Taking A Chance in MLS Roster Construction / by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow)

This off-season is a bit different for MLS fans as we have a sort of free-agency that enables a bit of extra chaos. The players now have a bit of freedom to move around the league and more influence in where they live and with whom the ply their craft. Most of us have already taken to the newly minted free-agent list and picked out their favorite Christmas present, be it Alan Gordon, Mike Magee, Justin Mapp or even Ricardo Clark or Drew Moor.

And with free-agency, it's inevitable that some club is probably going to give Nathan Sturgis another contract and another 1,000 or so minutes despite portraying the definition of a replacement level production. This isn't a personal attack against Sturgis, I'm sure he's a fine locker room guy and he sure does hustle a lot. These are tangible things to coaches and front office types.

Ricardo Clark, a man who found some sort of fountain of youth last season, is in a similar but better position. While he has a good skillset and should be a solid addition to any club for next season, the reality is he doesn't have another world cup cycle in him. Entering his 13th professional season and being 32 years-old I think his legs lasting through the entire season should be a concern for any team willing to pay him $350,000 this off-season.

But this is where the offseason is stationed at the moment, most eyes turned towards free-agency and possibly a lazy eye wandering in the direction of Friday's re-entry draft. It's not surprising yesterday's wavier draft went largely unnoticed with the exception of Colorado collecting yet another defensive midfielder (this is an obsession that is nearly surpassing the meme of Philadelphia's keeper problem) in Michael Azira from the Seattle Sounders. 

That said, the talented Sebastian Velasquez passes through in relative anonymity. His awful haircut and highlight reel moves have drawn our eyeballs to his moments once or twice and now he moves into free-agency. Last offseason he was one of three former Real Salt Lake players reunited with Jason Kreis in NYC and it was thought that he'd get his chance at regular minutes. 

Those plans went astray as serious off-the-field issues seemed to haunt the young 24 year-old and in the end prevented him from finding his way to meaningful playing time with just over 400 minutes logged this season. The eventual firing of Kreis as head coach was the culmination of a tough season and left him even more expendable in the eyes of NYC brass.

Now the midfielder from Greenville, South Carolina that freely gives teammates cool (aka: bad) haircuts finds himself given away for nothing, making the league minimum, with nobody seeming interested. Well, I've lead you down this road to tell you that I'm interested and more teams should be considering him.

Taking the last three years of data and grouping Velasquez with the free-agent midfielders, you'll notice a few key numbers. His xG and xA per 90 minutes are very comparable to Clark and Paulo Nagamura, two guys guaranteed to be given the opportunity to play at least 1,500 minutes this coming season, and though they aren't eye popping they're still effective. 

The item of interest I'd like to steer you in the direction of is his defensive actions per 90 minutes. Adjusting the numbers to the position and he's sitting heads above his peers while limiting his fouls.

Jeff Larentowicz$271,00094 841617.660.189 1223.990.043 0.23245278111 82 125
Nick LaBrocca$180,00068 44323.980.081 713.930.08 0.161486953 45 62
Paulo Nagamura$230,00064 51554.430.077 752.60.045 0.123357132 54 88
Ricardo Clark$337,75088 739714.830.18 1595.430.066 0.2475810983 109 121
Nathan Sturgis$75,37566 46264.220.082 392.860.056 0.138448647 53 72
Justin Mapp$199,22555 41386.110.133 7411.740.255 0.388944530 65 33
Ned Grabavoy$215,00095 75066.820.082 687.910.095 0.17711211868 145 89
Eric Avila$77,00078 57564.340.068 605.430.085 0.153639439 92 64
Brian Carroll$150,00076 62592.950.042 393.410.049 0.0913918670 33 68
Sebastian Velasquez$60,00045 16912.780.148 351.960.104 0.252253421 29 30
xG = Expected Goals, xA = Expected Assists, /90 = per 90 mins, KP = Key Pieces, INT = Interceptions, BLK = Blocks

Searching up and down that list you're not going to see anyone on that appears to be in any better position, AND he's the cheapest out of all of them. This is how you MLS.

This isn't a case for Velasquez to be a starter on any team, but I can't find an argument where he shouldn't be sitting in the 17 or 18th bench spot with an opportunity to find his way into regular rotation minutes. The MLS season is a tough and grueling gauntlet that wears at a teams depth.  Again, this isn't me saying that he's not going to fail or be terrible but I'm not trying to proclaim he's a star in the making either. There is obviously a sample size to taken into account but with it there lies potential.

My hope is that teams are making sure that his off-the-field problems are being adequately cared for before being rushed into an opportunity and that once he's ready to return to the pitch there will chances. But MLS is weird and despite my propensity for being a bit optimistic and sometimes gullible, I generally gravitate the opposite way in these types of scenarios to where I kind of believe he'll be relegated to trying to fight his way back into the first division.

If MLS is going to continue to be a league that is about finding high dollar guys and pairing them with cost controlled solutions, they should really be trying to invested in young quality bottom of the bench value pieces rather than the staple of finding worn down veterans in their thirties that aren't regularly fit and due to those health problems are inconsistent in terms of week-to-week performance. 

Velasquez shouldn't be going to NASL or USL next season. There are regular MLS minutes available for him now if he's healthy and mentally ready. And if given those minutes with some patience, coaching and proper support who knows what type of investment he could potentially grow into. Ask the Timbers about cultivating Jorge Villafana after limited opportunities with Chivas.