New York City FC prepares for expansion draft and 2015 debut

BY foxsports • December 9, 2014

NEW YORK --

In Major League Soccer, the trick to launching an expansion team successfully is managing the uncertainties. But three months shy of its maiden season, there are a great many of those facing New York City FC, the joint venture by Manchester City and the New York Yankees. A few are of the club’s own making, like the uncertain, long-term stadium situation. Most, however, are a function of NYCFC’s new league and its vagaries.

In spite of the club’s immense ambition and investment, it remains largely beholden to the restrictive player allocation system in MLS. The arrival of a second expansion team at the same time, Orlando City SC, further complicates matters. The league used a bizarre priority order selection process to distribute the first choice in eight player allocation mechanisms: the expansion draft, the SuperDraft, the USL PRO/NASL priority ranking, the designated player ranking, the allocation ranking, the discovery ranking, the waiver/re-entry draft, and the lottery ranking.

On Wednesday, the expansion draft takes place, allowing each new team to select 10 players from a pool of options left unprotected by one of the other 18 teams in the league. New York will pick second and every other pick after that, again complicating the equation.

It’s a speculative process that forced NYCFC and Orlando City to read the tea leaves before MLS unveiled the protected lists on Monday night.

“If you can’t see the stress on my face right now, we’ve spent literally this entire week in all-day meetings trying to figure out who’s going to be available and how they would fit in with the rest of the group and how they would fit in with the salary cap,” a light-hearted Jason Kreis, NYCFC’s head coach, said at the club’s jersey signing event in Midtown on Friday. “It’s really, really difficult. It’s like trying to put a million-piece puzzle together. The easiest way to describe it is right now it feels like torture, the entire thing.”

Kreis and NYCFC director of football operations Claudio Reyna say they want to pick up as many players with MLS experience as possible. Reyna said they will use all 10 slots in the draft. The plan involves keeping “five, six, maybe seven guys,” while using the rest as trade bait. By the end of the year, the club hopes to have 16 to 18 players under contract.

But the arrival of players introduces another wrinkle. The league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLS Players Union expires at the end of January. The sides are thought to be far apart. The players want free agency and a considerable increase in the current salary budget of $3.1 million (not including a portion of the salaries paid to Designated Players by investor/operators outside of the budget and allocation money used to pay down budget charges).

How do you build a roster when you don’t know how much you have to spend, exactly? NYCFC is taking a cautious approach by adopting the five-percent yearly increase laid out in the previous CBA.

“We’re going into it just planning like it’s going to be as it is now, with some small adjustments,” said Reyna. “It is difficult for us, because if we did know we would plan ahead and maybe adjust to what the CBA will be. It’s hard to risk and guess on what may happen.”

New York City FC fans are ready for David Villa, but they are still waiting for the rest of the squad to take shape.

Now, something else for NYCFC to fret about: style. The club has made strong proclamations about its on-field identity and the imperative of the aesthetics. The play is supposed to look fast and fluid, like parent club Manchester City.

NYCFC recruited its Designated Players first, a seemingly logical, but unprecedented approach. Expansion clubs introduced after the arrival of the DP rule in 2007 have built a team and then identified where a ringer or two could add value. Midfielder Frank Lampard and striker David Villa, aging stars from England and Spain, respectively, were signed up over the summer.

Villa, who has played for storied clubs like Barcelona, Valencia and Atletico Madrid and won the World Cup and Euro 2008 with Spain, grasps the difficulty of their task: “It’s obviously a club starting at zero,” he said. “It’s a big challenge for me. It’s quite a big change for me. It’s a huge responsibility.”

In the timing of the signings, the club had no choice, Reyna explains. The European calendar, which runs fall to spring, rather than spring to fall like in MLS, made the summer-time signings a necessity. “The seasons don’t match up,” Reyna said. “So if you’re a great player, a team is not going to let you go in the middle of the season.”

Which brings us to another uncertainty: NYCFC doesn’t know when it will have Lampard at its disposal. He has been loaned out to Manchester City. This was ostensibly a move designed to keep him fit and sharp, but he has unexpectedly entrenched himself there. His prominent role has cast doubt on whether he will join NYCFC for the start of the season in March or remain in Manchester through the end of the Premier League season in May. A decision is expected mid-December.

Absent Lampard, who will be the playmaker in midfield, building a team from scratch will be even trickier.

The club is looking into signing a third DP, and Kreis and two other members of the staff recently spent three weeks in South America scouting players. Because for all the uncertainty, there is value in having a completely blank slate on which to project your vision.

“I think it makes for a special situation, I really do,” said Kreis. “You can look at this in sort of the negative way and say, ‘What an unbelievably difficult project we have in front of us.’ Because we do, it’s certainly challenging. But I prefer to look at it in a very positive way and say, ‘This is a terrific opportunity to start from scratch.’ Literally every player that will be there on day one of pre-season has been particularly wanted by the staff.”

Kreis and his colleagues exude optimism. Given all the work that’s left to do and all the questions that need answering, that’s probably for the best.


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