Value Available vs Value on Field: Evaluating MLS Salary Cap Management / by Tom Worville

By Tom Worville (@worville)

This post sets out to use expansion side Orlando City as an example of how value in MLS can be calculated, and how a teams’ management of the salary cap can be scrutinized using a simple visualization.

With the release of the salary cap last week there are a hundred and one things I want to do with this data. The first idea is something that myself and Ben Torvaney thought of when discussing what we would do if we had the salary data of the Premier League and other European leagues if it was available like it is in MLS (fun topic of conversation I know). Evidently, that data is unlikely to ever be released for any of the big leagues, so MLS is the only league these ideas can be applied to.

This idea revolves around how much “value” teams have been able to get on the pitch, and whether this represents good allocation of salary money or not. Orlando City have been used in this example because they are an expansion team (so have had to basically build from scratch), I quite like them as they’ve done a decent job of settling into the league and they have a squad made up of players both expensive and cheap.

To calculate value, two metrics are used. The first – Value Available (VA) – is a player's overall compensation for the year adjusted for how many games for the season there have been played. For example, if all games have been played then the full amount of player compensation could have been on the field of play throughout the season. The thinking is that teams are going to pay for the best players, and try and play those players as often as they can.

By adjusting this value to what is available at any snapshot in the season, we can see the players that a team has used a lot and have been wise to invest in and also those players that the team maybe should have thought twice about signing. Currently we are 59% of the way through the regular season, so I have used VA figures that are 59% of overall compensation.
Secondly “Value on Field” (VoF) is the compensation on a players contract multiplied by the percentage of minutes available so far this season. For example, if only half of the games have been played and a player has played half of those games, then his VoF would be 25% of his overall compensation. This monetary figure allows us to compare players on bigger contracts playing fewer minutes, or players on lower contracts who are getting high minutes and therefore offer a large degree of value for money.

The graph below (made using Tableau, salary data from the MLS Players Union and minute data from Soccerway) shows these two fields used for Orlando City so far this season. I’ve removed Kaka from these as he completely ruins the axis (blame the wage disparity in MLS, not me).

The size of the marks indicates the size of the overall contract, and the shade indicates the number of minutes played (darker means more minutes).

The chart is relatively easy to read. If the “shape” of a players plot is a square (i.e. x=y) then he has provided 100% of the VA up to this point, playing all minutes available. Orlando City have a large number of players at the cheaper end of the spectrum that have played large minutes, which is surprising considering the amount of money they have spent on Bryan Rochez, Martin Paterson, and Tony Cascio.

By using drop lines, the chart becomes easier to read. I’ve highlighted a couple of examples of players below.

In this example, I am comparing Rafael Ramos and Bryan Rochez. Ramos has represented good use of the salary cap, getting $25,632 VoF from $29,600 VA. Rochez on the other hand, a Young Designated Player, has only managed to get $7,787 VoF compared to $164,905 VA. This could be for a number of reasons – injuries, poor form, better players available, visa problems, etc. – but regardless he has been wasted cap space so far this season.

It is certainly very easy to critique teams on their management of the salary cap when the season is in full swing and no one team is going to get it perfectly right. Injuries, suspensions, poor form and failing to acclimatize to a new league are all legitimate reasons for the difference in VoF vs VA. Having said that, if there are many players who are being paid lots of money, but getting very little on-field action it’s difficult to look positively at the problem without questioning the use of the money by the front office.

There are a significant number of players in Orlando’s squad that have seen very few minutes so far this season. (Note: recent signing Corey Ashe has been removed due to playing very few minutes so far). These are players that I am going to deem as “low usage” players: those who have gotten less than 10% of their VA. These players represent the following amounts:

10% of value of full cap ($645,919/$6,660,532)
27% of value of full cap without Kaka ($645,919/$2,431,707)

This 27% of the more liquid cap space (i.e. can be freed up a lot more easily and impact the club less than moving Kaka on) represents a relatively large amount of opportunity for Orlando to develop and move on players in the future, specifically Paterson, Rochez and Cascio, who alone make up half of this 27% ($319,649).

To further break down the team, the players can be categorized into three categories – low, medium and high usage. I’ve included the table below where I have allocated the players to one of these categories based on their VoF and a colour depending on their VA.

The aforementioned Cascio, Paterson and Rochez are all highlighted in red, alongside Conor Donovan, Aurelien Collin and Brek Shea. Collin and Shea are in red as although they have usage rates of 65% and 64% respectively, they still have over $100k each of value off the field.

Donovan has been highlighted because he has added $0 VoF compared to $63,720 VA, although he is on a Generation Adidas contract, which is a specialized contract to encourage young players to sign for clubs early and doesn't count against the salary cap.

The players in green have been highlighted because of the little salary they haven’t used so far this season, all have less than $24,000 remaining.

I don’t yet know what is an acceptable level of minutes is and especially don’t know how to scale it for these various levels of usage, but is something I’ll be looking into soon.