Soccer 101

SOCCER 101: MLS Expansion Draft

Written by Zach Lowy | Co-founder & Lead Writer at

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Major League Soccer kicked off its inaugural season in 1996 with 10 teams – Tampa Bay Mutiny, Los Angeles Galaxy, DC United, Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wizards, NY/NJ MetroStars, San Jose Clash, Columbus Crew, New England Revolution, and Colorado Rapids – before adding the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion in 1998. On November 6, 1997, the first-ever MLS Expansion Draft saw each of the 10 sides make ten players, including at least one foreign player, available for the Fire and Fusion to select in the draft, which was held via a conference call. The Fire won the first selection through a coin toss and proceeded to sign LA Galaxy defender Danny Pena, with the Fusion getting the next pick and picking up David Vaudreuil from DC United – in total, each side picked up six new players from their fellow MLS sides. Both teams reached the playoffs in their first year with Chicago beating Colorado Rapids and LA Galaxy before defeating DC United 2-0 – the winner of the first two MLS Cups – in the final in Pasadena.

The second MLS Expansion Draft came on November 19, 2004, with Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake drafting 10 players each from the other 10 MLS sides, who were allowed to protect 12 players on their senior team, whilst players on the developmental roster were exempt from the draft. These 10 teams were allowed to leave no more than one senior international player unprotected, and they were also not able to lose more than three players. After each player was selected, his team was allowed to remove one exposed player from their list.

Toronto FC became the first Canadian team to enter the league and were the subject of the league’s third Expansion Draft in 2006, kicking off a wave of expansion teams with a draft being held in each year until 2012. After a two-year drought, the next Expansion Draft came in 2014 and saw two different rounds – a Dispersal Draft that distributed players from Chivas USA across the league after the team was dissolved, and an Expansion Draft that saw New York City FC and Orlando City pick up 10 new players each from various MLS sides. Atlanta United and Minnesota United would become the next two sides to join the league in 2016 – since then, there has been an Expansion Draft every single year with Los Angeles FC, FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami, Nashville SC, Austin FC, and Charlotte FC following in their footsteps, and the 16th Expansion Draft will see St. Louis CITY SC become the latest team to select from a chosen pool of players in MLS as they prepare for their maiden campaign.

What is the MLS Expansion Draft?

The MLS Expansion Draft is a special draft that is held for teams that are entering MLS in the following season – as opposed to the MLS Superdraft, which happens every year and sees each team choose from a pool of collegiate players, MLS teams only participate in one Expansion Draft in their existence, with this taking place in November, three months before their inaugural campaign. These expansion teams do not select from a pool of college athletes, but rather a group of players from the other MLS teams, who are allowed to protect a number of players from entering the Expansion Draft pool. With the exception of D.C. United, Columbus Crew, New England Revolution, FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City, and San Jose Earthquakes – all of whom played in the first-ever MLS season in 1996 – every single MLS team has participated in the MLS Expansion Draft on one occasion, with St. Louis CITY the subject of the 17th MLS Expansion Draft on November 11.

How many players can St. Louis select?

St. Louis CITY SC will select five players during the draft in preparation for their inaugural 2023 season. The list of players eligible for selection will be released by MLS Communications on November 10, with St. Louis CITY SC allowed three minutes for each selection. They are unable to call any timeouts or make any trades – in stark contrast to the NFL Draft and other professional drafts that are typically dominated by trade headlines.

As recently as 2014, the Expansion Draft allowed for 10 players to be selected by expansion teams; in the 1997 Expansion Draft, up to 12 selections were allowed. However, the 2016 Expansion Draft would see Minnesota United and Atlanta United get just five picks each – this pattern has continued through 2022. Upon selecting a new player, St. Louis CITY will have the right to renegotiate a selected player’s salary without having to place them on waivers or giving his former club a right of first refusal. Moreover, if St. Louis CITY SC selects a Supplemental or Reserve Roster Player, he must occupy a Senior Roster slot in the following MLS season.

What are the biggest differences between the MLS Expansion Draft and the MLS SuperDraft?

A good way to simplify it is this: the draft system is only found in the United States, where the top professional teams can pick the best collegiate-level players after they have reached a certain age. This is a major variation from European soccer, for example, where teams can develop players in their academy before reaching the first team – some players join the academy as young as six years old, whilst others join at a more advanced stage before making the leap into professional football.

