Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Makes up an MLS Roster?

Note: This is part of a long-term series meant to introduce new MLS fans to the league, its rules and its regulations. We will cover many topics between now and first kick of the 2010 MLS season, starting with the MLS roster.

Because soccer is an international sport, and the MLS is unaffiliated with any other US soccer leagues (in that there are no official MLS 'minor leagues'), an MLS roster is much more complex than a given MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL roster.

To start, the MLS roster is split into two separate rosters: the senior roster and the development roster. The senior roster can hold between 18 and 20 players who are categorized as 'domestic' or 'international.' Players given the domestic title mean they are a US citizen, are considered permanent residents (have a green card), or hold some other special government-given status (such as being a refugee or given asylum). Toronto FC can only categorize players who are proper residents in Canada as 'domestic.' Players brought in from abroad are listed as 'international.' Each MLS team is by default allotted 8 international player slots, with the exception of Toronto who by default has 13 international player slots, five of which are limited to US domestic players. These international player slots can be traded to other teams, so in reality a team can have as many or as few international player slots as they want. Regardless of international or domestic status, the salaries of players on the senior roster count against the salary cap.

The development roster can hold up to four players who are 25 or younger. It is exempt from any international or domestic limits (that is, an 'international' player on the development roster does not fill up one of his team's international player slots). Being on the development roster doesnot affect a player's eligibility to play in any game, regular season or playoffs, it's just a further classification MLS has instituted. The salaries of players on the development roster do not count against the salary cap.

There is one other type of player that can be on an MLS senior roster: a 'Designated Player' (often abbreviated as DP). A DP is a player whose salary mostly does not count against the cap. Each MLS team, by default, is alloted one DP, but like international player slots, DP slots can be traded and each team can have a maximum of two DP slots. Their relation to the salary cap is a little tricky: in 2009, $415,000 of a DP's salary counted against his team's cap. If that team had a second DP, though, only $335,000 of the second DP's salary would count against the cap. Those numbers are anticipated to go up for the 2010 season.

Altogether, an MLS team can have anywhere between 22 and 24 players. Right now, the Union has 11 players (including GK Chris Seitz, whose acquisition from MLS Cup-champion Real Salt Lake went through yesterday) whose total salaries are $690,200. That leaves plenty of room under the salary cap to acquire additional players, and perhaps a DP (Piotr Nowak says acquiring a DP is a "very real possibility") before the beginning of the season.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Union to Sign Local Midfielder Vincenzo Bernardo?

With Vincenzo Bernardo confirming a few hours ago via Twitter that he has decided which MLS team he plans on signing for, there is speculation that he will soon be a member of the Union. The 19-year old was born in Morristown, New Jersey and has played under Union assistant manager John Hackworth for the US Men's National Team, which lends credence to the rumor of him soon donning the blue and gold (which, by the way, he says he likes).

This signing might make up for some of the criticism the Union received for not choosing any local players in the MLS expansion draft, a tactic used by previous expansion teams to garner additional interest. Bernardo was most recently a member of S.S.C. Napoli, and has said an official announcement will be made "soon."

Friday, November 27, 2009

What's Next for Philadelphia Union?

Now that the MLS expansion draft has taken place and Philadelphia has made their ten selections, what lies ahead for the expansion franchise before first kick on March 24, 2010 in Seattle? Unsurprisingly, a good bit, as they must fill out their 24-man roster (comprised of an 18 to 20 man "Senior Roster" and a four man-maximum "Development Roster"; this will be explained in depth in a later post) well in advance of first kick. And that's before taking into account courting additional sponsors (Panasonic has an agreement to provide technical services to Union Field at Chester and likely some finances in return for being the first 'major' sponsor, but of course one isn't enough), signing a local TV deal to broadcast Union games throughout the Philadelphia area, working out team transportation details, and building proper practice facilities close to Union Field. All of these necessities will be detailed over time, but for now I'd like to focus on the most pressing issue: getting 14 additional players.

Well, in reality, the Union need 13 additional players. Immediately following the announcement of the expansion draft selections, it was discovered and quickly confirmed by multiple sources that the Union has an agreement, pending league approval, to acquire the rights to goalkeeper Chris Seitz from MLS Cup-champion Real Salt Lake for "north of" $200,000 in allocation money (which can be used to sign players, and is given by the MLS to teams who lose players to foreign clubs or to retirement much like MLB awards draft picks to teams for players lost in free agency, to teams who miss the playoffs, and to expansion teams) and a promise that the Union wouldn't pick anyone from Salt Lake in the expansion draft (they didn't). Seitz, who will turn 23 two days before first kick in Seattle, is considered to be one of the America's most promising goaltenders and is expected to be Philly's starting goalkeeper with Brad Knighton, selected in the expansion draft from New England Revolution, relegated to the backup role.

