Soccernomics: MLS Moneyball and the Vancouver Whitecaps
Is it a word, a concept, a strategy? Whatever it is, as most of you read that term (or at least for those of you who’ve seen the 2011 film) illusions of Brad Pitt in his brilliant portrayal of Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s short lived resurgence probably dominate one’s recall. The story of a poor franchise, with an uninspired fanbase, in an increasingly unequal league that somehow defied the odds and turned things around. It’s a classic American underdog story through and through.
Regardless, what exactly does Moneyball even mean? And why am I talking about in a, **checks notes**, yeah, a soccer article? Well, because I don’t think what was happening in the Bay Area for the A’s and what’s been happening to a lot of MLS clubs, chiefly the Whitecaps, is all that different. It feels…
And then there’s us.”
Let’s not beat around the bush: Major League Soccer is a different ballgame than it used to be. Now more than ever teams cannot afford to play dumb, especially poor teams. Ownerships are getting richer, front offices are getting smarter, and the quality is getting better. The inequality is rising and ignoring proven MLS success strategies isn’t going to cut it for making playoffs, let alone winning trophies.
Money or no money it’s not go big or go home, I think it’s play smart or go home.
That’s the basis of my MLS Moneyball. When you generalize beyond baseball, it’s all about context and statistics. It’s about what’s proven or likely to work, about knowing very precisely what game you’re playing, and running with it. What in the game, and more importantly the league, is undervalued and what is overvalued?
Fully invested in statistical analysis, how can one maximize the scarcest of resources and build success? At it’s best it’s cheap in the most positive way, because it strives to minimize wastefulness. For clubs who feel like they’re falling behind, it’s a strategy you’ll still be able to hang your hat on even if the favourites win.
So here’s how the Vancouver Whitecaps, or any club for that matter, can start playing MLS Moneyball, stop being dumb and wasteful, and start playing efficient and smart.
MLS Moneyball – Working the salary cap
For those reading this that might be unaware of exactly all of the ins and outs, Major League Soccer, consistent with the rest of the North American sports leagues, utilizes a salary cap system. In essence, the 20 senior roster spots, which barring circumstantial exceptions are essentially the top 20 earners, compensation is aggregated and that collective sum can’t exceed a set cap; $5,210,000 in 2021. Furthermore, players technically can’t individually make more than roughly $600k, unless they’re a Designated Player (DP), of which clubs can have up to three. However, there’s something called allocation money (funny money provided by the league or purchased by the club from the league) which can be utilized to buy non-DP salaries down (below the individual maximum salary charges) and pay players more than the $600k anywhere to 1.6 million. However there’s one very unique, and frankly stupid, rule we also need to consider:
The transfer fee of an incoming player is spread out evenly across their contract onto their (salary) cap hit. So for example, if a player makes $500k annually, but the club paid a 3 million dollar transfer and the player signed a 3 year contract, their annual salary cap hit will actually be the $500k salary + $1 million annual transfer burden (3 million/3 years) or $1.5 million total.
Before drawing any takeaways, consider two stipulations courtsey of Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book Soccernomics (very strongly recommend):
(I) Your top three players are overwhelmingly the most influential in terms of raw, individual contributions (xG and key passes).
(II) The spine of a team will make or break it.
Now to be clear, this is an allocation of resources theory; it is not to say throw all your eggs in three baskets and neglect the other eight. It simply means that once you establish a reasonable baseline quality across players 4-11, all remaining money needs to go to players 1-3, of which should be in the spine of your eleven.
Given the “transfer burden” clause and the Soccernomics rules, I propose three key MLS Moneyball rules:
1) Free Agents are a damn bargain. Always be on the lookout for them.
2) Large transfer fees, and to a degree money spent on transfers in general, should be reserved exclusively for the DPs, of which you should sign three all along in the spine, who will deflect all such transfer fees off the cap completely.
3) Allocation money is a tool for players 4-11 and maybe 12-14. It ought to be spread out to maximize the “collective” quality of the Starting XI, not evenly distributed individual quality (spend more on the defensive midfielder than, say, the fullback). Use of allocation money should emphasize actual salary relief rather than alleviating a transfer burden.
These rules should be the foundation of Major League Soccer roster management amidst all of MLS’s weird regulations, and yet the Whitecaps have been less than cordial about following them.
