MLS’s Moneyball


Moneyball, in case you missed the relatively average Brad Pitt movie this summer, is a theory that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to win. It is an idea of spending wisely instead of largely. In a league where the salary is capped at $2.7 million, this is a stat that should be looked more at than in baseball where there is no cap

I originally started this blog mid-September and have been working on-and-off on it. I used the MLS Player Unions Salary list, which they release every year. Plus self reported numbers for later signings. For statistics I used a mixture of mlssoccer.com stats page and information from Opta –when available. Due to this I won’t claim these stats are 100% infallible and if they change I will note it via Twitter and in the blog itself.

Amongst the things i found when looking at MLS for moneyball statistics, it is important to realize that while there is a $2.7 million dollar salary cap, there are all sorts of ways around it –Generation Adidas and Homegrown Players don’t count towards the cap, Designated Players only count partially, Allocation money can be used to avoid cap hits. So while very few teams spend only $2.7 million on players, most teams do not spend LA Galaxy or Red Bull New York type numbers. Looking at moneyball is a lot like looking at it like golf scores, in that the lowest number wins. For this experiment, we are looking only at the regular season, though you may be surprised how the playoffs end up working here as well.

The main idea is for each point earned by a team in the regular season (again we are not looking at wins and loses since soccer allows ties) costs each team a certain amount of money. The lower the point costs, the better the team does. For example, the Columbus Crew ended the season with 47 points, which put them in third place in the East. Their salary number for the year was approximately $3.5 million –$800,000 over the cap. We take the salary, divide it by the points, and come up with $74,428.009 as their Money Per Point (MPP). If we are looking at individuals, we would take their salary and divide it by impactful statistics (tackles, goals, saves, assists, and interceptions) for Impact Points (IP).

Let’s take a look, from 18 to 1 at how our teams line up in this scenario.

CATEGORY 4: SPENDING MONEY LIKE WATER

#18 Red Bulls New York, $291,304.35 MPP

Three DPs, a few Generation Adidas Players, and a few Homegrown Players load this roster. They had the highest salary in the league, but only earned 46 points on the season. The other big problem with this team is how top heavy the roster was. Unlike, say, LA –who ironically didn’t do much better– the numbers are not split 1-22. RBNY is costly 1-9 and then takes a big drop after that as far as IP quality went.

#17 Los Angeles Galaxy, $185,074.63 MPP

In all honesty, the Galaxy are only in this category because they actually spend money. In fact, if more teams in MLS spent like the Galaxy do, LA would probably be much lower on the list (remember lower is good). Their moneyball number is nearly 40% less than that of New York, but they earned 21 more points on the season. In fact their number is only $55,000 more than Toronto, and they were much better than TFC. If MLS gets to a point where more teams are spending $12-15 million like Galaxy and Red Bull do the Galaxy will probably still win more games, because unlike RBNY they have this moneyball thing down.

#16 Toronto FC, $130,303.03 MPP

Toronto spent approximately $8.1 million less than LA Galaxy, but they spent $55,000 less per win. This, after all, is a team with three designated players. I’d be interested int he future to add in nonleague competitions –Voyageurs Cup and CONCACAF Champions League– as I feel it would probably help TFC. Unfortunately, this is based on league points, and they apparently did not spend their money too wisely.

#15 Vancouver Whitecaps FC, $128,571.43 MPP

I love Eric Hassli, you can look back at the MLS Awards to see this, but he sits at $75,000 per IP. In addition, Jarju –or was it Jujubeat?– averages $426,223 per IP. THAT MEANS HE’S HAD NO IMPACT THIS SEASON! Add to that, Vancouver went out before joining MLS and signed a lot of players to big USL contracts, which they then carried over to MLS. I thought it was brilliant at the time, but they finished with the worst point total in the league and were not exactly small spenders. If Vancouver wants to contend next year they need to get more bang for their buck.

#14 New England Revolution, $121,459.57 MPP

The Revolution did not spend as little as people thought they did. In addition to a psedo-designated player, they overpaid for some former French internationals (Ousmane Dabo’s IP was a paltry $26,000, which when considering his biggest IP is tackles is pathetic) who didn’t finish the season, and a former team MVP who did not get to play. I have also heard that Taylor Twellman is still on the books, but I’m not sure that is entirely true. Either way, if you are going to spend cheaply you need to spend wisely, and being as they spent less than Vancouver, but spent approximately the same amount per point, I’d say they are not too thrifty in New England.

#13 Chicago Fire FC, $111,627.91 MPP

It’s really tough to do well in MLS Moneyball when you are paying over $2 million for a player who didn’t even play for you this year. The absence of Nery Castillo may not have hurt the team competitively, but it brought their money per point way down.

