I have always found it fascinating how MLS teams build their respective rosters. Especially over the last few years with MLS reserve teams integrating into the USL (America’s second division) and with more ways to break the salary cap like Targeted Allocation Money. I won’t get too into the weeds on official rules, but suffice it to say that there are many different ways to build a successful MLS team.
In order to study this, I looked at every MLS team’s roster at the end of the 2018 season, after the roster freeze deadline in September. I examined where teams found their players, creating a few labels to attach to players.
- Overseas – These are players signed from overseas. On my spreadsheet I noted what country they last played in, not necessarily what country they are originally from. Like Zlatan came from the Premiere League, not Sweden.
- Academy – these are players who, at some point, signed a homegrown contract for their club, meaning they played in the club’s academy for at least one year. If a homegrown player was traded, I counted that as a “Trade” for the current team they are on.
- Trade – Players who came from another team within the league. Doesn’t matter what was exchanged for them (draft picks, another player, allocation money, etc.)
- Super Draft – these are players who were drafted into the league after playing college. The draft has become less important as academies have become more prominent, but there are still some gems in there.
- Lower Leagues – these are players who came from a team in the United States that is not MLS. Most of them come from USL. An academy player who played on a USL team still counts as an academy player, like Tyler Adams on the New York Red Bulls.
- MLS Scrap Heap – Since MLS is single entity, there are some weird mechanisms used to pick up players who still have contracts with the league, but are no longer playing for their team. These include waivers, the re-entry draft, the expansion draft, and free agency. I included trialists under this umbrella as well. These are players that any MLS team could have signed, which is what makes them significantly different from trades.
As you can imagine, this is a lot of information. I wont post my entire spreadsheet here (all of this information is publicly available on mlssoccer.com) so I’ll summarize it from team to team and mention things I’ve noticed. At the end I’ll talk about trends among good and bad teams respectively.
I also included where each team finished in 2018, and how much they spent on their roster
The Average MLS Team
Overseas – 11, Academy – 4, Trade – 4.5, Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 2.5, MLS Scrap Heap – 2
Money Spent – $11.12 Million (M)
Notes: I made this average in order to know where teams are relative to the rest of the league. I do not have the numbers to support this, but I would wager that over the last 5 years the number of overseas, and academy signings have increased while the number of Super Draft and Scrap Heap signings has decreased. While the MLS Scrap Heap and the Super Draft have become less prominent, there are still gems in both (Maxi Urutti on Dallas, Jeff Lawrenowitz on Atlanta, to name a few). I would also expect the number of academy and lower league signings to increase over the next five years. I would hope that the number of overseas signings decreases, but I won’t be so bold as to claim that it definitely will.
Overseas – 12, Academy – 4, Trade – 4 Super Draft – 5, Lower Leagues – 1 MLS Scrap Heap – 4
Money Spent – $11.6 M
Notes: I’m glad this list starts with Atlanta as they are one of the best teams in the league. Like many other good teams, they use almost every mechanism at their disposal to find talented played. Four academy players is impressive for a team in its second year of existence. They also have a high MLS Scrap Heap number due to their recent Expansion Draft selections. Most notably, almost all of their overseas players came straight from a South/Central American leagues (9/12). Their Lower League number is understandably low as Atlanta United 2 only just started operation in 2018. Surprisingly close to average on spending, but big transfers for Almiron ($7 M) and Barco ($15 M) are not reflected in the salaries.
Overseas – 7, Academy – 3, Trade – 5, Super Draft – 8, Lower Leagues – 1, MLS Scrap Heap – 3
Money Spent – $15.5 M
Notes: Chicago has one of the highest Super Draft numbers of any team in the league. Chicago’s record this year reflects that. Chicago has one of the smaller Lower League numbers as they don’t often use their USL affiliate, Tulsa. Also, Chicago’s oversea players mostly come from Europe (5/7). They haven’t started scouting South/Central America as much as the rest of the league. Also $6.1 M of their salary is Schweinsteiger. Take that away and they are below average in spending.
Overseas – 10, Academy – 6, Trade – 6, Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 2 MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $9.7 M
Notes: Colorado have more Academy players than I was expecting. Then I looked at those Academy players, and the best one is probably Kortne Ford, who is a decent CB but isn’t even a regular starter on a bad team. So either their academy has a high quantity and low quality or they simply don’t trust their academy players, which is probably contributing to their poor play. It’s also worth noting that half of their overseas signing are from the UK, mostly in the lower leagues. It also doesn’t help when your highest paid players is a 39 year old Tim Howard ($2.5 M). I hope those jersey sales are worth it.