Part A: Free Agents
The conversation of Free Agents is a comparative one; how did an investment pan out vs what you could have picked up for free. In an attempt to be fair, inter-league trades for virtually nothing (draft picks, < 100,000 allocation) are logistically as good as free transfers; for example - Kei Kamara and Maxime Crépeau. I don’t have many qualms with their inter-league record. Their international record however, is a different story. Recall based on Moneyball #3, allocation money is a tool for non-DPs and ought to be used for actual salary relief rather than alleviating a transfer burden. Designated players might be young or old, but either way you’re going to need some veteran players (particularly MLS ones but more on that later). Free agents are an ideal place to splash on salary, because there is no transfer burden to alleviate. This is where to sign “proven players”, whose quality is just below the threshold to require a Designated Player slot due to salary or transfer fee.
Let’s look at the free transfers the Whitecaps have brought in from outside the league since 2017 that logged minutes for the club:
• Fredy Montero, Cristian Dajome, Tosaint Ricketts, Jordan Mutch, Nosa Igiebor, Aly Ghazal, Cristian Gutierrez, Doneil Henry, Derek Cornelius, Andy Rose, and Stefan Marinović
There’s three types of signings happening here. Type 1 is cheap, mostly Canadian domestic players. Type 2 is what I’d call “flyer” signings; diamond in the rough players you’d sign on short term deals. Type 3 is quality, proven players who fall just below a max allocation salary. What’s problematic is the over emphasis on the second type, and absence of attention to the third type; only Fredy Montero meets the criterion. Moreover, Dajomé is the only flyer signing that’s really panned out.
In contrast, take a look at some Type 3 players other MLS clubs have picked up on free transfers from the international market in that same window (2017-2020):
• Forward — Nani, Victor Rodrigeuz, Mauricio Pereyra, Marco Fabian
• Midfield — Felipe Gutierrez, Carlos Carmona, Gustav Svensson, Victor Vasquez, Ilie Sanchez
• Defence — Gregory van der Wiel, Joevin Jones, Kevin Leerdam, Kim Kee-Hee
What stands out? Three of the smartest front offices in the league have a significant presence here: Seattle, Kansas, and Toronto. 4/11 starters in the Sounders MLS Cup winning 2019 side were acquired on free transfers from the international market. The same can be said for both Van der Wiel and Vasquez in the CCL Final against Chivas, and Giovinco if you extend the period to 2015. Kansas City picked up two top midfielders in Gutierrez and Ilie, and Johnny Russell too frankly because $300k was chump change for his quality. All three clubs were consistent powerhouses in the regular season and two of the three title winners in this period.
Now retrospect is always rather unfair, but for a better idea look at two examples where the ‘Caps simply didn’t do their research.
(a) 2017, replacing Matías Laba in Defensive Midfield.
Vancouver and Seattle both needed defensive midfielders, and both clubs signed free agents out of China. The Sounders signed Gustav Svensson, then 29, from Guangzhou on a $170k 2017 salary and $600k 2018 salary. The Whitecaps signed Aly Ghazal, then 25, from Guizhou on a TAM contract and $700k salary in 2018. Svensson went on to be an elite #6 in the league, Ghazal not so much. Were there warning signs? Yes. Svensson was a starter everywhere he played with almost 200 appearances in Europe. Ghazal only played for one Portuguese club prior, and couldn’t break into the Chinese team Vancouver signed him from. If Svensson demanded more salary to beat out Seattle, his pedigree warranted it.
(b) 2018, signature of Efrain Juárez in Central Midfield
Vancouver and Kansas City both needed box to box, central midfielders. Sporting signed Felipe Gutierrez, then 28, on a free transfer from Real Betis of LaLiga on a 1.65 million dollar salary in 2018. Vancouver signed Efrain Juárez, then 29, for an undisclosed fee from Monterrey of LigaMX on a 620k salary in 2018. Gutierrez was a quality midfielder until a season ending injury early last year, scoring 19 goals in 52 games for Kansas.
Maybe it’s unfair, but Juarez pretty much ended up providing Vancouver with more red cards than team contributions. Were there warning signs? Yes. Juarez had pedigree, but as a right back, not a midfielder. Gutierrez, on the other hand, had experience in midfield for Chile and over 100 appearances in Europe in that position. I don’t know what the ‘Caps paid for Juárez, but his transfer fee was distributed over only two years; any substantial fee would have a big cap hit. Sporting did their homework and got what they paid for. The Whitecaps either didn’t or were negligent that a player could recreate form in an entirely different position. That 2018 cap hit was needless, and the transfer fee and salary flushed down the drain.
