By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
Major League Soccer just completed a busy offseason with record amounts of money at the disposal of the owners. Roughly 80 players were brought in from outside professional leagues while approximately 50 players departed for those same leagues. That’s roughly the gap created by the addition of LAFC. There was plenty of shuffling within the league as well but it's safe to presume that's not increasing the quality of the league substantially. The assumption is that the league as a whole is doing good business internationally and improving the league, but it’s difficult to measure whether or not that assumption is justified.
There are a number of reasons why assessing player movement is so difficult. Critical is the fact that it’s challenging to analyze the relative quality of leagues around the world. MLS pulled seven players from the Venezuelan league this offseason. Is the Venezuelan league better than MLS? Is it worse? If so, how much worse? Then there is the challenge of evaluating the individual talent within the context of a given league. Did MLS sign the seven best Venezuelan’s or seven also rans?
It’s difficult to answer these questions but frameworks are developing that open the door to a public conversation.
The first issue being tackled is to compare the quality of leagues around the world. A company called 21st Club, a consulting company for clubs globally, has developed a World Super League that effectively simulates games with clubs all around the world and ranks them based on the results. The Super League also evaluates the players on each team. The results are proprietary but reveal that the world of football is moving toward more quantifiable methods of evaluating global talent.
FiveThirtyEight has created a similarly developed ranking for 453 of the top teams in the world and also published a ranking of 73 leagues. FiveThirtyEight combines two methods in their league ranking, inter-league results and the financial value of the leagues according to transfermarkt. The inter-league results we can use as a proxy for league quality and the market values as a proxy for the relative price of players in that league. Borrowing from 21st Club’s method, the FiveThirtyEight data provides a way to assess the talent movement in MLS.
The following chart indexes the FiveThirtyEight leagues against MLS on both inter-league results (y-axis) and league values (x-axis). FiveThirtyEight also scores the teams in the second divisions of the top five leagues in Europe, and I added their position on the graph as well. Since FiveThirtyEight doesn’t score their market value the assumption used is that the second division will have the same distance from the best fit curve as the corresponding top division. Here is the chart with 78 leagues and MLS at the intersection of the axes.
Many of the countries are difficult to read but a map soon follows. Looking at this chart we can develop clusters of leagues that would be more or less appealing to MLS owners and GMs. The most appealing leagues will be ranked higher than MLS in terms of quality but will have a lower market value. We’ll call those Segment One. In these leagues the average player will improve the quality in MLS and presumably be more affordable. There are thirteen such leagues in Segment One: Colombia, Greece, Ecuador, Austria, Romania, Chile, Sweden, Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland, Uruguay, Croatia and Ligue 2 in France.
Segment Two would comprise those that have better quality than MLS, with players that have higher market values than MLS, but lower than the average according to the best fit line. Segment Three would only differ from Two in that they would be above the best fine line. Segments Four and Five are leagues that are considered lower quality than MLS and are either below or above the best fit line, respectively.
Here is a color coded view of the globe where dark green represents the ideal countries and red represents the least efficient countries to pull from. Just as a reminder, this method so far only captures the average player from these leagues and not the value of any individual player. But if MLS is behaving efficiently they will be pulling from more green countries than red.
Now back to those 80 players coming in from other leagues. In a theoretical world they would all come from those thirteen leagues, but at the very least we can see if MLS is targeting incoming players from better leagues. First of all, we need to take about 20 players off the list because they came from either the USL or NASL, which leaves us with roughly 60 players coming from international leagues. Only one player arrived from a league not ranked by FiveThirtyEight and that is Frantz Pangop from Cameroon, who went to Minnesota United. In addition, the Union's recent acquisition of Borek Dockal from the China Super League is not included in these numbers.
If the blue bar is higher than the gray bar that means that MLS is overweighting its signings in those segments. It certainly appears the MLS as a whole is targeting the right players, but perhaps not as clearly as one might expect. About 72 percent of the players that have arrived come from leagues considered better than MLS, while they represent just 42 percent of the leagues ranked. Twenty eight percent of the players were from the Segment One leagues, and they represent just 18 percent of the leagues ranked. What might be of minor concern is that the widest gap appears in Segment Three, where MLS teams will make a big splash with a signing from a big league, but they also might be overpaying. It’s worth noting that seven players coming from Venezuela are from Segment Four, because the Venezuelan league is considered lower quality than MLS, but given the political climate in that country there may very well be good buying opportunities which would further reflect good business for MLS.
On the downside it appears that the outgoing MLS players were similarly distributed with the incoming. Over 74 percent of the players left for better leagues, with a good chunk going to Segment Two, which indicate Segment Two clubs might be targeting MLS players. Overall MLS netted 19 players from better leagues. They also netted more players from worse leagues but the Venezuela factor might be a reason to believe those were smarter signings.
The winner of the offseason award
Taking this simple framework a step further it’s time to look at individual MLS teams. Atlanta United made the biggest headlines with their record transfer fee and acquisition of Ezequiel Barco, but let's try out this method of evaluation. Only one team signed more than two players from the best thirteen clubs in Segment One and that is NYCFC, who actually signed four players from Segment One, and two more from Paraguay and the Bundesliga in Segment Two. Here’s a quick look at those moves.
Jesus Medina is the obvious centerpiece here and the hope for NYCFC fans to make the pain of losing Jack Harrison go away, but the rest of these moves all look like solid business – all players who were getting solid minutes in better leagues (minus Ofori) and three of the six moves were free transfers. Did NYCFC just get lucky with these signings or are they evaluating talent with a similar approach?
There are many opportunities to improve this simple methodology and make the assessment more accurate, but the goal for now is to create a framework to simply and publicly assess macro trends in player movement and to open that line of dialogue. At a minimum we as fans can be more aware about the differences between players that star in Belarus vs. Sweden and what the implications might be. We can also now look at NYCFC’s offseason moves as the season progresses and determine if they truly were even wiser than they first appeared.