Does Playing The Kids Actually Help Teams Win in MLS? / by Noah Sobel-Pressman

By Noah Sobel-Pressman (@noah_sp1 )

A major criticism of MLS teams is that they don’t play their young players enough. More specifically, MLS teams struggle with playing youth national-team players, and many young players have noticed this trend and signed in Europe. These players in most cases have their spots blocked by replacement-level veterans. In every league coaches typically rely on veterans because that is the safer, less risky option. Veteran players are generally more proven and so coaches know what type of performance they will get if they play them. This can be frustrating to fans, like me as an NYCFC fan, who, for example, see players like Rodney Wallace get playing time over Jonathan Lewis (who has now been sent out on loan). To fans, Lewis is clearly the better option, even including his struggles tracking back, but clearly NYCFC coach Domenec Torrent disagrees. I want to examine if this theory that the coaches believe is true. How does the amount of playing time given to young players correlate with a team’s number of points?

In order to examine this big-picture question, I came up with three different smaller scale questions.

  1. Does average age have an effect on Points Per Game?

  2. Does weighted average age have an effect on Points Per Game?

  3. Does percentage of minutes given to players under 24-years-old have an effect on Points Per Game?

Answering these smaller questions will help give an idea of whether or not young players playing time affects the number of points.

Method

I decided to utilize the “R” coefficient to test my hypothesis. The “R” coefficient measures the strength of the relationship between a cause and an effect. This test can give an insight on possible connections between the two variables. The age of a player is their age on opening day of the MLS Season. Players who did not feature for the first team in regular season MLS play are excluded. This data has a small sample size, so it is important to keep that in mind when drawing conclusions from the data. The data was gathered from Whoscored, American Soccer Analysis, and MLS Soccer.*

Does average age have an effect on PPG?

For instance, the teams with the four lowest average ages, FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, LAFC, and Atlanta United are the top two teams in each conference. However, the teams with the fifth and six lowest average ages, Chicago Fire and Toronto FC, are two of the worst teams in the league. Clearly, playing youth is risky, which partially supports certain managers decisions to leave youth on the bench in favor of veterans. 

Does weighted average age have an effect on PPG?

In this plot, the age was weighted by the number of minutes played, meaning that players who have played more minutes have had more effect on the average. For example, if a 35-year-old played 100 minutes, they won’t drag up the average age. Conversely, if an 18 -year-old only played 150 minutes, they won’t bring down the average age.

After the tweak in calculating average age, the r value is .14, meaning that there is little-to-no correlation between the two variables. According to weighted average, it seems like if your average is on the younger side, or older side, you will perform better. While in the middle, you don’t perform as well. Still, there isn’t much connection between weighted average age and PPG.

Similarly, to the average age, the teams that have lower weighted average are more successful. FC Dallas (2), New York Red Bulls (3), Real Salt Lake (4), and Columbus Crew (5) are all playoff teams and also have a low weighted average. The lowest weighted average, the New England Revolution, however, are a below average team. This plot once again illustrates the danger of playing youth, which explains your typical manager’s logic.

Does percentage of minutes allocated to U24 players have an effect on PPG?

Just like the previous graph, there is little to no correlation between the two variables. It seems like the ideal percentage to allocate to U24 players is between 15-30%. But, even in that range, there are just as many failures as successes. For example, the Chicago Fire allocate 19% of their minutes to U24 Players, and they aren’t even getting one point per game. Clearly, there is no perfect formula to predict what amount of U24 players is right for your team. Instead, it varies depending on the teams set up and purchasing power in the transfer market.

Final Thoughts

According to the statistical tests, it seems like there is no positive correlation between age and points per game. Teams should address the amount of youth they put on the field on a case-by-case basis, using factors such as the player’s skill, not league wide trends. Evidently, there is a reason why coaches are reliant on veterans because trusting youth doesn’t guarantee success.

However, that doesn’t mean that more young players couldn’t be playing right now. There are plenty of veterans that should have been supplanted long ago, especially in the specific scenarios when playing youth should be a priority, like when the team is struggling towards the end of the season. Teams at the bottom of the table, who have virtually no chance of making the playoffs, should prioritize their youth in order to develop them for the upcoming seasons. Because MLS has to relegation, they have nothing to worry about, except job security. Establishing a good rapport with the youth could increase their chances of staying around. Ownership seeing results with the combination of the current coach and young players should be inclined to keep that coach around because they are successful with the players who are the future of the franchise. If the coaches fail to play youth when they are outside the playoff picture, this is where the GM, national team coach, or MLS league office should step in and convince them to play youth. Failure to play youth in this situation should result in termination. What do they have to lose?

In addition to playing more youth when teams are outside of the playoff picture, many of the current players making up the bulk of the minutes in this analysis were closer to 24. This trend is slightly worrying because ideally more younger players would see the field and be given the chance to develop. Once current MLS veterans retire, it will be interesting to see if they are replaced with younger players, or with players in their prime, as the influx of TAM has strengthened team’s purchasing power in the global transfer market.

With more homegrowns entering the league every year, it will be interesting to see how this correlation is affected. But, for now, the coaches have made the correct decision, even if it makes the fans upset.

*All data is of 8/26/18