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Monday MLS Breakdown: Generation adidas players bring short-term benefits and long-term budget concerns

Several teams have wrestled with the impact graduating Generation adidas players can have on a club's roster and salary budget landscape this winter.

The perils of selecting a Generation adidas player in the MLS SuperDraft receive far less discussion than the obvious merits of choosing a talented prospect that doesn't count against the roster or the salary budget.

It isn't hard to understand why. GA players can immediately bolster a roster without actually impacting it. They represent an addition without any financial subtraction at the outset. For most coaches and general managers, the decision to pluck a roster- and salary-protected player over a similarly talented option without those attached perks isn't a particularly difficult one.

Several situations this winter, however, have showed that the short-term benefits of picking a GA player may sometimes create awkward situations in the medium- and long-term as clubs attempt to manage their squads. Oddly enough, the rules and regulations of the program create significant concerns for both clubs and players if the rookie transitions into the professional game without a hitch.

Former Chivas USA defender Zarek Valentin offers a rather dramatic example of the issue at hand. Chivas USA boss Robin Fraser selected the U.S. U-20 center back with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 SuperDraft to provide a building block for his overhaul efforts. Valentin adjusted to the demands of the professional level fairly quickly for the Red-and-White and featured in 25 matches (including 24 starts and 2114 minutes played) during his first season.

Those robust appearance numbers prompted MLS to graduate Valentin from the GA program at the end of the campaign. No tangible benchmarks indicate when a player must assume a senior roster spot, but consistent first-team participation usually places a player at significant risk to lose those sacred protections on the roster and on the salary budget.

(Note: Climbing the Ladder offers an informative look at how MLS graduated first- and second-year GA players between 2000 and 2010 in this comprehensive blog post. Valentin's numbers warrant his graduation after one season, according to the examples outlined in the post. One peculiarity worth noting: goalkeepers often earn a second year of protection even if they appear regularly during their rookie season.)

Those protections significantly influence a GA player's value because MLS offers them a higher salary and a higher number of guaranteed years than the typical senior draft pick. Instead of retaining Valentin for another year without counting him against the roster or the salary budget, Chivas USA faced the prospect of absorbing a substantial salary hit relative to his production ($80,000 base salary/$132,000 guaranteed salary in 2011, per MLS Players Union documents) and creating a spot for him on the roster. The concurrent elevation of fellow GA product Blair Gavin ($55,000/$74,000 in 2011, per MLS Players Union documents) to the senior roster further complicated matters.

(Note: The tumult caused by the switch in status for GA players stands in stark contrast to the cost certainty afforded by graduating seniors signed to MLS deals at or near the league minimum. Clubs treasure their roster spots and prefer to spend their salary budget dollars on high-impact performers, but there is something to be said for signing graduating college seniors on the typical four-year, entry-level deal to provide depth. In certain circumstances, those players also end up off the salary budget for a year or two as well, depending on the compensation paid out to other players and the overall management of the roster.)

After weighing the potential repercussions of Valentin's status as a senior roster player, Fraser and general manager Jose Domene decided to leave their first-round SuperDraft pick available for Montréal to select in the expansion draft and subsequently acquired James Riley from Seattle (via the Impact) to fill Valentin's right back berth.

“We're definitely disappointed to see Zarek go,” Fraser told ESPN Los Angeles after the Impact plucked the 20-year-old with one of its ten selections in November. “He has a bright future for sure. 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.”

Roster turnover remains part and parcel of the MLS landscape, but it feels just a bit different when a program designed to cultivate young talent prompts turnover. Twenty-two players graduated from Generation adidas after the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Only 12 of them – including just seven of the 11 2011 graduates – currently play for the same team they did at that juncture. Some of the departures, however, came from players failing to make the grade at the MLS level.

While the graduation process allows MLS to cull faltering players off the league's books and prevent teams from receiving undue roster advantages from the program, it also places the onus on teams to make hard decisions about regular contributors. Danny Cruz's graduation from the program after the season prompted Houston to decline the option on a player that started in MLS Cup ($80,000/$123,000 in 2011, per MLS Players Union documents) and ship his rights to D.C. United. Former number one draft pick Danny Mwanga ($120,000/$226,250 in 2011, per MLS Players Union documents) heard his name cycle through the rumor mill this winter as Philadelphia tried to sort through its own budgetary mess.

(Note: Cruz's status as a third-round pick should alter the evaluation rubric somewhat. First-round picks are supposed to stick around for a while. Second or third round picks? Every meaningful moment counts as a bonus. Houston managed to procure 27 starts from Cruz during the past two seasons and 51 total appearances during his three years with the team. Even with the trade to D.C. in mind, those numbers represent an excellent return for a third-round pick that did not count against the roster or the salary budget.)

While the prospect of losing those players two or three years down the line may cause some problems, they do not likely outweigh the instant benefits of choosing a GA player to most coaches and general managers. They do, however, provide some cause for introspection as clubs continue to grapple with the effects of selecting GA players in the medium- and long-term. In the end, it seems those straightforward decisions on draft day can lead to much harder calculations as the player's career progresses.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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