So where are these 13 players likely to come from? Well, a good starting place will be the four-round 2010 MLS SuperDraft where the Union, as an expansion team, will have the first overall pick as well as the first pick in the second round (17th overall), third round (33rd overall) and fourth round (49th overall). This year's SuperDraft will take place on Thursday, January 14, 2010 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Of course, like any draft in sports, the Union is free to trade any or all of these picks if they so choose. In a later post, we will explore who the Union is most likely to select should they retain the first overall pick (which is likely).

From there, Philadelphia will get one starter (with the first overall pick), and likely one or two players to go on the development roster (whose salaries do not go against the salary cap). After that, it will be up to Piotr Nowak and staff to acquire the rights to additional players with the allocation money provided by MLS or through multi-player trades. What is more likely, however, is that there will be a number of international players signed. Philly is already rumored to be in the process of signing 18-year old midfielder Roger Torres from Colombia, and certainly has extensive scouting operations ongoing throughout the world. In addition, it's probable that a high-profile, high-impact player will be signed to an equally high-profile contract and will serve in the Union's designated player spot.

If one thing is clear from this, it's that things are about to ramp up. Big time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Personal Thoughts on the Expansion Draft

Twenty-four hours ago, the Union was in the process of selecting their first players ever in the MLS expansion draft. Since then, Union fans and MLS followers have had ample opportunity to look over and discuss the ten chosen players.

I personally believe that it's difficult to draw any conclusions about a team's "competitiveness" solely on their choices in the expansion draft. As we saw as recently as last year with Seattle Sounders FC, the expansion draft is just the first of many avenues a new team will take advantage of to complete their starting roster (most of Seattle's starters did not come from the expansion draft). The Union front office is playing its cards close to its chest -- moreso than Seattle did -- so we don't know who else Philadelphia is interested in, or is in the process of acquiring (the trade to purchase goalkeeper Chris Seitz's rights from Real Salt Lake for allocation money and a promise not to draft any RSL players in the expansion draft has still not been officially announced).

What is clear is that Nowak wants to have a young core of players who are still developing and can potentially play in Philly for years to come (Zimmerman, Myrie, Seitz), balanced out with veterans who can be trusted to provide leadership in the locker room and influence the younger players with their good work ethic (Moreno, Thomas). The last thing he wanted to have to deal with were players who could become a locker room cancer (Guevara), or had nagging injury problems (Hejduk, Convey); not coincidentally, these players were among the bigger names in the unprotected pool, so Nowak is garnering a good bit of criticism for not selecting even one of them. One of the things Nowak said multiple times during his press conference yesterday was that his selections "would have a lot to prove." In other words, don't expect the players selected to form the nucleus of a championship team, but then that's not what the expansion draft is for.

Based on their contracts last year, the ten picks and Seitz made a combined $690,200. The MLS salary cap for each team in 2009 was $2.3 million plus an option for up to two "designated players", or DPs, whose salaries can mostly fall outside of the salary cap and be well above the maximum MLS salary (David Beckham's salary alone, for example, is more than twice that of his team's $2.3 million cap, but because he is a DP, only a portion of it counts against that cap). The current MLS CBA (collective bargaining agreement) ends January 31, 2010, and the salary cap is expected to go up to as much as $3-$4 million for the upcoming season, which would leave the Union plenty of room for the 13 additional players the Union's 24-man starting roster will contain. It's important to note that expansion teams have the right to renegotiate contracts with their picks, so finances likely played little role in who Philadelphia selected or didn't select.

In all, the Union took an unexpected path in who they picked in the expansion draft, but it's possible they could be reaping the benefits of it for years to come thanks in part to the promising youth that is now in their organization.

Reaction to Expansion Draft Pouring In

It's been just about 9 hours since the Union announced the ten players they chose in today's MLS expansion draft. There has since been a wide range of response across the Internet about whether or not team manager Piotr Nowak, assistant coach John Hackworth and company chose the best possible players.

"Best" is a funny word when it comes to sports, though. Certainly, one could go through the pool of players who were left unprotected by their teams and find many who have better statistics than several of those chosen by the Union. Defender Dave Myrie from Chicago Fire, for example, hasn't played a single minute in the MLS. Not one. But what statistics for an individual (or lack thereof) won't tell you is their style of play. Nowak has commented that he already has a good idea about the type of team he's trying to build, and with that in mind, he chose the players available in the expansion draft that he and his staff thought would "best" fit the identity they're forming. Throughout professional team sports, a good chunk of players perform much better under certain systems, and vice-versa. It's Nowak's job to assemble a team that will provide optimal performance under his system.

With that in mind, after the jump I've compiled a sampling of the reactions to the first ten players chosen to play for the Philadelphia Union. I will be sharing my own thoughts tomorrow.