Assigning MLS Player Value

Bernardo Anor - Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

With the end of the 2013 MLS regular season just around the corner here's an early player value study on the 2013 Columbus Crew.

Right around 6:00 PM Eastern Standard time next Saturday the books close for the 18th time on the Columbus Crew regular season.

It's the third straight mediocre season for the franchise so there are going to be some challenging decisions to be made for a franchise in transition, compounded by an ever evolving "salary budget" (no longer to be called a "cap," apparently).

The budget over rides everything in building rosters in MLS so it is important for teams in the league to get a handle on which players are performing up to their contracts as there is very little room for overpaid players, especially here in Columbus.

So the challenge for front offices and back rooms in far corners of MLS is thus; figure out a fair and reasonable way to take a top down look at how players performed in relationship to the rest of the league.

It's a tough challenge for teams, but sometimes the answers to questions like this already exist outside the bubble of professional sports.

APPROACHING THE CHALLENGE

The way Major League Soccer runs their franchises is closer to traditional American businesses than other soccer leagues in the world.

In MLS players are seen more like a labor cost comprising a smaller percentage of the overall cost of doing business where in leagues across Europe, Central and South America players are seen more as a commodity, i.e. something that is bought and sold and recognized as steady source of income.

It's a fundamental difference so looking to something like PayScale.com might help us value MLS players in a interesting, actionable way.

Using PayScale.com's approach what I've done is take how well a player is performing, match it up with others in the same field (position) and see where they fall on the pay scale in relationship to the other players.

Here's how:

1st up: Take all the available player ratings out there and put them in one place for each player in the league (more info go HERE).

2nd: Throw out the highs and lows to get a solid player rating (median).

3rd: Match it up with publicly available salary info (players union).

4th: Take the salaries slightly above and below each player to get a market value based on 2013 performance.

For the purpose of keeping it simple I am only including players that have seen minutes this year and have capped DPs at the league cap hit of $368,750. I am using "base" salary so there are 19 of 568 players making over DP cap hit but they account for 32% of salaries paid and drive everything out of control. I'm not doing Crew 'keepers in this post. Lastly, please keep in mind that the "market" is MLS only.

CREW DEFENDERS

PERCENTILE NAME SALARY MARKET VALUE DIFFERENCE
94% Chad Marshall 330,000 187,800 -142,200
81% Josh Williams 52,313 102,743 50,430
62% Tyson Wahl 76,000 104,500 28,500
58% Chad Barson 46,500 106,007 59,507
56% Danny O'Rourke 170,000 101,338 -68,662
47% Agustin Viana 105,000 88,200 -16,800
45% Gláuber 215,000 77,060 -137,940
26% Eric Gehrig 46,500 61,314 14,814

I separated the players out by each of the four general positions on the field so "Percentile" (or better put as "Performance Percentile") is where the player finished this year (or to date) based on independent player ratings. Above 90% means the player is in the top 10% of all defenders in the league this year. As you can see, the Crew have five players above the halfway mark. This is good, for the most part.

On the right is how the player matches up with those around him in that percentile. You'll notice that once you get past Chad Marshall the "market value" flattens out a bit.

As far as individual callouts: Marshall is overpaid. In fact the market dictates that MLS defenders should max out around $200k for the best players. If you want to pay above that level, you better have damn good reason. Marshall might be in that category but much of his near DP level contract comes from 'reward' for past glories. In a cash strapped league like MLS, paying a player in this way can set you back (in terms of on the field performance value). The Crew made that decision, however. He's locked in for the next couple years at 330k+, which works out to be over 10% of the budget.

Glauber is another one that is borderline. His salary commands a top level performance. He may have been there were it not for injury, we'll never know. What's clear is that paying a Defender over 200k in MLS is a risk.

Williams, Wahl, Barson, and Gehrig have proved their worth this year. Viana's year was clouded by early the early season decision to put him in the central midfield. Once he was moved back to his more natural position he thrived.

CREW MIDFIELD

PERCENTILE NAME SALARY MARKET VALUE DIFFERENCE
82% Bernardo Anor 46,500 187,560 141,060
50% Tony Tchani 130,000 72,450 -57,550
49% Will Trapp 100,000 78,800 -21,200
41% Eddie Gaven 190,000 102,325 -87,675
40% Ben Speas 62,000 147,500 85,500
36% Matías Sánchez 190,000 100,726 -89,275
21% Ethan Finlay 47,300 79,065 31,765
20% Kevan George 46,500 58,772 12,272
16% Konrad Warzycha 46,500 46,500 0

The Market Values for midfielders in MLS is a little more unstable then at the defender position. One of the reasons is that there are more players in this role. Another reason is that the middle is so much about chemistry and form. Understanding the this part of the field is probably our countries greatest challenge and the results above play that out.

The midfield is where the Crew saw the most inconsistency this year and the numbers above show that. Only Bernardo Anor pops up anywhere close to tops in the league and the rest fall well below average. But again, look at how the market valuation jumps around <40%. What this means is that there are a lot of teams misfiring on MF talent.