Part B: Designated Players
I can only recall one player in the Vancouver Whitecaps MLS history who met the criterion to be classified as a true Designated Player. If you’ve guessed Pedro Morales, you’re right. In my opinion he was the only DP the club’s ever had that could individually turn a game on its head and carry the team. Consistent with his eventual on the field impact, the team management checks a lot of boxes here:
• At the time, Morales’s modest transfer fee constituted the majority of Vancouver’s transfer expense. As a DP, that expense was deflected off the cap.
• Attacking players are comparatively more expensive than defensive players. Morales, as a box to box playmaker, was thus a smart use of a DP slot.
• As a DP, Morales was in the spine and core of the Starting XI. Again, check.
However this is the outlier and not the mean. Review Vancouver’s Designated Players of the past few years.
• 2016 — Octavio Rivero, Pedro Morales, Matias Laba
• 2017 — Fredy Montero, Brek Shea, Matias Laba
• 2018 — Brek Shea, Kendall Waston
• 2019 — Joaquin Ardaiz, Inbeom Hwang, Ali Adnan
• 2020 — Lucas Cavallini, Inbeom Hwang, Ali Adnan
2016 and 2017 appear the best seasons, with an emphasis on offensive and spine players. 2018 is evidently the worst, mirrored by an underlying trend of “spreading out” spending across the XI but an absence of difference makers. However, I feel that trend got worse in the post-Robbo era. The notorious “Davies money” has been exhausted as Dos Santos has attempted to rebuild the squad (not unusual) but there’s been a spreading out of funds and excessive distribution of transfer fees.
The Whitecaps were the highest spending team in CONCACAF on transfers last year… and yet only Cavallini feels like a proper DP. Per Moneyball Rule #2, money spent on transfers should be reserved mostly for Designated Players.
In comparison look at the past five MLS Cup Winners use of DPs. In terms of philosophy, there’s not a single miss here; Arreaga was a placeholder DP.
• Seattle (2016) — Valdez, Dempsey, Lodeiro
• Toronto (2017) — Altidore, Giovinco, Bradley
• Atlanta (2018) — Martinez, Almiron, Barco
• Seattle (2019) — Ruidiaz, Lodeiro, Arreaga
• Columbus (2020) — Zardes, Zelarayán, Santos
The Whitecaps front office management has been egregiously incompetent when it comes to DPs and how money is allocated throughout the squad in general. Money is money. If you’re not going to get a good player, you might as well just wait. The Davies money would have been far better spent on 2-3 proper Designated Players than the carousel of half-baked signings since Robbo departed.
In referring to the Whitecaps recent ideological U-turn on youth development, recent signing Deiber Caicedo was quoted as saying the following: “I know (the Whitecaps are) a team that lets young players play”
This sounds nice, but it’s not that simple. If the right structure doesn’t surround those players, particularly in a travel heavy MLS, that quote might as well read the following:
“I know (the Whitecaps) are a team that sends young players out there to fail”
It’s inevitably very difficult to start a footballing career, and players need to be nurtured into it. Young players will make mistakes, and they need a structure around them that is forgiving, not emphasizing, of those errors.
A critical flaw of the Whitecaps roster construction strategy in years past has been the lack of experienced players, particularly MLS experienced players. In 2020 we were the youngest squad in the league at 24.1, and it’s no coincidence that the Whitecaps most successful spell of matches (4 wins, 3 losses) came in the final third of the 2020 regular season with the return and acclimation of veteran players into the squad. In contrast, look at the average age of the past five MLS Cup winning teams:
• Seattle (2016) — 26.8
• Toronto (2017) — 26.2
• Atlanta (2018) — 24.8
• Seattle (2019) — 27.16* (oldest in the league)
• Columbus (2020) — 26.97
Even more so than the average age, you need MLS veterans in both your locker room and starting XI, particularly on the defensive side. For example, Atlanta may have had a young squad in 2018 but players like Brad Guzan, Michael Parkhurst, and Jeff Larentowicz were mainstays. Toronto, LAFC, and SKC’s defences haven’t been the same since Drew Moor, Walker Zimmerman, and Ike Opara departed respectively. Even Seattle without Chad Marshall has been slightly shakier.
Which brings us to the fourth MLS Moneyball Rule…
4) Sign or trade for a high calibre, well-seasoned MLS centre back. Have a ready replacement if you’re to sell them on; the impact will be immediate w/o them.