CATEGORY 3: IMPULSE SPENDING

#12. DC United, $84,615.38 MPP

DC’s number is deceiving. If we take away Brandon McDonald’s new contract and Dwayne DeRosario’s numbers, and the wins the team earned when they were there, they hop up into the higher category (meaning they spent more per win). If we take away the pre Dwayne DeRosario/Brandon McDonald records, they actually move down the list (spending less per win). This means that despite the bigger contract that McDonald received, and the big salary boost DC took on from DeRosario, both these players proved to be bargains. It is going to be interesting to see where this number falls when De Ro gets a new contract, and if DC decides to keep Charlie Davies –a move that I believe would make Davies a DP and raise his relatively decent $16,322.67 IP).

#11. Chivas USA, $75,000.00 MPP

Without injuries Chivas may have gained more points this season. With those point may have pushed them lower, but Chivas number is a fair reflection on their team. One of only three teams to spend only to the salary cap and not a penny more, Chivas falls directly in the middle. Using the moneyball philosophy, if a team spends only to the cap you would hope that the moneyball number would be much lower.

#10. Columbus Crew. $74,468.09 MPP

Just the second playoff team on the list, Columbus was gutted at the beginning of the season. However, they vastly outperformed most people’s predictions, which is partially why they almost cut into the top half of our moneyball poll. With Robbie Rogers ($35,000 IP) looking to leave, that will give the team money to spend. If they do it wisely, the Crew could move way down the list.

#9. San Jose Earthquakes, $71,052.63 MPP

This is the number that came as the second most interesting. San Jose was directly at the cap, actually a little bit under, they did not perform very well –only 38 points on the season, but their money per points was almost in the next category. Part of this is because they had no Designated Players and got very good statistics from two value strikers (one and a half if you only count Lenhart as part-time). Wondo kept up good form in MLS with a bargain IP of $7954.55. Though the team finished well below where people expected them to finish, they could be a real surprising team in 2012. That is if they can keep their money per points low, and pick up some more pieces at a reasonable value.

#8. Philadelphia Union, $68,750.00 MPP

The Union did very well in moneyball, but not as well as one might think. This is due to big contributions from an underpaid superstar in Le Toux ($8,136.36 IP), a Generation Adidas Player in Mwanga ($22,625 IP) who isn’t as valuable as one might think, and a Homegrown player in McInerney ($10,416.67 IP). In fact, if it hadn’t been for the cost of Carlos Ruiz ($30,667.08 IP!) who didn’t finish the season in Philly, they may have been in the next category. Faryd Mondragon was also a heavy hit for the overall MMP, but I guarantee he gained them some points early in the season, which probably made him a real bargain player.

CATEGORY 2: SPEND TO WIN

#7. FC Dallas, $67,307.69 MPP

FC Dallas’s designated player was only on the books for $42,000 (not counting the transfer fee). Brek Shea is still a bargain at $133,000. George John costs the team $42,000! Dallas will, most likely, lose John for free and Shea for a healthy transfer fee in January. The question is how they will spend that money, and if they can keep winning, to keep their moneyball numers low.

#6. Real Salt Lake, $66,037.74 MPP

RSL is a team that is greater than its parts, or at least better than its parts get paid. Their DP is only a DP by $2,500 over the normal max salary. Everyone else is fairly paid, but not overpriced. Only 12 players are over the $125,000 mark. RSL has mastered getting the most out of the least, though the numbers of Saborio, Beckerman, and Morales keep them from being lower on the list.

#5. Colorado Rapids, $65,306.12 MPP

Colorado is on the list because they do not pay a lot, not because they earn a lot of points. They made nearly no additions –either new players or big raises– to their MLS Cup winning side, and they still gained 49 points on the season at a rate of less than $66,000 per point.

#5. Houston Dynamo, $65,306.12 MPP

Brad Davis was paid $13,903.13 per IP. Compare that to Dwayne De Rosario at $21,467.39 per IP and he is a better bargain. Most of Houston’s players aren’t exactly the value that Davis is, but they come close. Add to that a trip to the MLS Cup Finals and the team has spent thrifty and well.

CATEGORY 1: SMART SPENDERS

#3. Portland Timbers FC, $65,285.71 MPP

Portland, to me, is the most fascinating of the low spenders. They won enough to almost make the playoffs as an expansion team. If Portland keep their money per points low, and add some quality talent like they did this year, making the playoffs may not be so far off.

#2. Sporting Kansas City, $62,745.10 MPP

This is a team with two DPs, if they had never signed Jéferson ($96,999.20 IP!!!) and let the far more valuable Graham Zusi ($3,500 per IP) play, they may have taken over the top spot.

#1. Seattle Sounders FC, $55,555.56 MPP

Seattle invented moneyball. Two designated players who are young, talented, and paid less than a million dollars each, allows you to spend wisely on the rest of your team. Good impact play from Lamar Neagle, who was signed below the league minimum ($4,657.71 per impact point). If Seattle spent like LA or NY, which they definitely could, they might have a few better players. However, they spend about 25% of what those two teams do and that allows them to have a much deeper squad that isn’t front loaded. This is why, despite flaming out in MLS Cup, they competed well across all competitions.

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