For Major League Soccer, 2014 is the new 2005. Or maybe it is the new 2002. Perhaps the new 2011?
A franchise on hiatus, maybe contracted, at the same time two new clubs enter through expansion -- whatever the case, the lead-up to the 20th season of MLS is already shaping up to be a doozy.
And a big part of the offseason circus will feature drafts -- Draftapalooza! -- as the byzantine system by which MLS assigns players to its teams enters the center ring.
The league has already held a draft ahead of next season, even though the current season is still in play, for its two new expansion teams, Orlando City FC and New York City FC. Called, appropriately enough, the Expansion Priority Draft (and expertly hosted by KICKTV's venerable Jimmy Conrad on a live webcast), the 20th and 21st MLS clubs traded off picks from a total of eight player acquisition mechanisms. It was true theater.
MLS Expansion Draft, MLS SuperDraft, Allocation Ranking -- even a previously unknown mechanism seemingly created for the moment called the USL PRO/NASL Player Priority Ranking -- to name a few. OCFC and NYCFC have now been placed into nearly as many player acquisition mechanisms as they share letters in their acronyms.
But wait, there's more.
The growing uncertainty surrounding Chivas USA -- bought by MLS earlier this year from embattled owner Jorge Vergara, and placed on the market by the league for an asking price of upwards of $100 million -- has come to a boil in recent weeks, culminating with an explosive report stating the franchise will be put on hiatus for at least the next two seasons.
As sudden a declaration for Chivas as it was a drawn out process for the San Jose Earthquakes 1.0 prior to that franchise's relocation to Houston following the 2005 season, the move to mothball the second LA team and start from scratch at some undetermined future date has shocked an already threadbare fanbase and drawn mixed reviews in the media.
MLS has not confirmed the report, but it appears an ownership group that includes flamboyant Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan has agreed to purchase Chivas USA and plans to shut down operations and wipe the slate clean. An announcement from the league is expected following a Board of Governors meeting scheduled for next week in Los Angeles.
So is MLS taking two steps forward and one step back in welcoming Orlando and New York while saying goodbye to Chivas USA? Yes, although the overall calculus comes out to something greater than plus-one. The league finally closes the door on the embarrassment that has characterized the Chivas experiment -- while still cashing a check for likely more than $100 million dollars -- and adds two big-market big-expansion-fee-paying franchises to bring the net size of the league to a tidy 20 teams.
Not a bad bit of business for aspirations-driven MLS.
Which takes us back to the big-top, and what to expect in the offseason circus of draft upon draft. Before the revelation of the Chivas hiatus, the first order of business was projected to be the Expansion Draft, whereby the two new clubs would each get the chance to cherry-pick 10 players from the rosters of the other 19 MLS sides. Sure, those existing sides could protect 11 players from selection, but some good players are bound to move away from their familiar surroundings.
The Re-Entry Draft -- Stage One and Stage Two -- would presumably come next, allowing not-quite free agents the opportunity to find new homes, and the MLS SuperDraft would enter the center ring in January, filled with fresh new faces from the college ranks.
(Let's not even talk about the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between the league and the Players Union -- a process that will permeate the air like the stench of the elephants parading through the circus tent. The Re-Entry Draft process was born from the last round of negotiations; who knows what the two sides might come up with next.)
But the Chivas hiatus situation will force MLS to radically change the offseason playbill. Akin to the decision to contract the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny ahead of the 2002 season, shuttering the StubHub Center offices of Chivas USA immediately puts an entire roster of players on the unemployment line. Back in 2002, the solution was to run a one-round Allocation Draft followed by a multi-round Dispersal Draft to distribute the Floridians among the 10 remaining MLS teams. Could this offseason see a similar mechanism?
In danger of serving up more drafts than a craft brewing festival, MLS will need to consolidate its offseason activities to ensure the process of contraction and expansion -- and the player acquisition movement required for both -- don't run into conflict. The solution is straightforward, and one the league should consider, before printing tickets to its own version of The Greatest Show on Earth.
The Goal: Streamline the activities whereby offseason player transactions are completed ahead of the MLS SuperDraft.
The Plan: Consolidate the process for player distribution that will be required due to concurrent league expansion and contraction.
There's no need to repeat the blueprint followed after Miami and Tampa Bay were shutdown. Nor should MLS simply dust off the rules used to run the 2010 Expansion Draft when both the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps joined the league. Combine the processes in one succinct Allo-Disp-Ansion Draft.
In addition to the unprotected rosters of the 18 clubs that don't have a goat as a mascot, include the entire roster of Chivas USA in the pool of possible picks for Orlando and New York. By virtue of "winning" the Expansion Priority Draft, Orlando selected the first pick in the Expansion Draft, currently scheduled for December 10. Orlando gets to keep that priority, but now it allows them the first selection in the Allo-Disp-Ansion Draft.
OCSC and NYCFC would alternate selections, as is customary, up to a total of 12 picks (10 is the prior amount, so this increase reflects the large number of Chivas USA players available). This initial stage would run in the same way as the current Expansion Draft rules allow. An existing team that has a player selected gets to add another player to its protected list, and each team can only lose a maximum of two players in the entire draft. The exception is the players on the Chivas roster, which are available for selection without restriction.
Following the 12 rounds of player distribution, the draft enters the next stage. The existing MLS teams that lost a player (or two) are listed after Orlando and New York in a new ranking that reflects the order in which they were affected during the initial stage. For example: Say the Earthquakes leave Steven Lenhart unprotected and Orlando makes the forward its first selection. The Quakes would enter the rankings for the second stage in third position. Other teams that had players selected would follow suit.
This new list of teams, which may or may not include all 20 MLS teams, is followed in the ranking order to disperse the remaining players on the former Chivas USA roster. Teams unaffected in the initial stage would miss out on raiding whats left of the Goats. Those teams in the process are given the option to pass on making a selection.
Finally, if any former Chivas players remain unselected, they would be added to the Re-Entry Draft eligible list. That process, which would then follow the Allo-Disp-Ansion Draft, would continue in its current format.
The Summary: The new draft proposal would combine the Expansion and Dispersal Drafts into a single two-stage draft that compensates existing teams affected in stage one with priority ranking in stage two. In addition, the existing Re-Entry Draft absorbs any candidates that might go unselected in the dispersal stage.
Simplified? Maybe. Steamlined? Definitely. The circus will be nothing short of entertaining this offseason, and the 2014 Allo-Disp-Ansion Draft will be a worthy opening act.