Player Acquisition: The Tweeners

There is a thing that constantly steals my interest when it comes Major League Soccer. It’s how teams choose to scout and evaluate talent that is already in the league. One thing that has been made quite clear with the financial constraints is that it is difficult to hold on to those players that hover around the $200,000 salary threshold, and yet aren’t stars or obviously consistent difference makers.

Player makers such as Chris Rolfe, Mauro Rosales and Bobby Convey have found new homes in MLS, either in the few months leading up to this season or since the first kick. The names themselves aren’t specific references of importance, but rather examples of what happens in the off-season concerning players in the aforementioned pay range that are just casualties of cap situations in today’s era.

These players we understand to a degree. They are interesting talents with a fair amount of room for critiquing, whether that be due to personality, problems with injuries or just inconsistent displays of performance from week to week. There are always one or two or even three (in this case) of these players that are available come the off-season.

Two of the three players went to clubs with the ability to take chances.

Chivas USA was obviously getting a steal in adding Rosales. Super Mauro, since being added to the roster, has accrued 17 key passes and 3 assists while producing 12 shots on his own. He leads the club in Total Shots Created.

DC United needed anything to help save their season and jump start their offense. The arrival of Rolfe in return for a bit of allocation money was seemingly a worthwhile risk–and his influence on Ben Olsen’s chances of keeping the head coaching job can probably be debated to some extent. Prior to the trade, Olsen and DC United had only produced 1 point through 3 matches. Since the addition of Rolfe, they’re now rolling at nearly 2 points per match.

Now, I’m not saying that Rolfe is truly responsible for the turn around. That idea would represent lazy analysis. In fact, DC United generated 34 shot attempts to its opponents’ 36 in the first three games, and 108 to 112 since, so it’s not like Rolfe’s presence has indicated a stable improvement yet. Frankly, since MLS week 4, it’s been the Fabian Espindola show at RFK, and that is a completely different discussion.

On to Convey, who didn’t go to a team that had to take on a lot of risk. Instead he went to the defending Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. He has been somewhat of middling attacking influence in his time on the pitch for the Bulls, adding 9 key passes and 2 shots in just under 700 minutes over his initial tenure this season.

WhoScored isn’t exactly impressed. They have graded his performance so far by issuing him a 6.39 rating which is well below their league average rating for a player—which sits near 6.7. Squawka ranks him 16th on the  roster depth chart which mostly follows up that thinking being that WhoScored placed him 15th overall.

These three players represent teams that have taken advantage of a system available to them in an effort to improve their club. What is intriguing to me at this juncture isn’t necessarily the impact they’ve made upon their current club but how their current clubs targeted them as being upgrades and financially worth their investments.

I’m sure that MLS teams have personnel that help front office types make decisions and help discern player talent and ability that make them right for the acquisition. I am familiar enough with certain clubs to be aware of the individuals that are involved in that process, and much of it seems archaic and awkward in method.

Mauro Rosales may have been less of a risk when it comes to Chivas. In fact it was kind of “duh” type moment that perfectly fell in their lap. The other side of the coin is that Rolfe and Convey were both risks, and heavy ones at that considering their price tags (before New York lapped Convey up, that is).

I would certainly concede that all are substantial talents within the US first division. But how they fit the rosters to which they were added to is a bit interesting.

Some could point to Convey’s addition to New York as an attempt to add competition to the left side and some wide play making, Convey has instead shifted to the back line in the form of a full back. Which begs the question, was that the idea before he was added?

I, as well as many, had thought Luis Silva would be taking over the role of central play maker in Washington after the departure of Dwayne De Rosario. After the stumbles by Silva early on, I thought that Rolfe would take over that role, but instead he looks to be pushed out wide with Nick DeLeon, being featured more frequently in the central attacking role. Was this a decision made before acquiring him, and did the club think he could fill that role any better than some of the more natural wide midfielders who have moved clubs since?

Results-based analysis is often unhelpful, and in these cases, don’t truly tell the story we’re seeking in how MLS teams are valuing these types of players. I’m curious if there are any specific statistical values that teams could point to as to why they made this move–and please, I hope it’s more than the assists or goals totals, or the fact that they’re “winners.” For all the talk about transparency in details for the league, it would be nice to see some of the true thought processes involved in analyzing these talents beyond tired cliches. Especially considering that all these clubs they have access to far better gauges and methods than what most of us have at our disposal.

How to Build a Roster: Chad Marshall vs. Bobby Boswell

A topic that I’ve been exploring this off-season for myself is how to go about building a successful roster in MLS given all the various mechanism that are involved and a salary cap to work around. It’s not just how to build a successful roster, but how you would go about building one with sustainable success—a task that many clubs find an incredibly difficult given the methodology of the league. The question I ask aloud is whether or not it’s a problem of being stubborn and trying to go about acquiring talent the way most in the world do, or using the system in place.