For whatever reason, there is something of a divine prophecy surrounding well seasoned, proven MLS centre backs. It’s not so much that they themselves are always superior in terms of individual contributions, but their presence on the backline, particularly in expansion teams or rebuilds, appears to provide a calming leadership presence and valuable experience that transcends a defence:
• Ike Opara joined Minnesota United in the 2019 offseason through a blockbuster trade (1 million allocation after performance incentives) with SKC. It’s worth noting the addition of fullback Romain Metanire, but Minnesota conceded only 43 goals in 2019 (-22 differential) vs 71 in 2018 (+10 differential).
• Walker Zimmerman joined Nashville SC in their inaugural 2020 season through another blockbuster trade (1.25 million allocation after performance incentives) with LAFC. It’s worth noting that Gary Smith’s Nashville played a very defensive style of play, however I would have never predicted that the Nashville backline (Lovitz, Romney, Zimmerman, and draft pick Alistar Johnson) would have produced the third best defence in the league (22 GA, +2 differential). I can’t imagine that feat would have been anywhere near possible without the contributions and leadership of Zimmerman.
• Omar Gonzalez joined Toronto FC in the 2019 summer transfer window from Pachuca CF for an undisclosed fee. Toronto had played 20 games prior with 14 remaining, with Gonzalez the only defensive addition to the club (the other three were all forwards). In those 20 games prior, Toronto conceded 33 goals for an average of 1.65 goals conceded per game and collected 23 points (1.15 PPG). In those 14 games after, of which Gonzalez appeared in all, the club conceded 19 goals for an average of 1.35 goals conceded per game and collected 27 points (1.92 PPG). As the only defensive pickup, the difference is remarkable.
There’s plenty of literature on how the football world overvalues and undervalues different players and leagues on the basis of nationality. Now a moneyball strategist would likely seek to exploit that strategy. Marc Dos Santos has certainly pioneered some bold acquisitions in Khmiri (Tunisian league), Inbeom (K- League), Owusu (Israeli league), Bikel (Bulgarian league), and Ranko (Serbian league), however MLS, despite being a very diverse league, is radically different than other football leagues across the globe in numerous aspects.
1) The travel is absolutely brutal, particularly for clubs in the Western Conference and Vancouver as the most north-west geographic market.
2) The non-European scheduling calendar is different from most leagues around the world. Players arriving in the summer often have to play one and a half seasons straight before their first window and suffer injuries or burnout as a result (Inbeom is the perfect example of this). The winter transfer window as the ideal offseason acquisition period also forces MLS clubs to typically pay a premium on transfers; clubs aren’t usually eager to sell players mid-season.
3) The single entity structure and no-consent trade system means the players can be locked out over CBA negotiations or traded at a whim to another market.
4) The salary cap structure makes roster construction a very tricky business. International signings, both those that involve transfers and those that don’t, are expensive and thus inherently risky in nature. Bad international signings are typically going to be the largest liability on a club’s salary cap; internationals require costly international spots annually and are difficult to negotiate trades for as a result.
All things considered, adjustment and acclimation into Major League Soccer is difficult, probably more so than a lot of other leagues at a similar level of quality. Therefore, balancing financial concerns and the likelihood of a player’s acclimation into the league is a tricky business. With that said though, there are two international leagues, both of which use the Apentura Clausura calendar, which have proven to be particularly hospitable export leagues to Major League Soccer: Mexico’s LigaMX and Argentina’s Primera Division.
Given the comparative attractiveness of both league’s player wage demands and club transfer demands, and positive performance record upon entering MLS, they are ideal scouting destinations for MLS clubs. Which brings us to the fifth and final MLS Moneyball rule:
5) Do the majority of your international scouting and recruitment, particularly for blockbuster Designated Players and players you’ll use allocation money on, in LigaMX (Mexico) and the Primera Division (Argentina). Namely the creative, playmaker #10 position has favoured players from the aforementioned leagues above all others.
It doesn’t take a thorough history of Major League Soccer to recall arguably the best international signings, when you consider return for money in terms of on the pitch performance, have come from the Mexican and Argentine leagues. These leagues produce an abundance of players who are skillful and technical, but also physically adept due to the similar physicality of those leagues to MLS, that translate very well to Major League Soccer. A rapidly increasing Hispanic population in the US and increase of Latin-American representation on MLS rosters additionally helps ease the cultural adjustment and acclimation into life in Major League Soccer and the United States/Canada at large. Particularly when it comes to playmakers, the list of success stories is pretty well endless.