You really see that down where Ben Speas finds himself. It appears that MLS pays a lot of MF players too much. The Crew, themselves are driving up this % in a big way. Gaven (injury, 190k) and Matias Sanchez (190k) are right there. Outside the Crew we see Oswaldo Minda (Chivas USA 125k), Logan Pause (Chicago 180k), Alvaro Rey (Toronto FC 180k) and Mauro Diaz (Dallas 312K) as the main drivers.

One thing is for certain. Bernardo Anor is performing well above he current salary. In fact his +$141k is third best among midfielders (behind Darlington Nagbe and Amobi Okugo).

CREW FORWARDS

PERCENTILE NAME SALARY MARKET VALUE DIFFERENCE
95% Federico Higuaín 368,750 368,750 0
93% Dominic Oduro 120,015 368,750 248,735
72% Jairo Arrieta 216,000 177,470 -38,530
47% Justin Meram 56,320 109,440 53,120
32% Ryan Finley 46,500 63,099 16,599
13% Aaron Schoenfeld 46,500 50,613 4,113

Counter intuitive, but difficult doing this type analysis on forwards. Did you know that none of the larger leagues in the world tracked assists until the early 2000's? Before then chance creators were just known as "the creative ones". In a lot of ways we still live in that world. Goals and assists, obviously important, but are overvalued.

We see the remnants of it in MLS. Lots of overpaid goal scorers that are oftentimes reliant on the group behind them. You also have salaries here inflated because these players are paid to be faces of the league over performance.

With that in mind, I've capped the 'market value' at the MLS cap hit of 368k.

The Crew have done okay with their forwards this year. I've put Justin Meram here for a reason. 1. Meram would have been fine listed as a midfielder and 2. The Crew don't have many forward options in which to change up the type of attack.

However, because they are small in number and three of the players clock in well south of the league FWD average of $131k, in terms of 'value' the Columbus Crew do well at the forward position. Which is a good thing, because misfiring at this position can cost a MLS team dearly.

-----------------------

FINAL GRADE ON THE PLAYER VALUE

Without getting into exact numbers and keeping it high level, here is a look at each team in MLS using a type of sliding Rubric Scale with use of a "0".

Top four teams in each position were given a "4", teams five through eight a "3", nine to twelve a "2", thirteen to sixteen a "1" and last three a zero. After that I averaged them up (weighted equally) to get a final GPA.

Keep in mind that what this is telling us is which team most closely matched performance with pay. Also remember that this is where the team is right now. Toronto, for example, has seen a number of players come and go this year (notable is Darren O'Dea who would have hurt their DEF score).

FINAL GRADES ON 4 PT SCALE BY POSITION
GRADE TEAM GKP DEF MID FWD GPA
A New England Revolution 2 4 3 4 3.25
A Philadelphia Union 4 4 2 3 3.25
B Columbus Crew 4 1 3 4 3.00
B New York Red Bulls 4 0 4 3 2.75
B Chivas USA 2 2 4 2 2.50
B Colorado Rapids 3 3 4 0 2.50
B Sporting Kansas City 2 3 1 4 2.50
B Toronto FC 4 4 2 0 2.50
C Portland Timbers 0 3 4 2 2.25
C LA Galaxy 1 2 2 3 2.00
C Houston Dynamo 2 2 0 3 1.75
C Montreal Impact 1 1 1 4 1.75
D Chicago Fire 3 2 0 1 1.50
D D.C. United 3 1 0 2 1.50
D FC Dallas 1 4 1 0 1.50
D Real Salt Lake 1 1 3 1 1.50
D San Jose Earthquakes 3 0 2 1 1.50
D Seattle Sounders FC 0 3 1 1 1.25
D Vancouver Whitecaps 0 0 3 2 1.25

Interesting to look at it this way. If there are teacher out there please don't get mad at me. Just a quick look to show where the Crew are in relationship with the rest of the league.

MOVING FORWARD

The Crew are the only team in the league to have not made any personnel transactions in the middle of this season. No player movement and no existing contract changes in terms of salary. This stability might have helped them on the value side of the pay to performance ratio but it has hurt them on the results side.

The Columbus Crew's budget handed down from MLS offices is smaller than most of the other teams in the league. New owner Anthony Precourt might have some resources to burn on the transfer side of things, he can't control the restrictive salary budget.

Lack of quality depth and starting caliber MLS players are just a couple of the issues facing this team. There are many things to sort out on the front office side of the franchise first. With that in mind I believe that it is more important to bolster some of their weaker spots and not losing ground on their stronger positions.

Does that bring an MLS Cup or Supporters' Shield to Columbus? No. But it does keep the Crew in the top half of the table and prevents what could be a nightmare year if not handled carefully.

HERE IS A CHART OF SALARY TO MARKET VALUES

The blue bar is the players current salary and the black line is the market value I have given the player. In the background is two shades of gray. Darker shade is 60% of market value and lighter is 80%.

Long post, thanks for reading.

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