Overseas – 10, Academy – 2, Trade – 6, Super Draft – 7, Lower Leagues – 0, MLS Scrap Heap – 2
Money Spent – $7.7 M
Notes: Columbus are overseas and draft heavy. Although only two of those draft players, Justin Meram and Lalas Abubakar, play a starting role on the team. One starter, Zardes, came via trade, and another, Will Trapp, came through the academy. The other seven starters came from overseas. Also one of the few teams with no one from lower leagues. Shows that Columbus does not operate a team in USL. Definitely low spenders here, but they regularly punch above their weight in that category.
Overseas – 9, Academy – 4, Trade – 7, Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 1, MLS Scrap Heap – 3
Money Spent – $9.7 M
Notes: DC used to be the kings of the MLS Scrap Heap and Trades. They would buy low on any player they could and make them useful. And its worth noting they still have one of the higher trade numbers in the league. Now that their stadium has been payed for, they’ve loosened the purse strings a little bit dropping money for players like Wayne Rooney. Even Lucho Acosta cost them at least a $1 million. Below average money spent on salary, but that could change soon too. I’d also expect their Lower League number to increase as their USL team gets started in 2019.
Overseas – 10, Academy – 9, Trade – 2, Super Draft – 7, Lower Leagues – 1, MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $9.3 M
Notes: Dallas have the highest number of academy players on their team even after trading Kellyn Acosta. Unfortunately, they do not have a USL team for these kids to get more minutes. That being said, three of their academy kids are regularly getting minutes for the first team in Cannon, Ulloa, and Gonzalez. Dallas also have a decided Latin American flavor to their overseas signings with 6/10 coming from South/Central America. They also have a surprising number draft picks giving them good minutes, such as Matt Hedges, Jacori Hayes, Tesho Akindele, and Ryan Hollingshead. Overall it seems that Dallas has found a nice balance between overseas signings, academy players, and draft picks.
Overseas – 13, Academy – 2, Trade – 8, Super Draft – 3, Lower Leagues – 2, MLS Scrap Heap – 2
Money Spent – $5.9 M
Notes: My big takeaway from this roster is that Houston does not want to develop its own talent. Almost all of their starters are from overseas or from trades. They don’t even try to develop players from the draft like Chicago, Columbus or Dallas. This is more speculative, but I believe this is because Houston are the lowest budget team in the league. They are affiliated with USL side Rio Grand Valley FC, running all soccer operations of the club without actually owning the club, which is the cheaper option. They also don’t have many academy players.
Los Angeles FC
Overseas – 9, Academy – 0 Trade – 6, Super Draft – 2, Lower Leagues – 3, MLS Scrap Heap – 7
Money Spent – $14.1 M
Notes: As the most recent expansion team, having no academy players is understandable. And the MLS Scrap Heap number is inflated because they have 3 Expansion Draft picks still on the team. Those numbers will even out over the next few years. As for their overseas signings, they’re looking solely in Latin America and Europe, neither more than the other, which is no different than the rest of the league. Surprisingly high spenders for an expansion team.
Overseas – 13, Academy – 3, Trade – 3, Super Draft – 1, Lower Leagues – 4, MLS Scrap Heap – 2
Money Spent – $17.5 M
Notes: So the Galaxy almost solely build their team using overseas signing, and every single one of those overseas signings were playing in Europe before joining the Galaxy. That strategy may put butts in seats but they’ve been pretty hit or miss. This is honestly disappointing from one of the flagship teams of the league. They shed a lot of academy players over the last year, seemingly not willing to develop that talent. Perhaps 2018’s roster is a reactionary one, moving away from young talent after trying to incorporate it backfired so hard in 2017?
Overseas – 12, Academy – 0, Trade – 8 Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 2 MLS Scrap Heap – 3
Money Spent – $8.5 M
Notes: I think Minnesota are in a similar place this season as DC United was last season; their stadium is almost built and so they’ve started to spend a little more money on good players. Last year DC brought in Paul Arriola and Lucho Acosta. This year Minnesota brought in their first two DPs. I doubt that Minnesota will bring in someone like Wayne Rooney, but Darwin Quintero could be as dynamic if he has the right pieces around him. And seeing as most of their overseas players are from Latin America, I’d expect them to spend their money there. Hopefully they also get some players out of their academy, which has been running for two years.
