ASA Series on Caponomics, Part Three: Midfielders / by Tom Worville

This is part three of a four-part series examining market inefficiency in Major League Soccer. The portion on forwards will be published next Friday. We recommend you first read the portions on goalkeepers and defenders.

By Tom Worville (@worville)

This week, we continue our evaluation of salary inefficiency in MLS with a look at midfielders. By comparing whoscored performance ratings to the salaries released by the MLS Players' Union, we can evaluate how well teams are spending their allotted salary cap space. According to Whoscored, midfielders are tied with goalkeepers as the lowest rated players in MLS, with an average 6.75 rating. They are also the second most expensive position, with the median salary for a midfielder being $207,338.24. Just as midfielders play in the middle of the field, their ratings place them in the middle of our metrics.

2014 Whoscored rating and salary by position
Position Average WS RatingMedian Salary
GK 6.75 $132,478.56
D 6.94 $152,419.91
M 6.75 $207,338.24
F 6.77 $221,506.11
Note: Median wages used due to the top wages for DP’s skewing the average significantly.

From grouping like-players in certain baskets I have found that you can compare players with similar attributes (in this case performance) to their price. Taking this idea and applying it to different player types, it means that I can compare Designated Players and see which teams have allocated their DP slots effectively. The table below shows a list of the current MLS DPs that play in the midfield.

Midfield Designated Players

Diego Valeri is the best midfield DP in the league by a small, but significant margin as he had a WS rating of 7.45 vs Graham Zusi’s 7.32 (9% increase). Valeri ($500,000) also cost significantly less than Zusi ($631,388), a 26% decrease. This is a brilliant example of a DP slot being allocated effectively. Portland are not paying Valeri extortionate wages, nor are they using the slot for a player which is performing at a league average level. Needless to say I would not say that Zusi is a poor player - second best DP midfielder in the league last year and only slightly more expensive than Valeri - just Valeri is better value for money. In fact, you could argue the Osvaldo Alonso is a better use of the DP slot than Valeri. Costing $400,000 (20% less), Alonso had a WS rating just 10% worse than Valeri. His 20% discount on wages shows effective cap management from the Sounders. Alonso is also a different sort of player to Zusi and Valeri - he’s more of a midfield enforcer than a creative, attack-minded midfielder. With their other two DP slots taken up by forwards (Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins), the choice by Seattle to use one of their DP slots for a more defensive player highlights their recognition that a balanced side is important. They could quite easily have used this third DP slot for an attacking midfielder, but instead used it on a defensive counter-weight to even the team out with a solid performer.

From the table above you can also see how much Jermaine Jones cost vs Javier Morales - both getting a WS rating of 7.24 last season. Despite both being DP’s, Jones costs significantly more than Morales ($3,252,500 vs $300,000). Clearly many DP’s are signed for more than just on-field performances, which justifies the league to bringing in Jones off the back of his great World Cup for the USMNT.  In terms of cap management, Morales on his performances alone indicates he is a great use of a DP slot. Performing at a 35% increase on the average MLS midfielder is definitely a good investment. For Jones, as long as he increases revenue generation for the Revs and helps retain a larger set of fans who keep coming to games and spend money, it’s a good use of a DP slot and of the excess salary paid to him also.

Top 10 Overall Midfielders
Player 2014 Team WS Rating Salary
Diego Valeri POR 7.45500,000
Graham Zusi SKC 7.32631,388
Osvaldo Alonso SEA 7.31400,000
Jermaine Jones NE 7.243,252,500
Javier Morales RSL 7.24300,000
Matías Laba VAN 7.17300,000
Maurice Edu PHI 7.11113,000
Pedro Morales VAN 7.031,410,900
Mauro Diaz DAL 6.96411,000
Michael Bradley TOR 6.946,500,000
Cristian Maidana PHI 6.92131,666
Tim Cahill NY 6.673,625,000
Alexander López HOU 6.3110,000

Moving away from DP’s, we have Lee Nguyen as the best non-DP midfielder in the league. Costing just $193,750 (6.5% decrease on average) and having a WS rating of 7.4 (46% above average) it’s easy to see how he was in the running for MVP last year. I openly backed him in the MVP race last year, and felt he lost unjustly to Robbie Keane who comes from a team full of quality attack minded players (Gyasi Zardes, Landon Donovan, Juninho, etc.). I would be unsurprised if New England gave him a new contract and made him a DP in due course. 

My question would be whether Nguyen can maintain the level of play he showed last season, or whether it was just a lucky season and he will perform at a lower level in the coming months.. He scored 35% of New England's goals in 2014, and led MLS in game winning goals. He was certainly an invaluable player for the Revs last season, and their continued success is likely to center on his form in 2015. On the other hand, it would also not come as a surprise if he left the league in search for a new challenge in Europe as no doubt there are clubs interested in him. If New England are to cash in on his excellent 2014, they will need to heavily invest in both a playmaker and a goalscorer - a rare breed of player that they currently have with Nguyen.

From the top 10 midfielders table below the most surprising inclusion is that of Michel of FC Dallas. His wage is also the lowest of the top 10 players in the league ($141,500) despite being ranked the eighth best - joint with JJ, Javier Morales and Marcelo Sarvas. One of the main reasons for this would be because he is one of the key set piece takers for FC Dallas - scoring seven penalties in the 2014 season. Nevertheless, this is an important trait to have within a squad and considering he costs 32% less than the average MLS midfielder, and it’s a worthwhile investment for a player that can be depended on in set-piece situations.

