The Union added depth to their attacking midfield lineup on Wednesday by signing playmaker Adam Najem, a product of the New York Red Bulls' academy and the University of Akron.
A native of Wayne, N.J., Najem would have been a Red Bulls homegrown player, but could not agree on contract terms with the club. That made him available to any team in Major League Soccer, though acquiring him would require a trade.
The Union moved when Najem became available. Word surfaced in late January that they were talking to the Red Bulls, and the deal was made official this week. New York received the Union's natural second-round pick in the 2018 draft.
Along with acquirng Najem, the Union got the right to count him as a homegrown player even though he didn't come through their academy. This may seem unusual, but it has happened a few times in MLS over the years. The first such deal was done in 2011.
Had Najem not been a homegrown player, he would have been in this year's draft, having completed four years of college at Akron. Scouts projected that had he been in the draft, he would have been a high first-round pick. So he cost the Union less than he might have.
"He's an intelligent, humble, quiet kid, but when he gets on the field, I would say he makes a lot of noise, especially around the goal," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "He's a guy who can play a final pass, scores a lot of goals in practice, scored a lot of goals in college as well. He has that skill set that you can't always teach or coach - some guys just have a knack around the goal."
Najem did indeed score a lot of goals in college: 33 in 87 games over four years. He also recorded 29 assists.
He won't bring much size to the field, at just 5-foot-8 and 153 points. But size is no requirement in soccer, and Curtin said it doesn't matter to him.
"I'm not a guy who cares too much about size," Curtin said. "I'm more concerned with a guy who sees the game a little different. He sees it one and two passes ahead, so he sees where the next ball should go at all times [and] is aware in tight spaces."
Najem is the 28th player on the Union's roster, and MLS' current rules cap roster sizes at 28 players. As such, the Union seem to be out of room to add more players, including a third goalkeeper that the team does not yet have.
Except they aren't, because those rules are set to change this year. Although MLS headquarters hasn't announced this yet, multiple sources confirmed that a new rule will soon be announced that allows teams to expand their rosters to 30 players if two of those players are homegrown.
The Union have two homegrown players on their roster in midfielder Derrick Jones and defender Auston Trusty. So they get the two extra slots.
Those two players must occupy reserve player slots on the roster, which means the minimum salary requirements are lower than for regular roster slots.
The roster expansion news first slipped out in December, when Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel mentioned it at a town hall meeting with season ticket holders. The Union's deal brought confirmation that the new rule is now in effect.
Expect the official division of roster slots this year to be as follows: 20 senior roster slots that count toward the salary cap; three supplemental roster slots at the senior pay scale that don't count toward the cap; and seven reserve slots.
On top of that, any MLS team can take advantage of an existing rule that expands rosters by another slot, as long as that player is loaned to a USL affiliate and is not recalled for the full year.
Add everything up and the Union will be able to carry 31 players on their payroll this year in some form.
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