Overseas – 12, Academy – 6, Trade – 4, Super Draft – 5, Lower Leagues – 1, MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $12.6 M
Notes: Montreal has more academy players than I was expecting. I guess I forgot that they were the academy that just sold Ballou-Tabla to Barcelona. The current crop hasn’t done much, but it may take a few years before another big talent comes along. It’s also apparent that Montreal’s USL team folded a year or two ago. Otherwise, Montreal relies on their overseas signings, most of which come from Europe (8/12). Notably, there are three players from France playing for the most french geographical region in MLS, and for a coach who used to ply his trade in France. Montreal have also acquired 2 players from Bologna in Italy, whose owner also owns the Impact.
New England Revolution
Overseas – 11, Academy – 4, Trade – 2, Super Draft – 8, Lower Leagues – 0, MLS Scrap Heap – 2
Money Spent – $7.5 M
Notes: The Revs mostly rely on overseas signings and draft picks for their team. Of their overseas signings, the one that’s performed the best this year, Penilla, only has 11 goals … and that leads the team. Perhaps this is a reflection of their low spenidng (second lowest in the league). They were affiliated with the Rochester USL side, but that team is currently on hiatus. To be fair it is Brad Friedel’s first year as a coach. We’ll see what direction he takes the team next year.
New York City FC
Overseas – 15, Academy – 2, Trade – 4, Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 3, MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $14.8 M
Notes: NYCFC has the second highest Overseas numbers in the league, which perhaps explains their large budget. I guess that is not terribly surprising when you remember that they are owned by Manchester City. 10 of those 15 are coming from Europe while the rest are coming from Latin America. The only non-overseas signings getting minutes are Seas Johnson (acquired via trade), Ben Sweat, and Sebastian Ibeagha (both acquired from USL teams). Although, NYCFC’s academy is emerging and both academy players, Scally and Sands, have started to receive minutes. Hopefully that trend continues.
New York Red Bulls
Overseas – 10, Academy – 8, Trade – 4, Super Draft – 3, Lower Leagues – 3 MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $8.1 M
Notes: I was surprised that the Lower Legues number was so low, as the Red Bulls operate one of the better teams in USL (New York Red Bulls II). However, those three players, Aaron Long, Florian Valot, and Vincent Bezecourt, are either starters or “in-the-rotation” players when healthy. Plus, each of RBNY’s 8 academy players has played significant minutes in USL. Then the overseas signings break down like this: 5 young Latin American guys, 4 in-their-prime European guys, and 1 young guy from Cameroon (Ndam, now with Cincinnati). Also worth noting the only Scrap Heap player is BWP as he came to the team as a trialist. Now he’s the best goal-scorer in the leagues history. Also the best bang-for-you-buck team in the league.
Orlando City SC
Overseas – 11 Academy – 2, Trade – 8 Super Draft – 3, Lower Leagues – 4, MLS Scrap Heap – 2
Money Spent – $8.9 M
Notes: More often than not Orlando looks to overseas signings, or trades to fill their roster. Quite frankly, this team looks decent on paper, which is what everyone was saying to start of 2018. They don’t have a core they’ve been developing for years. They have many solid players who were core players of other teams but weren’t able to come together this season. Perhaps this is the nature of having a lot of trades?
Overseas – 7, Academy – 5, Trade – 4, Super Draft – 8, Lower Leagues – 3, MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $8.9 M
Notes: Philadelphia have followed a similar path to the New York Red Bulls with a handful of Lower League signings and all of their academy players getting USL minutes. They also have a high number of Super Draft players giving them minutes including Andre Blake, Keagan Rosenberry, Jack Elliot, Raymon Gaddis, Richie Marquez, and Fabian Herbers. Interestingly, their midfield three (Medujanin, Bedoya, and Dockal) were all overseas signings. Doing all of this on a below average budget.
Overseas – 18, Academy – 2, Trade – 4 Super Draft – 1, Lower Leagues – 4 MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $11.0 M
Notes: I had to double-check that Overseas number. No other team in the league is even close to 18 overseas signings. Portland are almost the anti-Philadelphia, as they barely develop any of their own talent. Interestingly, this has worked out for the club for the most part. They won an MLS Cup in 2015 and made MLS Cup in 2018. However, I sense a change coming. Current head coach Gio Savaresse has been known for developing players, and Portland’s USL team played well in 2018. Perhaps this isn’t a total 180 degree flip, but a shift towards the middle.
