This has been a personal interest of mine for awhile. This whole project is kind of like an almanac of the structures of MLS clubs. What I am interested in is how current MLS teams stack-up against one another in some off-of-the-field categories. I have to credit Brian Strauss for his incredible reporting on the MLS Expansion hopefuls that inspired me to do something similar for teams already in the league. His article talks much more about ownership groups than I would like to go into but that’s necessary when half of these clubs don’t exist yet.
I’ve written four articles on the four off-field areas that I think are the biggest investments teams make. Those four areas are: Stadiums, Training Facilities, Academies/Reserve Teams, and First Team Roster Construction. Each article more so groups publicly available information into a single space. I believe I have gone as in-depth as I can without actually going out and interviewing club officials. Here I will summarize my over-arching findings and link the other articles which go into more depth.
Quick disclaimer: a lot of this information was difficult to find. There are certain numbers I could not find e.g. how much NYCFC spent on their training facility, or how much Barcelona bought Tabla from Montreal for. If you see any errors, by all means leave a comment and I will gladly look into it.
By Training Facilities, I am referring to the the fields, locker rooms, and buildings where the team practices. These size, and complexity of these facilities varies widely. 6 teams (DC, Columbus, Seattle, Orlando, Minnesota, and Houston) lease their fields from a local park/facility/stadium. New England used New England Patriots practice fields. 3 teams (New York, Portland, and San Jose) spent $10 million or less on their training facilities. 2 teams (Montreal, and Chicago) spent between $10-$20 million on their training facilities. 3 teams (Cincinnati, LAFC, and Toronto) spent between $20-$30 million on their training facilities. 2 teams (Vancouver, and Dallas) spent between $30-$40 million on their training facilities. 0 teams spent between $40-$50 million on their training facilities. 3 teams (RSL, SKC, and Atlanta) spent over $50 million on their training facilities. 2 teams (LA Galaxy, Colorado) built their training facilities in conjunction with their stadiums, i.e. their training facility and stadium are in the same complex. There are 2 teams (NYCFC, and Philadelphia) where it is unclear how much they spent.
10 of these MLS training facilities were built within the last 5 years. DC, Orlando, and New England have plans to build new training facilities within the next few years. Columbus plans on converting their current stadium into a training facility once their new stadium is built.
Overall, all MLS academies have produced 188 Homegrown players signed to first team contracts. In total, 21 of those players were sold/traded onto another club (including trades within MLS). Of the sales we know the value of (6/21) all of these players have been sold for a collective $26. 5 (Alphonso Davies is almost half of that number; does not include players sold for an “undisclosed fee” such as Ballou-Tabla). 7 Homegrown players were sold for an undisclosed fee. The 8 other Homegrown players who were dealt by their club were traded within MLS for either other players, allocation money, and/or an international spot
10 MLS clubs operate a “2 Team” in USL, meaning the USL team is dirctly controlled by the MLS team, ala New York Red Bulls and New York red Bulls II. 9 MLS teams are affiliated with an USL team, meaning the MLS team does not directly operate the USL team but the two are partnered with one another ala the Chicago Fire’s relationship with the Tulsa Roughnecks. 4 MLS teams did not have any USL affiliated club in 2018. Cincinnati played in USL last year and will join MLS this year.
6 MLS teams have a U-23 team. U-23 teams play in a semi-pro league which allows college players to learn the club’s system in the summer, while they are not playing in college. No huge names have come from MLS U-23 teams but having one shows a commitment to developing talent at all levels.
Most teams have academy teams between the ages of U-12 to U-19. Minnesota and LAFC don’t go as high as U-19 because their academies are new. Montreal have the youngest teams at U-8(!), and interestingly, RSL, Seattle, and Vancouver only have U-15 through U-19. I find the last note interesting because RSL, Seattle, and Vancouver have three of the more productive academies in MLS despite having fewer academy teams. Perhaps a case of quality over quantity.
Here are some averages/medians on the stadiums across the league:
Avg. Construction Cost -$141.67 million (only including stadiums built by MLS teams)
Capacity (using reduced capacities for larger stadiums) – 20,973 (Median) 23,585 (Average)
2018 Avg. Attendance – 19,384 (Median), 21,852 (Average, like an Average of a the teams’ averages)
% Capacity Full – 92.4% (Median), 92.6% (Average)
Home Field Advantage (based on record at home over the last 3 years) – 1.87 ppg
17/23 Soccer Specific Stadiums, and 17/23 on Grass (not the same 17 for both)
In terms of Capacity and Attendance, considering the outliers in this data (Seattle and Atlanta), the median numbers are more representative of the league as a whole. Seattle and Atlanta definitely set the standard for the league in terms of attendance. They do play on turf, but the pros outweigh the cons here. As of right now, a realistic goal/expectation for every other MLS team would be to almost sell out or totally sell out a soccer-specific stadium that has a capacity of 20,000-25,000. Currently, Portland, Sporting Kansas City, LAFC, LA Galaxy, Toronto FC and Orlando City already do that. In my article I bumped Orlando City and LA Galaxy down a tier for having low Home Field Advantages.
It’s really cool to see that most teams play in a soccer-specific stadium as that has not always been the case. There are teams that are in need of some upgrades such as Chicago, New England, NYCFC, Dallas, Colorado, and infamously Columbus. Chicago, Dallas, and Columbus need a stadium relocation. New England and NYCFC need to be in soccer specific stadiums. I’m not sure what Colorado needs. Perhaps a downtown stadium would boost attendance, but so might a higher quality of play on the field.
Every other team lies somewhere in the middle. You’ll have to check out my article to find out more!
4. First Team Roster Construction
Here are how I categorized where/how teams signed each player on their team. The rosters were as of the Fall Roster Freeze date (September 14th, 2018).
- 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 to MLS 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 used this umbrella term to encompass all of these. I also 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)
I also included how much each team spent on their roster
The Average 2018 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
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. Those players who would have bounced around the bottom of MLS rosters are now filling out the lower league rosters. 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.
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 (duh)
- 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 higher quality 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.
- 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 in 2018: 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, 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 examples of 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 (San Jose, Vancouver and Toronto made it in 2017).
- 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 have missed 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. Even though teams with high Overseas numbers made the playoffs in 2018 (Portland, and NYCFC), there is not a direct correlation.
If you want more info, analysis on any of these categories click the headers at the top of each section!