On the other hand, the MLS Expansion Draft is only found in MLS. There is a reason for this – the 1970 NFL season, the first since the consummation of the AFL-NFL merger, would see a total of 26 teams compete in the nation’s premier football league – there are currently 32 teams in the NFL. MLS, meanwhile, started their inaugural season with just 10 teams in 1996 – 26 years later, that amount has nearly tripled, and St. Louis CITY’s entrance to the league will make that number grow to 29.

Unlike the MLS SuperDraft or any other draft in America’s major professional leagues, the Expansion Draft does not take place every year, but rather, the year before an expansion team enters the league. The MLS SuperDraft takes place in January and utilizes a similar format to the NFL, where the lowest-ranking team from the previous season is allotted the first pick and where each club has a selection, the order of which is determined by a combination of the teams' playoff and regular season positions, in a lengthy process that is stretched across three rounds. On the other hand, the MLS Expansion Draft takes place in November and only sees expansion teams participate – on the rare occasion that there are multiple expansion teams in the same year, such as in 2019 when Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC joined MLS, a coin toss is held to determine which team picks first.

Which players are able to be selected?

Another crucial difference between the MLS Expansion Draft and other drafts in the U.S. is the specified pool of players. Expansion teams do not get the chance to pick the best collegiate players who are turning pro – that comes in the SuperDraft in January. Instead, they can choose from a select group of players who have already racked up ample experience in MLS. Last year’s Expansion Draft would see Charlotte FC pick up Orrin McKinze Gaines – who had made nine MLS appearances the previous year for Austin FC – Anton Walkes (33 appearances the previous year for Atlanta United), as well as three other experienced MLS players in Joseph Mora, Tristan Blackmon and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. Unlike the MLS Superdraft or other drafts, these expansion teams are signing players from other MLS teams, not collegiate teams.

Can other teams protect their best players?

It should be noted that not every player in MLS is eligible to be selected by expansion teams, whilst there is a system that compensates MLS teams for losing their players. Last year, Charlotte selected players from Austin FC, Atlanta United FC, D.C. United, LAFC, and New York City FC – these teams are exempt from this year’s draft, and St. Louis will not be allowed to choose players from any of these teams. The other 23 MLS clubs that competed during the 2022 season can protect 12 players from their senior and supplemental rosters, while Generation adidas players who have not been graduated and Homegrown Players (25 years old or younger) on a club’s Roster at the end of the 2022 MLS Season are automatically protected. Clubs do not have to use a protected slot on them.

Not every team will lose players to expansion sides, but for those who do, not only are they exempted from the next Expansion Draft, but they will also receive $50,000 in General Allocation Money. Once a team loses a player from their unprotected roster, that club is eliminated from the Expansion Draft and may not lose any further players.

How can St. Louis CITY SC make the most out of the Expansion Draft?

Taylor Twellman grew up in St. Louis before playing for the University of Maryland’s soccer team and spending two years with German club 1860 Munich’s reserve side, returning to the US in 2002 and being drafted second overall in the MLS SuperDraft by the New England Revolution. Over the next eight years, the Saint Louis University High School graduate would emerge as one of the best players in MLS for New England and rack up 30 appearances for the U.S. Men’s National Team. I had the chance to speak with Twellman about his hometown team and the upcoming Expansion Draft.

“The Expansion Draft is massively important because if you are smart and calculated you can use it not just to find players but more so to use the asset of it to build a roster through acquiring money, players, etc. The best expansion years have been the ones that maximized this mechanism and the worst ones have been the ones not knowing how to do this. I think the building of the rosters in MLS that have been very successful have been very smart with how they allocate their funds but also can’t be shrewd in how they do so. Signing players and trading players with MLS experience will be a real important factor.

Twellman added: "The academy should be and will be a real strong suit and pumping out players regularly. The city of St. Louis is used to winning and entertainment with the Cardinals, Blues, and even the Rams for a short period, so they need to hit the ground running albeit with expansion team expectations. Home field advantage will NOT be an issue and I can’t wait for opening day.”

How can I watch the 2022 MLS Expansion Draft?

You can watch the MLS Expansion Draft on our YouTube and the STL CITY SC mobile App on Friday, November 11 starting at 6:00 pm CT.