Real Salt Lake
Overseas – 11, Academy – 7, Trade – 3, Super Draft – 2, Lower Leagues – 5, MLS Scrap Heap – 0
Money Spent – $8.1 M
Notes: RSL are another team that favors developing their own players. They have the highest number from lower leagues and one of the highest academy numbers. They do not value the draft, as they traded away their first round pick last year. 8/11 of their overseas signing are from Europe and the rest are from Latin America. Those signings are also mostly young. Below average in spending.
San Jose Earthquakes
Overseas – 11, Academy – 5, Trade – 2, Super Draft – 6, Lower Leagues – 5, MLS Scrap Heap – 0
Money Spent – $8.3 M
Notes: I am surprised by how many Academy and Lower League players San Jose has. They have had far less success as similarly built teams. But when you look at their overseas signings, none of them have really performed well. And quite frankly they have stopped trying to develop those Academy/Lower League players once they reach the first team. Maybe those players truly aren’t good enough to start? Doubtful as this team was in the cellar for most of the season. Perhaps their new coach can turn things around.
Overseas – 8, Academy – 3, Trade – 6, Super Draft – 3, Lower Leagues – 6, MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $11.8 M
Notes: The Sounders have one of the most balanced rosters in terms of where they find players. They are also the Kings of Trades. All six of their trades are either starters or in the rotation for starting minutes. No one else has that level of success with that many trades. They also develop a good amount of their own talent, although I think their academy is currently at a low. They are the academy that gave us Deandre Yedlin and Jordan Morris, both of which will figure into the national team this cycle. Most academies would envy that kind of production.
Sporting Kansas City
Overseas – 10, Academy – 4, Trade – 3, Super Draft – 5, Lower Leagues – 3 MLS Scrap Heap – 3
Money Spent – $11.6 M
Notes: SKC develops players from their academy, lower leagues, and the draft. They don’t spend a ton of money on their overseas signings, and get a pretty good return all things considered. Interestingly, 6/10 of SKC’s overseas signings come from the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Lastly, even though they are average spenders I expected them to be a small-market, low-spending team.
Overseas – 10 Academy – 7, Trade – 3, Super Draft – 2, Lower Leagues – 2, MLS Scrap Heap – 3
Money Spent – $26.6 M
Notes: Toronto mostly use overseas signings and their Academy but they have some key players outside of those categories, such as Free Agent Drew Moor, and defender Justin Morrow. When you look at the core of the team, most of them are overseas signings, such as Bradley, Altidore, Giovinco, and Vasquez. Marky Delgado is their best academy player. By far the highest spending team. Giovinco ($7.1 M) and Bradley ($6.5 M) are each making more money than the entire Houston Dynamo roster ($5.9 M).
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Overseas – 12, Academy – 5, Trade – 6, Super Draft – 2, Lower Leagues – 4 MLS Scrap Heap – 1
Money Spent – $8.1 M
Notes: I would not have pegged Vancouver as a team with a lot of Academy and Lower League players. I guess Alphonso Davies doesn’t come out of nowhere. Their overseas signings are half-and-half players from Europe and Latin America. A good number of those overseas signings have done decently well too. Which raises the question, why are the Caps a mid-table team? Well there is a reason they just fired their head coach. It’s also worth noting that their big attacking players are Davies, who is leaving, and Kei Kamara, who is well into his 30’s.
The 2018 Average Playoff Team
Overseas – 11, Academy – 4, Trade – 4.5, Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 3, MLS Scrap Heap – 2
Money Spent – $10.56 M
Notes: Slightly above average in Lower League players, and about $.5 M below average in salaries.
The 2018 Average Non-Playoff Team
Overseas – 11, Academy – 4, Trade – 5, Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 2.5, MLS Scrap Heap – 2
Money Spent – $11.74 M
Notes: Slightly above average number of players traded for and about $.5 M above average in salaries.
So what were my takeaways from this exercise?
- Good teams tend to use more mechanisms
- Look at the two best teams in the league, Atlanta and New York. Atlanta has more overseas signings but New York has more Academy players. Atlanta has more Scrap Heap players but New York has more Lower League players. Both have their signings spread across many categories.
- How/Where you spend matters
- Colorado and DC both spend about $9.7 M on their salaries with one player making over $2 M. However, Colorado’s big name player is Tim Howard ($2.5 M), and DC’s is Wayne Rooney ($2.8 M). Just an interesting parallel as they ended in vastly different places in the standings.
- 2 of the top 5 spenders did not make the playoffs this year (Toronto, and Chicago). Same goes for 3 of the top 10 (add Montreal).
- 2 of the bottom 5 spenders did make the playoffs this year (New York Red Bulls, and Columbus).
- The bottom spender, Houston, won the US Open Cup.
- The average playoff team spent ~ $1.2 M less on their salaries than the average non-playoff team.
- If you’re going to rely on one mechanism it should be overseas signings
- NYCFC and Portland have 15 and 18 overseas signings, respectively, which is well above average. Both of them made the playoffs this year.
- It’s not the mechanism that matters, its how you use it
- Look at Dallas and New England who both have above the average number of Super Draft signings. Dallas get way more out of their Super Draft picks than New England does, finishing higher in the standings. Or Look at New York Red Bulls’ three Lower League players versus Sporting Kansas City’s three. The New York guys are starters or off-the-bench options when healthy. Meanwhile SKC’s have played a collective 65 minutes this season.
- We mainly scout players in Europe and Latin America (Neither is inherently better than the other)
- There are a total of 11 overseas signings from outside of Europe and Latin America (4 from China, 3 from Cameroon, 1 from South Africa, 1 from Tunisia, 1 from Australia, and 1 from Egypt). There are a total of 253 overseas signings. Of course there is more good soccer played in Europe and Latin America than anywhere else in the world so it is partially warranted. However, MLS has room to grow in terms of international scouting.
- Most players from Scandinavian leagues are okay in MLS
- These are the best players from Scandinavian leagues (Norway, Sweeden, Finland, Denmark): Yoshi Yotun, Danny Royer, Adama Diomande, and Anton Tinnerholm. Diomande has only played well under Bob Bradley so I think he’s an exception. And the rest of these players are good, but not great. Yotun might be great but not on an abysmal Orlando squad, Danny Royer is a hot/cold player and Tinnerholm is a steady fullback. The other dozen or so players signed from Scandinavia aren’t worth talking about. (Ola Kamara was signed from Scandinavia before being traded to the Galaxy, he’s probably the best of the bunch).
- Draft heavy teams tend to be small market/low spending teams
- Here are the teams with more than 5 Draft picks on their roster and how much they spent on their player salaries this year: Chicago ($15.5 M), Columbus ($7.7 M), Dallas ($9.3 M), New England ($7.5 M), San Jose ($8.3 M), and Philadelphia ($8.9 M). Chicago stands out having spent much more than the rest of these teams. But again, Schweinsteiger is 1/3 of their salary budget.
- “Money Ball” is possible, but difficult
- By “Money Ball” I mean outperforming your spending. Notice how many of the above “Draft heavy” teams made the playoffs this year (Dallas, Columbus, and Philadelphia). When teams scout the draft well and develop the players they draft they make the rest of their roster construction easier. It’s worth noting there are other “Money Ball” teams that don’t focus on the draft such as RSL, RBNY, and DC; these three teams are below average in spending. New England, Vancouver, and Houston are three more low spenders who didn’t make the playoffs.
- Academy/Lower League players tend to raise a team’s floor.
- Here are the teams with more than 8 (average would be 6.5) combined Academy and Lower League players: New York, Dallas, Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, RSL, and San Jose. San Jose really tanked this year, but all of these teams made the playoffs this year or last year.
- Having a high number of trades isn’t a good thing
- Here are the teams with more than 6 players acquired via trade: Orlando, Houston, DC, and Minnesota. If it were not for DC’s signing of Wayne Rooney, all of these teams would be missing the playoffs. I suppose that’s the nature of a trade though; it is more of a band-aid than a permanent solution.
- Teams with Low Overseas numbers
- Teams with under 10 overseas signings: Seattle, Philadelphia, LAFC, Chicago and DC. This is an interesting group of playoff teams (except Chicago). None of these teams were considered the best in the league this year, but they were all considered contenders.
Check out the rest of my series Profiling MLS Teams 2018