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MURRAY: Trades for International Roster Spots Add Wrinkle for Championship GMs

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 03/12/19, 3:32PM EDT

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Rule introduced prior to 2018 season puts new spin on roster building, asset management


In the 2018 USL Championship season, Michael Cox was acquired by Saint Louis FC, which sent an international roster spot to Nashville SC under a new league rule that has begun to change the way club's build their rosters. | Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / S

TAMPA, Fla. – During the offseason prior to the 2018 USL Championship season, the league office introduced a new rule: teams would now be able to trade their seven allocated international roster slots to other clubs within the league for a season.

A little over a year on, the impact of that new rule is being seen clearly in the roster composition of many of the league’s clubs. Of the 36 teams in the Championship this season, 16 now either have more or fewer than their original allocation of seven to start the season.

At the forefront of this has been Bethlehem Steel FC, which through the new direction taken by Philadelphia Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner, has been a major buyer in the market this offseason. From trading away all the club’s MLS SuperDraft picks to acquiring five additional international slots in the Championship for Steel FC this season – giving Bethlehem a league-high 12 to work with – there’s a clear direction the organization is moving toward when it comes to roster makeup.

“We decided more or less not to rely on so called college players,” Tanner told SB Nation’s Brotherly Game two weeks ago upon completion of the acquisitions. “At the moment we’ve loaned out a number of foreign players to see how they are doing and also in order to see if they could help us with the Union in one to three years.”

So, where are those opportunities to acquire additional slots coming from?

Interestingly, it’s from clubs that are also taking a similar approach to Steel FC in moving away from young college signings. But for clubs like Saint Louis FC, it’s the arrival of high-level academy products from within the organization that are allowing greater flexibility in the way General Manager Jeremy Alumbaugh can go about building STLFC’s squad.

“We were able to fill out with Academy contract players where in years past we would have taken a younger college kid or maybe a younger international player,” said Alumbaugh this week. “We didn’t go into the offseason recruitment saying we need to move two or three of these, it just kind of occurred that way a little bit and gave us some flexibility to do some other things.”

2019 International Roster Slot Transactions

Current as of March 12, 2019

Club Assigning (Seller) Club Acquiring (Buyer) Slots Moved
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC Sacramento Republic FC 1
Indy Eleven Memphis 901 FC 1
Loudoun United FC Bethlehem Steel FC 2
Nashville SC Austin Bold FC 1
OKC Energy FC Swope Park Rangers 1
OKC Energy FC Indy Eleven 1
Ottawa Fury FC Bethlehem Steel FC 1
Sacramento Republic FC Louisville City FC 1
Sacramento Republic FC Hartford Athletic 1
Sacramento Republic FC Bethlehem Steel FC 2
Saint Louis FC San Antonio FC 1
Saint Louis FC San Antonio FC 1
Saint Louis FC El Paso Locomotive FC 1
Saint Louis FC Indy Eleven 1

 

Clubs with strong academy programs like Saint Louis and Sacramento Republic FC are now seeing more roster slots filled with capable young players, which in turn is allowing for the flexibility to flip international spots to clubs in need an additional spot or two as they build out their rosters. Two of the international slots acquired by Bethlehem came from Republic FC, which has also focused on becoming younger and featuring more domestic players by design.

“We have trended younger with an average age of around 24, and we have also trended toward primarily domestic players,” said Republic FC General Manager Todd Dunivant by email. “By selling international spots, we can expand our budget and, in theory, bring stronger players into the team.”

From Alumbaugh’s perspective, the opportunity to use international slots as an asset has been a major plus for the league. While there isn’t a specific “going rate” for what an international slot will cost a side, Alumbaugh points to the deal he made last season that brought Michael Cox to Saint Louis from Nashville SC in exchange for an international slot as an example of when the opportunity to make a deal proved useful in the bigger picture for the club.

“[It was] an important move for us down the road,” said Alumbaugh. “We were able to bring in Audi Jepson and Tyler Polak late because we had moved an international spot that had freed up some cash, so to speak, for us to make some late-season acquisitions.”

2019 USL Championship International Slots by Team

Current as of March 12, 2019

Eastern Conference International Slots Western Conference International Slots
ATL UTD 2 7 Austin Bold FC 8
Bethlehem Steel FC 12 Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC 6
Birmingham Legion FC 7 El Paso Locomotive FC 8
Charleston Battery 7 Fresno FC 7
Charlotte Independence 7 LA Galaxy II 7
Hartford Athletic 8 Las Vegas Lights FC 7
Indy Eleven 8 New Mexico United 7
Loudoun United FC 5 OKC Energy FC 5
Louisville City FC 8 Orange County SC 7
Memphis 901 FC 6 Phoenix Rising FC 7
Nashville SC 6 Portland Timbers 2 7
New York Red Bulls II 7 Real Monarchs SLC 7
North Carolina FC 7 Reno 1868 FC 7
Ottawa Fury FC 6 Rio Grande Valley FC 7
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 7 Sacramento Republic FC 4
Saint Louis FC 3 San Antonio FC 9
Swope Park Rangers 8 Tacoma Defiance 7
Tampa Bay Rowdies 7 Tulsa Roughnecks FC 7

 

While Saint Louis didn’t specifically target having international slots available when it went into its recruitment this offseason, Dunivant did after Republic FC had numerous international players come off its roster ahead of the 2019 season.

“We targeted 3-to-4 internationals for our roster in the offseason,” said Dunivant. “We also lost four internationals from our 2018 roster in offseason, so we were essentially starting from a blank slate. As our recruiting came into focus, we quickly realized that we would have some extra international slots to move within the league, as we know they are a valuable commodity.”

With 16 international slots having changed hands ahead of the 2019 season’s kickoff, the change to the league’s roster rules is clearly making a positive impact in roster building for club leadership.

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