Friday, 24 February 2012

Is the MLS spending it's Money Correctly?

With the recent perfect storm consisting of the release of the Moneyball movie,featuring Oakland A's GM, Billy Beane and the publishing of the salary data for last season's MLS,it was inevitable that a slew of articles documenting the cost and true value of the talent in American soccer.The data can be downloaded here and the site also gives information from the 2007 season onwards.Helpfully each player is labelled as either a striker,defender,keeper or midfielder,although there is some smearing of the lines especially between the midfield and the strikers and defenders.

Unsurprisingly,it is the strikers who on average were the highest wage earners last season,followed at a respectful distance by the midfielders,who in turn are trailed by the defenders and goal keepers.However,before we can say which group is either under or over valued we need a mechanism whereby we can value a players contribution to the eventual seasonal record of the team.

Player ratings have now been around for a few years,having evolved from the perennially popular fantasy football,but all but the best are partly unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons.Measuring and counting of the on field actions of the players have become both sophisticated and more reliable in recent years,but agreement as to which statistic actively causes rather than merely correlates to winning is far from universal.Much of the readily available statistics comes without even basic context,such as the current score and player ratings presumably derived from proprietary data that isn't scoreline neutral is understandably "black box" in nature.Finally,condensing a player's worth to a single number is either a massive achievement or a major oversimplification. For these reasons I've decided to rate the contribution of each facet of the team in terms of goals scored or conceded and a large portion of this post will consist of subjective,but hopefully informed opinion.  

We've established here that a team's goal difference is a very good indicator of it's end of season success rate and if we plot both goals scored and goals conceded against success rate we find that an extra goal scored increases at team's success rate by virtually the same amount as does an extra goal prevented.Therefore we can assign a value to a player's worth by reference to the amount of goals he helps to score and the amount he helps to prevent and these numbers correlate very well to a team's end of year record.We are initially interested in the broader picture,namely,which area of a team is under or overrated in relation to the amount of rewards they receive? Individual good or bad buys will exist in any team,but the purpose here is to see if MLS teams as a whole make good use of the money they spend.

Strikers are primarily paid to score goals and as a group they accounted for over 50% of scores in 2011,35% originated from players described as midfielders and defenders supplied the final 10%.We could leave those proportions alone to represent the contribution to goals scored made by each different area of the side,but it's likely that more of the goals were created by the midfield,slightly less by the strikers and much less by the defence,So I've tweaked the striker's contribution down a notch or two,along with that of the defence and added the surfeit to the midfield.

The splits I've chosen for each unit's contribution to goal prevention partly reflects the distribution of labour at the front end of the pitch.The defence is primarily,but not exclusively responsible for stopping goals.The midfield are the first line of defence and it's rare for someone who isn't an out and out striker to be totally excused tracking back duties,while strikers can make the defensive burden easier merely by retaining the ball high up the pitch.

We know that a goal scored is roughly equal in value to one prevented,so the final step is to simply average the individual defensive and attacking contributions to get an overall value for strikers,midfielders and defenders.The process may appear haphazard,but the offensive calculation is underpinned by actual goals scored.Furthermore,the combined commercially produced defensive ratings of individual players correlates strongly with their team concession rates,so until we become better able to isolate correlated and causative on field data,I feel this approach is as valid as any other.Feel free to tweak the numbers I've used before we move onto the conclusions.

Aspects of Team Contribution and Pay for Various Different Components of MLS sides,2011.

Strikers. Defenders +
% Contribution to Goals Scored. 53% 7% 40%
% Contribution to  Preventing Goals. 5% 60% 35%
Average Wage Bill per Player.$ 200,000 110,000 140,000
Total % Contribution to Team's Goal Diff. 29% 34% 38%
Total Cost of 4-4-2 Formation.$ 400,000 550,000 560,000
4-4-2 Formation Cost as % of Starting Team Cost. 26% 36% 37%
 4-4-2 Formation Cost as % of  Total Roster Cost. 31% 31% 38%

A virtual absence from the defensive duties of their side sees the strikers contributing around 30% towards an MLS side's goal difference under my slightly harsh regime.The defence's overall shout amounts to just over a third and the midfield works hardest claiming almost 40% of the effort.Strikers receive on average $2000,000 almost twice that paid to defenders and keepers and comfortably ahead of midfielders. I'm aware that others have also noted similar levels of excess reward for less output.....but there are a couple of wrinkles.

Teams predominately play a version of 4-4-2,therefore the 29% output from the strikers is almost always the product of just two on field representatives.Defenders contribute more,but usually require 5 bodies achieve their production and the midfield achieve more still,but this time with 4 players.If we "price up" the 11 players who actually take to the pitch,we find that the $400,000 worth of striking talent represents just 26% of the seasonal cost of the starting team,but repays the team with 29% of the contribution to that team's year end goal difference.Which in turn correlates with and almost certainly causes the team's final success rate.

Defenders as a group,by my ballpark figures,contribute more,but need more on field representation to achieve those numbers and actually are slightly in debt to the club when we tally the figures,while the midfield's output virtually matches their cost to the club.

If we look at the roster as a whole,the cost and return figures also gravitate towards each other,indicating that MLS teams actually pay their players in a fairly efficient manner.Strikers are paid more,but less are required on the field and on the roster (a MLS team has around 6 strikers for every 12 defensive players and every 12 midfielders).

In short,strikers cost the roster 31% of an MLS team's outlay and contribute 29% of the team's final day success rate and that money is then shared out between each member of the striking group.The same with defenders and midfielders.But because they required a disproportionately larger number of members to achieve just a slightly higher productive output,each individual receives less than the smaller group of similarly productive attacking players.

You could even argue that the best strikers are worth more than the price they are currently trading at.Where constraints exist on the number of people you can employ,areas where the constraints are greatest become more valuable.You can not improve the side by replacing one good striker with three average (and cheaper) ones.Even if the talent of his three replacements was additive and exceeded his usual individual output,you have taken up two extra spots in the team.The only way to dramatically improve your attack is a one for one swap with a better player,whose improved talent will only be averaged down by one fellow striker.

A speculative piece on a subject that has far to go,but one with enough moderately hard facts to suggest that the MLS purse strings are being loosened mostly in the right direction.


  1. A persuasive argument.I've never really thought about wage bill in those terms.This site has a different take using similar figures they make defenders under valued.


  2. Hi Howey,
    I've seen the post,but the comments are disabled.

    Their conclusions re defenders appears to rely on teams consisting of near equal numbers of defenders,strikers and midfielders.

    The renumeration relationship between soccer strikers and their teammates is just a less extreme version of the one that exists in football between quarterbacks and their teammates.

    1. How exactly are you equating the percentage contributions of goals scored and goals conceded?

    2. Hi Tim,
      goals scored is based on just that,goals scored with a tweak for the amount of assists each unit contributes.

      The defensive side is more problematical.No one has clearly demonstrated which on field actions lead to good defence..Also I think it was Roy Hodgson who said,semi seriously that he could organise a pub side not to concede against a pro side.So that implies that the skill requirements for defenders are less stringent than for attackers and more widely spread in the general population.

      I chose to attribute the majority of the team's defensive capability to the defence and midfield.If we can't accurately measure defensive contribution,then the next best question is how little contribution must a unit of a team make to defence before they become over paid in general.

      You could argue that strikers could make absolutely no contribution to defence and still be fairly valued.