option for the Crew and the club will likely be keen to keep him around. His relatively low salary may make him an attractive option for the expansion sides. However, one of the Expansion Draft rules may dissuade them as any player selected off the supplemental or reserve roster must be offered “a Senior Roster position and he must remain on the Senior Roster as of Roster Compliance Date.”

Cadden is a relative unknown. After controversially signing from Motherwell, the Scottish international has been on loan with Oxford United. He is perhaps the Crew’s right back of the future and will likely compete with Afful for time at right back. While protected by most, Jay Homan did not as “Cadden is a newcomer who hasn’t proved he will fit the system. He will require an international roster spot, which makes him less likely to be picked by the expansion clubs.” However, according to MLS Digital’s Ben Baer, Cadden may be auto-protected.

Mokhtar arrived over the Summer as a potential solution to the Crew’s problem on the left wing. Although he scored in the Crew’s penultimate game against Philadelphia, he did not put big numbers in his limited playing time. However, Jay Homan protected him, saying “he is a part of the Crew’s future plans. He is a player with a lot of talent that didn’t get to show it much last year as he was coming off multiple months without playing. Expect better performances from the winger in 2020.”

Josh Williams, the angel-eyed fan favorite, put in another solid year at center back. While he is a reliable and versatile player, he was not seen by most as needing to be protected. However, Jimmy Lentz chose him over Mensah saying, “I chose Josh Williams over Mensah because Williams can play anywhere along the backline or even as a central defensive midfielder if needed, which is not something one can say about Mensah.”

Romario Williams came over in a trade with Atlanta United over the Summer to provide cover for Gyasi Zardes, scoring one goal in 155 minutes, mostly as a substitute. He was protected by Tyler Fisher, who wrote “Romario Williams needs to be protected. Zardes, though he can still produce, is slowly on the decline. With Williams in just behind him on the depth chart, it’s fuel for the former Atlanta striker. After not seeing much playing time in the ATL because Josef Martinez is just simply dogging the whole league with his talent, and with rumors going out that Zardes might — emphasis on might — be out of Columbus, this opens up a great opportunity for Williams to pick up where he left off last season, and push Columbus back into the playoffs for the 2020 season.

Not Protected: Ricardo Clark, Waylon Francis, David Guzman, Jordan Hamilton, Federico Higuain, Jon Kempin, Ben Lundgaard, Connor Maloney and Eduardo Sosa

With the exceptions of Francis and Kempin, these are all players that are out of contract or whose options (as of this writing) haven’t been picked up by the Crew. It is unlikely that any will be protected in the draft, although a few have the potential to be picked.

Hamilton, whose option is still being considered, is another young player whose MLS experience belies his age. While only playing 744 minutes last season, his underlying numbers were borderline elite last year, putting up 0.66 xG per 96 in 2019. To put that in perspective, that was better than every MLS player besides Carlos Vela, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Josef Martinez. While Nashville already has a couple of likely backup strikers signed from their USL team in Daniel Rios and Cameron Lancaster, Hamilton may be a potential depth option for Miami.

After a rash of injuries decimated the left back corps, Maloney stepped up and started the final nine games of the season. While he was a bit shaky to start, he showed himself to be a reliable spot starter at the position. Left back is always a difficult position for MLS teams to fill, and having a cheap option there may cause one of the expansion clubs to bite on Maloney.

All the contributors’ picks are here: