MLS Defenders are Getting Older / by Kevin Minkus

By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)

I tweeted this out late last Thursday night, as I was taking a look at the age curve for MLS defenders (stats are prior to this past weekend’s games):

The point made there is that the average age (weighted by minutes played), of an MLS defender is increasing since 2011. So far into 2017, it’s at its highest point in the last 7 seasons, just ahead of 2016. (I should note that it’s possible older defenders get more minutes early in the season, because coaches might not yet trust their young guys. This would skew the 2017 figure. If we ignore 2017, 2016 still fits with this aging trend.) This is somewhat surprising. I don’t want to call it a narrative, but a lot of the general MLS squad-planning conversation revolves around the youth movement- the “play your kids” ideology. And I do think more and more coaches are starting to gravitate towards that way of thinking. Even the ones with a lot of money to spend recognize the importance of developing talent. But it’s important to note that we’re not yet seeing the full wave of those trends in the data.

Here’s a plot of the distributions of minutes played by age, broken into 2011 to 2013, 2014 and 2015, and 2016 and 2017:

The important piece to call out is the area on the right where the 2016-2017 line is higher than the other two groups from about age 27 onward. That is, a greater proportion of minutes in the last two seasons are being played by defenders aged 27 and up. In fact, 2016 saw the highest percentage of minutes played by players over 30 in the last 6 seasons - a trend that 2017 so far is continuing.

The main driver of this shouldn’t actually be all that surprising: it’s the increasing salary cap. As the cap increases MLS teams have more room to spend mid-level money on defenders, and particularly on TAM players. Here’s a boxplot chart of defenders’ salaries by season (Rafa Marquez’s 4.6 million dollar salary (!!!) is removed because it stretches the x-axis too much). The current DP threshold is marked in red:

To put it simply, more defenders are getting paid more. This season, 13 defenders have guaranteed compensations above the DP threshold. That number was 10 in 2016 at the 2016 designated player threshold, 6 in 2015, and no more than 3 in any year from 2011 to 2014. It’s mostly safe to say the introduction of TAM has played a pretty large part in this sharp increase in DP-level defenders. It’s not just DP and TAM players, though. From the chart above, it’s also clear that a larger percentage of players are getting paid in the $200k to $400k range, for example.

Unsurprisingly, the defenders getting paid in this upper and mid-level range, say, $200k and up, tend to be older. The average age for players making that much this season is 29 years old, versus 26 years old for players making less than $200k. And it’s these players that are getting more minutes in recent years.

As teams have moved toward relying on TAM and mid-level players to fill their starting defenses, though, I think there’s a very good argument to be made for getting out ahead of the “play your kids” curve, maybe even more so than in the attack.

First, there’s a massive advantage to having your defenders completely habituated into your defensive system. Take Alex Crognale and Marco Farfan, for example. Players that play the same system from the academy to USL to the first team are more readily able to slot into starting roles than players from overseas who are brought on just a few months before the season. Finding your way in a defensive scheme is something that, even with a potentially more ‘skilled’ player, still takes many many repetitions to get down. Homegrown players have this advantage of familiarity over transfers.

The second advantage homegrowns have is that I think it’s inherently more difficult to evaluate defenders, which can make bringing on successful transfers less likely. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, defenders are such a product of the system, team, and coach under which they play that it can be difficult to separate those effects from the true skill of the player. And second, with defenders you’re not looking for the presence of actions so much as you’re looking for the absence of other actions. A player that makes a lot of tackles, for example, isn’t necessarily as good an option as a player whose positioning is such that the ball rarely comes to his side. Thinking through that particular problem in the context of scouting is just tricky. Picking out a good TAM defender signing, then, is a difficult proposition (Vadim Demidov, anyone?).

For the most part, the teams that are most ahead of this curve right now are the teams that are most ahead of the youth/homegrown curve at all positions. Toronto FC has Raheem Edwards playing exceptionally well. Real Salt Lake has Justen Glad and Danny Acosta. Sporting Kansas City has Erik Palmer-Brown and Jaylin Lindsey. These teams will continue to reap the benefits of playing their kids on the backline, in part for the reasons given above. And on the whole the teams that buck the TAM trend we’re seeing to get their academy and USL defenders into the first team sooner are going to be better off, sooner, than those that don’t.