This may or may not be a series that takes place over the course of the off-season. But last week there were a couple of transactions that occurred that struck my fancy in terms of how each front office went about it. Obviously there are factors that you have to consider, such as table placement, which in turn dictates allocation money and a various assortment of other little details. I think, overall, finding and acquiring defensive talent is a really tough task and I’m not entirely certain that you can go about trying to build for multiple years all in one off-season. Committing too much money to a single player can complicate roster moves for mid-season acquisitions, but can be easily cleared up in a single off-season with the help of the re-entry draft, various trades and the SuperDraft.

The re-entry draft is a basic way to spread some of the talent across the league when clubs aren’t able to incorporate the players price tag under their cap. The draft—if you aren’t familiar—functions in two different stages, with teams selecting players working in reverse order of the seasons table. Stage 1: players selected have to either have their options exercised, or teams are required to offer. Stage 2: a team can offer the player basically a “genuine offer” meaning that there is potential that you can get the player a discount rate. Should a player not sign with team, the club holds the player’s league rights.

Over the last week we saw what a team with allocation money can do in the re-entry draft. D.C. United acquired a hand full of players to upgrade their roster situation. One specific player of note is Bobby Boswell, a former MLS Defender of the Year, selected in the second round of the first stage. This means that D.C. United will offer a contract to Boswell that equates to 105% of his salary from the previous season and likely will be in the range of $235,000.

Likewise the Seattle Sounders were also looking to upgrade their defensive options. They worked out a trade with the Columbus Crew to acquire another former MLS Defender of the Year, this time in the form of Chad Marshall. The Sounders surrendered allocation money and a 1st round draft pick to the 2015 SuperDraft. We can’t be certain how much allocation money was exchanged between the two teams but my understanding is that it’s somewhere around $75,000.

Both players despite being in their late 20’s are solid individuals that will help their new clubs in a specific manner. Looking at the numbers, Seattle was one of the worst defensive teams that made the playoffs with a 0.95 shot attempt ratio that indicates they allow more shots against their goal than they produce for themselves.  D.C. United was just simply abysmal on all fronts, and that fact needs no objective proof. They just sucked. You know it, I know it, and everyone knows it.

Chad Marshall and Bobby Boswell both finished in the top-10 of defensive actions ranking 3rd and 7th overall. This doesn’t necessarily imply any value, as I’ve yet to find any studies that can correlate blocked shots with goals saved, though I think it would be an interesting study. That said, any time you can spend money to potentially reduce the amount of shots your team faces is a good thing.

Either way Marshall and Boswell are very similar players in age, style and tactics. But they were acquired by different methods as the Sounders basically spent $125,000 in controlled assets to obtain his rights. DC spent and extra 5% on top of Boswells previous salary to pluck him from the Houston Dynamo and the re-entry draft.

Boswell will cost United roughly $235,000 in total numbers to put him on their squad. Assuming Marshall doesn’t negotiate his contract any further down, he’ll cost the Sounders $485,000 in both salary AND the assets they spent to acquire him. I think it’s funny how many people criticized the United’s front office in their move to select Boswell in the first stage, but the truth is they got a better value for the same piece as the Sounders giving up only half the assets.

It’s easy to make fun of those that are already calling D.C. United “an early favorite” for the MLS Cup. It’s impossible to know if any of these changes really help either Seattle or DC.  Admittedly it’s hard to not see the Red and Black improve from where they were last year, and adding the handful of upgrades across their roster and full season of a healthy Chris Pontius should help—at the very least making their starting XI that much more handsome.

The General Manager Position in MLS

During tonight’s podcast we will be talking a bit about the constructs of MLS offices. It’s easy to question the thinking behind transactions and player dealings. Each person has a specific idea behind the move and their own end game and plan that they wish to execute.  Personnel decision making is an important skill. We can find out more about some of the these skills if we actually know the individuals behind the desk of their respective clubs.

This list is far from exhaustive. The effort is to give a single point of reference for front office types in each MLS club. The problem behind this little pilot study is that not all them are singularly responsible for the decision making as there are others: CEOs, CFOs, Presidents and a myriad of others that help influence these decisions.

That said this is a good start to getting an idea as to who is pulling some of the strings when it comes to putting together the 30-man roster and dealing with the salary cap. The list is sorted according to the current (9/4) Supporter Shield standings.

LA Galaxy – Jovan Kirovski, Technical Director
Seattle Sounders – Adrian Hanauer, General Manager
Impact – Nick De Santis, Sporting Director/General Manager
NYRB – Andy Roxburgh, Sporting Director
Sporting KC – Peter Vermes, Team Manager & Technical Director
Philadelphia Union – Rob Vartughian, Coach & Technical Director
Colorado Rapids – Paul Bravo, Technical Director
Timbers – Gavin Wilkinson, General Manager
Whitecaps – Bob Lenarduzzi, General Manager & Team President
New Endgland Revs – Michael Burns, General Manager
Houston Dynamo – Nick Kowba, Director of Soccer Operations
FC Dallas – Fernando Clavijo, Technical Director
Chicago Fire – Javier Leon, President Soccer Operations
San Jose – John Doyle, General Manager of Soccer Operations
Columbus Crew – Brian Bliss, Technical Director
Chivas USA – Juan Francisco Palencia, Technical Director
Toronto – (formerly) Kevin Payne, General Manager & Team President 
DC United – Dave Kasper. General Manager
Personally, the three names that stand out to me are (maybe, unsurprisingly) Adrian HanauerRob Vartughian and Javier Leon (though admittedly there isn’t much on him). The three men are the only three to not have played professionally at any level. Something to think about and consider with these hirings.

