Seems pretty wasteful to let the No. 4 overall pick in last January's draft, an outside back with the potential to become a star (and maybe for the national team, too), slip away for nothing.
Zarek Valentin's departure from Chivas USA in Major League Soccer's expansion draft isn't so simple. And Chivas coach Robin Fraser isn't happy about it.
The Montreal Impact, which next season will debut as MLS's 19th club, on Wednesday listed Valentin No. 2 on its list of 10 players culled from the other 18 clubs after the Goats failed to include him among the 11 players they were permitted to protect.
The 20-year-old right back's fate is product of MLS's decision to “graduate” him from its Generation adidas developmental program, a decision Fraser, Chivas' head coach, called “baffling” and “extremely, extremely disappointing” -- and one that vastly changed Valentin's worth to the organization.
He's young, he's developing and in no way is he there yet -- just what the Generation adidas program is about -- and as a GA he counted nothing against Chivas' salary cap nor roster size. His change of designation means his salary, $80,000 annually (with $138,000 average guaranteed compensation), suddenly is applied against the cap.
MLS success often is about how well clubs maneuver within and around the salary cap, and the Goats also are getting a salary-cap hit from second-year midfielder Blair Gavin's GA “graduation.”
'MADE NO SENSE': “All the ramifications went into that decision” not to protect Valentin, Fraser said Thursday. “Here's a player who comes out early [following his sophomore season at the University of Akron] and is the No. 4 pick and as a GA player that has time to develop.
“It was baffling, to be quite honest. Extremely baffling. And I was extremely, extremely disappointed that he had 'graduated' from that. That's the sort of of program meant to allow players time to develop. For me, it just made no sense.”
Valentin and former Akron teammate Perry Kitchen, who had a solid rookie season on D.C. United's backline, were the only GA rookies who “graduated.” They also were the only GA rookies to exceed 2,000 regular-season minutes. Kitchen played in 31 games, 30 of them starts, and was on the field for 2,726 minutes. Valentin's numbers were 25 (with 24 starts) and 2,114.
Houston forward Will Bruin and Portland midfielder Darlington Nagbe, the latter also from Akron, appeared further along in their development this season than did Valentin, who has room to grow in his game, with his size and strength, and in terms of maturity. Nagbe played in more games (28) than Valentin, and he and Bruin made 21 starts. Neither topped 1,700 minutes.
It would be problematic for MLS to use statistical barriers in determining GA eligibility. Players don't develop at the same pace -- one player might be further along after 500 minutes of MLS play than another who has played 3,000 or 4,000 minutes -- and the opportunity to play is based on many factors, including roster makeup and quality, injuries and the team's success.
“We're definitely disappointed to see Zarek go. He has a bright future for sure,” Fraser said. “You kind of wish expansion years didn't happen, but it's part of the league, and you're going to end up losing some players you don't want to lose. ... It's unfortunate, but it's a numbers game. I certainly wish we would not have lost him.”
RISKY BEHAVIOR: Devising the 11-man protected list is difficult, and there's more to it than ranking your players and drawing a line after the first 11. Contract numbers, age, foreign status, how players fit in, what the drafting team's decision-makers like in players, who they'd want and who they wouldn't -- it's all part of the strategy.
“It's weeks and weeks of it,” Fraser said. “You do take all these things into consideration, and there are definitely a few flat-out gambles, but you try to minimize risk as much as possible.”
Fraser took a few risks. In addition to Valentin, Akron product Gavin, versatile midfielder Michael Lahoud and Argentine forward Marcos Mondaini were left exposed. So was midfielder Laurent Courtois, whose age (33) and nationality (French) made him safe to leave unprotected.
The Goats' protected list included the most important players (goalkeeper Dan Kennedy, defender Heath Pearce, midfielders Nick La Brocca and Paulo Nagamura, and plus-30 forwards Juan Pablo Angel and Alejandro Moreno), vital role players in key positions (defender Michael Umaña and midfielder Ben Zemanski) and the latest arrival (midfielder Ryan Smith, acquired Monday from Sporting Kansas City).
The choice to protect was winger Jorge Flores, a local product -- from Anaheim -- who came to the team through the reality TV show “Sueño MLS” in 2007. Flores started a career-hight 24 games for Chivas, but Montreal was unlikely to select him -- and losing Gavin, Lahoud or Valentin would be more damaging to the roster.
“Jorge has a lot of value for us,” assistant coach Carlos Llamosa said Wednesday. “He wasn't a regular starter at the beginning of the year, but he became a regular starter and became good for us. It's not just about play, it's about contracts, and Jorge has a lot of value for us.”
Fraser knew early this week, not long after the unprotected lists were supplied to Montreal, that Valentin was gone. Impact manager Jesse Marsch, a former Chivas captain, was delighted to see him available.
“As soon as we saw his name on the list, we wrote it right away on the board and knew that he was someone we’d like,” Marsch told media Wednesday. “The other thing about him is that there are a lot of teams interested in him, so we had to think about what his value was. In the end, we decided that he was a good young kid that we’d want to keep.”
Marsch also wanted Chivas forward/midfielder Justin Braun, a former teammate, whom the Goats had protected. Braun, it turned out, was available, but Chivas needed a right back to replace Valentin -- and Fraser said they'd been looking at Seattle veteran James Riley, who was unprotected, for several months.
The Impact took Riley and sent him and allocation money to Chivas for Braun and midfielder Gerson Mayen. Riley, at least initially, is a clear upgrade over Valentin.
“I just think for us it's important,” Fraser said. “We have to continue to try to add experienced pieces where we can on the team. Some of our downfalls this year, part of it is a lack of experience, for sure. We wanted and still want to add experienced pieces.”
Fraser likes that Riley, who has been a reliable starter for New England, San Jose and Seattle, has “not only played a number of games, he's played some significant games. He's a guy who has played well and played well in pressure situations.”