Sizing up the best options available in the MLS expansion draft

FC Cincinnati will select five players in Tuesday’s MLS expansion draft, and the new team has some quality options to choose from

If Atlanta United’s MLS Cup triumph provided a blueprint for future teams to follow in enjoying immediate success in Major League Soccer, then early evidence suggests the league’s next expansion team isn’t going to be following that path.

FC Cincinnati has made a flurry of signings of USL players and MLS reserves, the sort of bargain shopping that isn’t exactly going to boost excitement levels about the new team. If there is something to be excited about for Cincinnati fans, it is that the team is about to have a shot at picking up five players in Tuesday’s MLS expansion draft that could significantly boost the quality of the roster.

FC Cincinnati won’t have the luxury of being able to pick players from some of the most talent-laden rosters in MLS, what with Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders, Columbus Crew, Toronto FC and the San Jose Earthquakes exempt from the expansion draft. Cincinnati also won’t be picking any Portland Timbers players, as part of its agreement with the Timbers in the transfer that brought Fanendo Adi to FC Cincinnati.

Trades should also be a part of the plan for Cincinnati, which should look at how LAFC handled last year’s expansion draft for some guidance in how to flip some players currently available, but who Cincinnati might not rate as highly as some other teams.

Given how many USL players the team has already chosen to sign, it shouldn’t be a surprise if Cincinnati makes a point to grab at least a few veterans to help build their locker room around. In an ideal world, Cincy would grab Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst, who is available in the draft, but with Parkhurst eligible for free agency, he can choose not to go to Cincinnati, which means it isn’t worth burning an expansion draft pick on him or any player eligible to go the free agent route. The same can be said for older players like Jeff Larentowicz, who can threaten retirement rather than joining Cincinnati.

That leaves Cincinnati with a wheelhouse of younger prospects and veterans in their late 20s, as well as potentially some higher-priced options who could be traded.

Here is a look at five players who FC Cincinnati should consider selecting in Tuesday’s MLS expansion draft:

The former D.C. United defensive midfielder didn’t enjoy as good a return to MLS as many would have expected. He was benched at the tail-end of the regular season, just as the Galaxy were pushing for a playoff berth.

A forgettable season with the Galaxy shouldn’t scare off Cincinnati. Kitchen is still only 26, and has the kind of leadership qualities and MLS experience that would prove invaluable. He also has ties to Ohio, having won an NCAA title during his one season at Akron. His 2018 base salary was $450,000, a relatively big number for a defensive midfielder by MLS standards, but he is a player who would fit into a team that isn’t likely to spend big on the international market.

If there is a player who could be an invaluable trade chip, it’s Kamara, a proven goal-scorer in MLS who has multiple teams interested in acquiring him from the Whitecaps. FC Cincinnati already has Fanendo Adi on the books as a target striker, but flipping Kamara in a trade for allocation money and a potential high draft pick could make him a great value.

And if Cincinnati had to keep him? Kamara is no stranger to playing on the wing, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he could play in the same lineup as Adi, but a trade would be more likely, with a team like the Colorado Rapids as a potential destination. Of course, that would mean Cincinnati would be paying the 34-year-old striker a seven-figure salary, which might be more than the first-year club is looking to spend, especially with Adi already on the books.

It might seem like a long shot that Cincinnati takes a player coming off of a torn ACL, but if Cincy had a chance to watch Valot play for the Red Bulls before that injury they would know he could be an absolute steal as a longer-term prospect. 

Valot played his way into a regular starting role for the Red Bulls, and his two-way work rate and ability to contribute to the attack from central midfield made him an early breakout sensation before he tore his ACL in July. He wouldn’t be ready for the start of the 2019 season, but an expansion team that already looks destined to start slow can afford to wait on a talent like the 25-year-old French midfielder. Something else to consider is that the Red Bulls would very likely be willing to make a serious trade offer to get Valot back considering how highly-regarded he is by the MLS Supporters’ Shield winners.

Fullbacks are always at a premium in MLS, and even though Cincinnati signed a pair of fullbacks from its USL team on Monday in left back Blake Smith and right back Justin Hoyte, Blackmon is still too good a value to pass up.

The third overall pick in the 2018 MLS Draft, Blackmon struggled for playing time with LAFC as a rookie, but he is still an exciting right back prospect who could definitely start for the expansion team. His age (22) and modest salary don’t hurt his chances of being a good fit for Cincinnati either.

Ambrose was able to showcase his ability during a stretch of starts for Atlanta United while Greg Garza was injured, and the 25-year-old left back put in a solid run of form during that stretch, looking very much like a player capable of handling starting left back duties in MLS.

FC Cincinnati could do with a veteran goalkeeper, so if left back is determined not to be a priority, then someone like Brad Knighton or Joe Bendik could certainly be of use.

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