Making Note of Interesting MLS Moves: Brandon McDonald

We’re going to see a lot of people forever reference a term for finding something undervalued relative to what it provides. Such moves in sports are often spun off as “moneyball” type moves. I love the idea of finding undervalued assets, things that can have their production used in a manner which it benefits someone who actually needs it. The problem is most of the time when people refer to something as “moneyball” it’s mostly just butchering the term or passing off a sale for the sake of either saving face or trying to sound semi-intelligent about an acquisition. It just seems to be an overused term in sports today and it has started to defeat the principle of the idea.

And then there is this...

“The basic premise of ‘Money Ball’ is that you try to acquire undervalued assets,” general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ve had a long track record of picking up pieces that other people don’t want anymore and cultivating their talents, and that’s a credit to our coaching staff and the guys in our locker room who believe in our system.”

Garth Lagerway, the current General Manager of Real Salt Lake, is explaining why he just worked out a deal with the worst team in the league for a player they just benched. The narrative delivered by the Salt Lake press is rather uninteresting and all together doesn’t matter. What is interesting, at least to me, is the outlook for an RSL team that has sought to add depth to their weakness. While being a club that has been pretty much on par with teams like the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders in terms of allowing shots, they’ve been outstanding preventing those opportunities from turning into goals. You could of course point to Nick Rimando, but also Josh Saunders who worked a shut out of his own against FC Dallas this past weekend.

However, no amounts of Saunders and Rimando are going to help the Lakers keep up with that rate. The only way they can be assured of limiting future goals is by limiting future attempts. Enter Brandon McDonald, formerly of the last place DC United, who was owed approximately 275K at the start of this season. He’s hardly a “money ball” type buy. But a couple points have been mentioned. Lagerway surrendered basically nothing very little (third-round pick (2014) and a conditional choice (2015), neither of which should have much, if any impact to the United and their chances at fielding a competitive team next season) in order to acquire someone who was instrumental in enabling his club to make a late second half run into the playoffs last season.

I’m sure our own DCU season ticket holder, Drew, and others can speak more to how well he’s performed this season. The standards set by Squwaka have him ranked as the #71 overall defender (among all defenders) with a performance score an even 150, though sorted purely by defensive score he ranks 57th overall with a score of 93. Turning to the other side of the analytical coin; Whoscored ranks him as the #2 best performer with a rating of 7.02 and leading the team in defensive actions and more specifically block shots.

Okay, so comparing him to his peers, he’s probably not “worthy” of being a bench guy on the last place team. But is he worth the 100+ thousand dollars that RSL will owe him this season on the rest of his contract. The answer is surprising. According to a couple of anonymous sources and general digging, it appears that Real Salt Lake may have a solid collection of allocation money saved for a rainy day and possibly used to pay down McDonald’s salary. Now, we don’t know much about allocation money, and the amounts that teams have are a well-guarded secret. But I was told that they planned on using a small amount on McDonald and now suddenly his salary isn’t so influential on the salary cap.

This is an interesting move and one that could go either way, good or bad. I’m not sure I would call this a “moneyball” move. But it’s certainly interesting and it’s something that I think you’ll see more of as teams fall away from the pack. It’s expensive to find players outside of the league, and many teams are in a state of transition (Seattle, for one) and do not necessarily have all the finances usually afforded them. Buying low or taking advantage of players that teams are ready to sell on—but can still be useful to your team—is always a smart business practice. I guess that kind of would qualify as a “undervalued asset”.

Right there, I made my own skin crawl.

DC United Score Alain Rochart On The Cheap

Today, the Vancouver Whitecaps traded defender Alain Rochart, their starting left back, to DC United for a second-round selection in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft as well as an conditional pick in 2016. Vancouver gets a rough lottery ticket, a little bit of freed up cash and the United get a veteran defensive back.  It’s not specified if Vancouver will still be on the hook for Rochart’s salary, but considering the lack of return, for the basis of this work I’m going to assume that to be the case.

The trade on the peripherals seems rather odd and strikes a few questions in my mind as to why this move was even made and what EXACTLY did each team acquire.

Looking at the Swede, Alain Rochat, DC United obviously get a guy who is average positionally in the league. He’s not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not bad at what he does. He’s going to give you minutes; he’s given the Whitecaps back-to-back seasons of nearly 2,500 minutes. While being able to provide minutes is great, the larger issue is the quality of those minutes. How does he compare to the rest of the league?

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New England Revolution acquires Juan Agudelo: What does that mean?

First things first before I make fun of the Revolution (and I will).  Their defense has been—excluding the New York outlier—borderline elite this season. That’s possibly one of the few reasons they’re still afloat and maybe the only reason to watch them (sorry, Lee Nguyen).

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