Eales watched Falcons to prepare for MLS expansion draft

February 25, 2016 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta United FC president Darren Eales speaks during the Atlanta Sports Awards at the Fox Theatre Thursday, February 25, 2016, in Atlanta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ
February 25, 2016 - Atlanta, Ga: Atlanta United FC president Darren Eales speaks during the Atlanta Sports Awards at the Fox Theatre Thursday, February 25, 2016, in Atlanta. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

To prepare for Tuesday’s MLS expansion draft, Atlanta United president Darren Eales spent time in the Falcons’ draft-day war room the past two years.

While common in U.S. sports, Eales grew up in England and wasn’t exposed to the selection process that can be used to build a team. Throughout most of the world, it’s see a player, compete to sign a player in soccer.

He found watching Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn navigate the real-time intricacies and surprises fascinating and useful for what he may expect on a smaller scale when Atlanta United makes the first of its five picks Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s interesting the dynamics, the game theory of how you reacted when a player you want suddenly isn’t available,” he said. Asked if he will return the favor and invite Dimitroff and Quinn to Tuesday’s draft, or the college draft in January, Eales smartly said the Falcons will be busy Tuesday and will be in the playoffs next month, so their front office will be preoccupied.

Eales said he isn’t nervous and doubts he will feel pressure on Tuesday. He rightfully points out that he often dealt with million-dollar contracts at his previous club Tottenham, which was notorious for signing and selling until the final seconds of transfer windows. Technical director Carlos Bocanegra played for the U.S. men’s national team more than 100 times, so pressure won’t affect him. Paul McDonough, director of soccer operations, went through the last expansion draft when he was in the front office of Orlando SC. This will be old hat for him.

The draft will start at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Every MLS club can protect 11 players. The rest, other than Generation Adidas or Homegrown Players, can be left exposed. Once a player is selected from a team, it can’t lose any more players.

That dynamic adds a bit of pressure and interest because if Minnesota United were to pick a player from Portland, when Atlanta United was interested in another Timbers player, Eales and Bocanegra will have to consider other alternatives to acquire that player.

The protected list of players will be made available following Saturday’s MLS Cup. Atlanta United and Minnesota United will have 36 hours to pour over the list and decide who they like.

There are many factors to consider. Though Eales has said they will likely select the best available player, he amended that tactic earlier this week by saying that they may select the best available player at the right price.

Because MLS has a salary cap, Atlanta United can’t just select the biggest names with the biggest salaries. They have to build a 28-man roster that currently has just 10 players, of which four are younger than 19 years old and therefore may not make the senior squad. There are a lot of slots to fill and less than $4 million to spend.

Eales said they must be pragmatic and work on the theory that the 17th and 18th players on the roster are just as important as the first and second because of the long season, travel, likelihood of injuries, etc.

The team has run several mock drafts and will run more Sunday and Monday. It keeps dossiers of players in a shared file in its computer system. McDonough said months ago that the team has been scouting MLS players ahead of the expansion draft.

“It’s a doctrine of marginal gains in trying to build a roster,” Eales said. “In every possible way to acquire players and build a roster, we want to be better than everyone else at that method, whether it’s the academy, the expansion draft. We want to be prepared so we are able to maximize utility from that mechanism.”

In Other News