Robbie Rogers is another solid inclusion. Apart from being a great role model for all young gay sportsmen and women, he’s a good player to match. His ability to play either in defense or midfield is a useful addition to any squad, adding much needed depth and quality in those positions also. The seventh best midfielder in the league last year performed 37% above average, with a WS rating of 7.27 and cost just $167,500 which is a 20% decrease on the average midfielder salary. He’s unlikely to be able to command a DP salary just yet though, but this is probably a good thing for LA as they are getting a very versatile player who is a top 10 midfielder for a low wage. I’m hoping Rogers has another good season next year and manages to get into the USMNT squad for the upcoming Gold Cup.

Similar to Rogers, there are a few players who fit into the Midfielder/Defender basket nicely. These players already are great to have within a squad as they are capable of playing a couple of positions well, so even if they are performing at only a league average level (or maybe even slightly below average) their versatility makes up for it. In this basket there are the following players:

Defender/Midfielder Utility players
Player 2014 Team WS Rating Salary
Diego Valeri POR 7.45500,000
Lee Nguyen NE 7.4193,750
Brad Davis HOU 7.34392,162
Graham Zusi SKC 7.32631,388
Osvaldo Alonso SEA 7.31400,000
Benny Feilhaber SKC 7.29337,187
Robbie Rogers LA 7.27167,500
Jermaine Jones NE 7.243,252,500
Javier Morales RSL 7.24300,000
Marcelo Sarvas LA 7.24192,500
Michel DAL 7.24141,500
Darlington Nagbe POR 7.23260,000
Juninho LA 7.2325,000

Jorge Villafana was one of the most undervalued players in the league. He was the 11th best midfielder in the league with a Whoscored rating of 7.19 - 31% better than the average MLS midfielder. He was also the 20th cheapest in the league and cost 64% less than the average of $207,338.24. The Portland Timbers were right in swiftly placing Villafana on their protected list during the Expansion Draft late last year. While he mostly played in the defense for them, his versatility to move forward into the midfield only increases his value. Also notable from this table, with a WS rating 22% above average and costing just $87,000 (58% below average), Lovel Palmer  was a steal for the Chicago Fire last season. His WS rating puts him as the 17th best midfielder in the league too, which is great for such little money. It’s signings like this that allow Chicago Fire to freely spend in other areas - which can be seen by their signing of two DP strikers this offseason in David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike. As said previously, all of these players are excellent methods of creating value within the salary cap. Even Jordan Stewart, the worst performer of this set is only 1% worse than the league average WS rating and yet costs 32% less than average.

Now that we've looked at DPs and hybrid Defenders/Midfielders, lets take a look at the full list of players who played at least 10 games last season. The full list of qualifying midfielders can be found here.

A few things of note jump out. First is how Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez both performed at the same WS rating level last season (6.5, 18% below the midfielder average) for Real Salt Lake. It is true that Gil played a lot more minutes than Velsaquez, but the major difference with the players is that Gil cost $315,083 last season, whereas Velasquez cost just $48,825. Versus the league average that’s 52% more for Gil and 76% less for Velasquez. For Veslasquez, his performances can probably be excused considering the amount he is being paid is well below the league average. For Gil however, his contract is above some DP’s (teammate Javier Morales is one example) and his appearances are extremely poor in comparison. Velasquez’s move to NYCFC is a great one for him as a player, as he is likely to get more minutes at the new franchise. Gil, on the other hand, poses a problem: if he does not progress this season and start playing well, his salary is being wasted on what could becomes another DP for Real Salt Lake.

Finally I’m going to focus on three more defensive midfielders: Matias Laba, Tony Tchani and and Diego Chara. All three of these players played over 2500 minutes for their clubs last season, representing a key component of the midfield for their respective teams. They had Whoscored ratings of 7.16 (Tchani), 7.17 (Laba) and 7.18 (Chara). All roughly 30% better than the average MLS midfielder. Tchani and Chara also have very similar wages ($175,000 vs $170,000) which makes Chara the better midfielder out of the three in terms of cost and performance. Once again Chara highlights the impressive front office management by the Portland Timbers to allocate the salary cap effectively. He’s another example of a player in a position that you expect cannot get any better without taking a gamble - and likely spending more money - than what you already have in place. Similarly, Matias Laba cost $300,000 and was a DP for Vancouver last season. For me this indicates good cap management still, as Vancouver haven’t broken the bank to fill their DP slot and have also filled it with an effective and useful starter. Had Toronto not gone on a big spending spree last offseason, I doubt Laba would have been forced to move away, although he may not have gotten the minutes he did at Vancouver.

Clearly, there are a variety of methods that have been used to identify and play midfielders in MLS, and some teams seem to be better at finding value for their dollar than others. Check in next Friday for our final installment in Caponomics, where I discuss forwards.

Player 2014 Team WS Rating Salary
Robbie Rogers LA 7.27167,500
Michel DAL 7.24141,500
Jorge Villafaña POR 7.1974,431
Lovel Palmer CHI 7.0687,000
Chris Tierney NE 6.98103,333
Rodney Wallace POR 6.89175,000
Jordan Stewart SJ 6.73140,000