• Miguel Almiron transferred to Atlanta United from Lanús of Argentina’s Primera Division in 2017 for $8.25 million. Almiron proved to be the catalyst of Atlanta United’s attack under Tata Martino, scoring 21 times and assisting 28 times in 62 appearances. He won newcomer of the year in 2017, was a finalist for the MVP award in 2018, and featured in the league best XI both years. In January of 2019, Almiron broke the MLS transfer fee record in a 26.4 million dollar move to Newcastle United of the EPL, where he has continued to feature and contribute regularly.
• Ignacio Piatti transferred from San Lorenzo of Argentina’s Primera Division to the Montréal Impact (now CF Montréal) on a free in 2014. Piatti went on to become Montréal’s all time leading goal scorer (79), club captain, and club MVP for four straight seasons (2015-18). He’s possibly the most underrated player in MLS recent history, featuring only in the league best XI in 2016 and 2018.
• Diego Valeri transferred to Portland Timbers from Lanús of Argentina’s Primera Division in 2013 for an undisclosed fee. Valeri’s gone on to become one of the most decorated players in MLS history, make 273 appearances for the Timbers, score 96 goals and assist 100 times across all competitions, and become the club’s captain. He’s won the Newcomer of the Year (2013) MVP award (2017), and featured three times in the league best XI.
• Nicolas Lodeiro transferred from Boca Juniors of Argentina’s Primera Division in 2016 for 7.5 million dollars. Lodeiro has become Seattle’s chief playmaker and captain, won Newcomer of the Year (2016), and led the club to their two successful MLS Cup runs in 2016 and 2019. Lodeiro has thus far featured 146 times for the Sounders, notched 43 goals, and assisted 48 times.
• Victor Vasquez transferred from Cruz Azul of Mexico’s LigaMX to Toronto FC on a free in 2017. Vasquez turned out to be the final piece of Greg Vanney’s treble winning side; in his debut campaign Vasquez became the club’s chief playmaker with 11 assists. Vasquez made 65 appearances over two seasons for the club, notching 18 goals and making 17 assists. He made the league best XI in 2017 and was sold on to a Qatari club in 2019.
And many more besides. Seriously, if you’re a GM and not doing a significant amount of scouting and recruitment in Mexico, Argentina, and Latin America at large, particularly for creative attacking players, you might want to consider stepping out from that rock you’ve been living under.
I’d like to end with a remark that it should go without saying, that roster construction, navigating the transfer market, and frankly just managing a football club is inherently difficult; there will never be a perfect recipe, an absolute guarantee, of success. However, these five MLS Moneyball rules I’ve put together are about as close as I feel you can safely hang your hat on. I’ve been mulling over these approaches and the greater philosophy they embolden, simple ideas that should be the rule not the exception of roster management, and I’d be hard pressed to see any of these deemed outdated in the near future. Major League Soccer’s salary cap structure restricts financial mobility and demands thorough, careful deliberation about roster management. It’s demanding schedule and unique league style of play and culture demand the appropriate amount of experience from its clubs and subsequently requires knowledgeable, smart team management; you can’t blindly start from scratch.
All I can ever recommend is what I would do myself if ever fortunate enough to manage a football club: follow the established trends and monitor new ones, turn the salary cap structure to your advantage with a long-term vision of a club’s roster, and stay committed to finding the right fits for your club even if means waiting.
More often than not, overly bold and emotional decision making in front offices ends in failure rather than success. While quite often the world of Major League Soccer can seem like a confusing, unpredictable hot mess, and more importantly to us fans, front office competence can appear a dumpster fire, there’s a recipe for success out there: clubs need to just be patient, smart, and brave enough to find it.
This has been MLS Moneyball. Until next time, remain optimistic for the future of the Whitecaps and the league, enjoy, and ‘Mon the ‘Caps.
I’ve always thought Moneyball as a concept was mostly about finding undervalued and overvalued items and exploiting the system that way. It normally gets confused with “statistical analysis” and while that’s certainly the most common way it’s not the only one.
Having said that, this is an excellent article. I don’t know if it’s “Moneyball” so much as it is “Best Practices” for MLS, but regardless it makes a very clear case of how badly the Whitecaps have done off the pitch, how poorly they’ve squandered the limited resources they have, and the results on the pitch show it. They’ll never compete financially with Seattle or TFC, but a team like Kansas shows how you can be efficiently competitive still.