Thursday, October 30, 2014

Subjective vs. Objective: Quality of Major League Soccer Teams Past, Present and Future

After reading Larry Johnson's latest post:

3 of 10 Least Expensive MLS Goal Scorers are Crew Players, A Discussion on Wages

Whimsical opinions of Major League Soccer's quality of play began merrily skipping upon fluffy-white clouds steadily circling my bulbous skull. To make matters worse, the whimsical opinions were joining hands. They were beginning to grin, a monstrous grin of pious surety. I was scared and happy all at the same time. 

That monstrous grin of pious surety was subjective opinion becoming objective reality in record time. As I said, I was very happy. My opinions, in regards to MLS Quality of play, were magically being validated as fact, apparently to stoke my fragile ego. I was also, as noted above, terrified at my bottomless need for feeling clever, smart, right about everything and dammit, ruler of the Metaverse!

Sorry. Got lost there for a moment.

I forced the fluffy-white clouds to dissipate. The whimsical opinions fell screaming to earth's unforgiving surface and splattered into unrecognizable goo. The blog-reading world was once again safe. But, I'm still going to write about the quality of Major League Soccer, and there may be some clever goo left. Fair warning.

As mentioned in my post a couple days ago:

Secret Formula: Columbus Crew Soccer Club 2015

There is a very good chance that fans of Major League Soccer will be treated to an unprecedented leap forward in the league's level of play. The question is: How can we measure, objectively, any positive change in level of play?

Let's start with a little history. MLS has been around for almost twenty years. When the league got its start in the 90's, the youth soccer explosion in the United States was, arguably, only ten to fifteen years in the making. Certainly there were pockets of soccer madness throughout the country prior to 1980: St. Louis, parts of New York City, Areas of the West Coast, South Florida, Etc. But the boom, that point where participation numbers began doubling every three or four years, began in the early 80's.

Most of the top players in Major League Soccer were either from one of the previously mentioned areas or overseas. The level of play was somewhat scattershot. Young American players were not being pushed by hundreds of thousands of other young players like they are today. 

Without doubt, there were very good players in MLS. Marco Etcheverry at DC United. Brad Friedel at Columbus Crew. Tab Ramos at NY. But it was the difference between players like those mentioned and the rest of the players in the league which often made for somewhat disjointed games. 

Arguably, the improvement seen in Major League Soccer's level of play over the last seventeen years is almost exclusively down to the improvement of the American born player. The young American born player has been competing against more and more players of better and better quality with each passing year. If this is true, why should there be anything more than simple incremental improvement going forward?! Major League Soccer is about to experience the effects of revenue unlike it has ever experienced in its history. This money, spent wisely, will fall to the players. The players is where it should go. 

Which brings us to MLS rosters. The thirty man roster of the past included at least 10 players who, on average, were never going to be consistent MLS contributors. Those ten players have been in the $26,000-$40,000 range. Of the middle ten players on an average MLS roster over the last 18 years, four or five would float in and out of on-field minutes. The other four or five played consistently week to week. The top ten players on the average MLS roster were, arguably, players who could play in any number of second tier leagues throughout the world. Of course the top two or three players on each team were often capable of playing in top leagues around the world, or already had played in such leagues.

In the last 3-5 years Major League Soccer has seen that incremental increase in the quality of the American born player become quite obvious. The objective proof is many faceted. A large number (and increasing) of Americans are signing with teams overseas as 14, 15, 16, and 17 year olds. More and more of the American born players currently in MLS are seriously looked at by squads in Europe. There are kids growing up today who would have been able to play in MLS fifteen years ago, but not today.

Today, meaning the 2015 season and beyond, money will keep many of the 14-17 year olds from signing overseas. More of the quality young American players already in MLS will choose to stay. Top those facts off with better quality foreign players choosing Major League Soccer over other leagues, and you have what clearly will be a leap forward in quality.

Some factors making all of this happen are often difficult quantify. How do you quantify the improvement of youth players due to shear number of kids playing? You kind of just know it's happening. Other factors are easy to quantify. Money is money. Soccer players around the world are looking for the best payday during their short-lived careers. 

While there may be fewer "careers" as the roster limits get reduced, clearly, the quality of the player occupying those roster spots is increasing. There may still be 4-5 players on each MLS roster who rarely see first team minutes, but those four or five are going to be better than the bottom ten of the past. Players 16-20 on MLS rosters are going to have choices. Pay them the money they want to stay in that role, or they will look to Europe or Mexico for more playing time and better pay. Players 6-15 on rosters will be able to play almost anywhere and players 1-5 will be really good.

Major League Soccer, objectively (and on those fluffy-white clouds), is about to join the ranks of the top leagues in the world. MLS will not be EPL or Bundesliga level, yet, but it's getting there, and the speed with which it's getting there is increasing. Only those who have a need to hold onto the opinions of the past: "MLS sucks. I can't watch it. The players are horrible." will miss-out on the excitement of watching something evolve.

While they will eventually jump on board, they are missing the real beauty. Watching something grow. There's nothing like it.

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