The Portland Timbers’ 2016 offseason is the first whereby, at least on paper, they’ve lost more talent than they gained.
Two teams finished with more points than PTFC in 2015, the New York Red Bulls and Dallas FC. Despite the unbalanced schedule, 34 games is a large enough sample for the best team to establish itself, and last year that wasn’t PTFC. While the MLS playoffs are exciting, they are exciting precisely because of their unpredictability. The sample size is miniscule, and PTFC benefited from it. In short, we had plenty of room to improve.
Yet popular sentiment seems to be, given the context, the Timbers have moved mountains to get somewhere near maintaining. Let’s assume it’s true: Ned Grabavoy is an MLS veteran with an abnormally high passing percentage, Valentin and/or Klute will establish themselves as good enough and Fanendo Adi holds Jack McInerney’s hand as he walks the ball into the net. I can see that. Grabavoy is the type of player that kills teams when they forget about him, Klute and Valentin both have the talent to hold down the fort and Jack McInerney has a way to being the right flipper in the game of chance creation pinball. But what is the mountain? What is the context?
MLS doing MLS things.
On the face of it, this is completely asinine. Why would a league who is very publicly trying to compete in CONCACAF have a rule that weakens the very team that just qualified for participation? Going further into the destruction of competitive integrity, how can you have a rule that affects only 2 out of 20 teams? How can you have a rule that retroactively forces teams to alter their plans because of an unexpected cap hit?
Food for hilarious thought: Columbus lost the cup at home, were selected to play in Portland in the season opener (which will involve a ring ceremony), will have to pay MLS cup bonuses against their 2016 cap but will not receive the bonus for qualifying for CONCACAF.
With all due respect to Will Johnson and Norberto Paparatto (fan favorites and good players for sure), the losses of Maxi Urruti (to a rival that notched more points than us last year)((Maxi would have counted as 2o% of next year’s cap number and 10% of PTFC’s overall salary, so there’s nothing to be done I’m afraid)), Jorge Villafana and Rodney Wallace are absolutely significant. Especially considering our history of early season woes.
In a way, we lost these players back in 2007 when David Beckham decided to bless us with his presence. The designated player rule, otherwise known as the David Beckham rule, was a haphazard way of getting David Beckham to Los Angeles in 2007, a move that, at the time, meant more to the league than spray tans mean to Ronaldo. Set to expire after 2009, MLS doubled down and made this ridiculous rule permanent. Since then, MLS have committed themselves to weakening their own squads by putting more and more emphasis on splurging on a tiny number of players
Let’s start with Jorge Villafana. It appears the sale to Santos Laguna was in the works for quite some time, and all in all it seems like a good bit of business for both clubs. It’s been reported that Villafana embraced the move, and he felt more at home in Mexico than Portland. Would the situation have been different if the average salary in MLS wasn’t $282,449 and more comparable to the $389,000 of Liga MX?((Data from season 2014)) It’s assumed there is more money in Liga MX than MLS, but is that true? It’s notoriously difficult to find accurate financial information for most soccer leagues, but this article places Liga MX salaries at $389,000 on average. Applying that across roughly 25 players per team, and the average team’s wage bill is approximately $10 million dollars. ((I’ve seen other reports that claim 12-15 million)) According to this Paste article, the league’s total wage compensation in 2015 was $160 million which amounts to approximately $8 million per club. $2 million dollars is a lot of money, and if the Timbers had an extra 2 million dollars I’d expect we’d all be drunk with ambitious transfer rumors. But it’s not an amount that makes teams insurmountable in terms of quality and there are many leagues in South America that do a lot more with much less.
Even if there is a wide margin of error for these numbers, I would argue that MLS’s salary structure results in MLS paying out a comparable total yet arriving at lower quality at the back end of rosters. Part of it is MLS academies aren’t producing the kind of cheap talent most leagues benefit from. How to fix that is a conversation best had with someone more qualified than your author. More importantly, the academy problem can’t be fixed overnight. The designated player problem, is one that can, and should be. ((I don’t mean literally overnight, I mean like dudes could sit in a room for a while and if they don’t fix it within a week, we start making them ration water and donuts until they come up with something, don’t send emails)) Despite LigaMx spending more money per player on average, their top earner in 2015 was Santa Cruz who earned $2.6 million, which would have placed him 13th on MLS top earners and yet LigaMX continues dominate.
In The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally discuss why building a soccer roster is a weakest-link, not strongest-link, game in their chapter, “Why a Soccer Team is Like the Space Shuttle”. The analogy focused on the Challenger disaster, which was instigated by tiny little o-rings that froze the night before the Challenger mission and were left inadequate to seal the hot gases away from an enormous fuel tank. BOOM! The sound of MLS exploding when they run out of expansion fee income.
“If you want to build a team for success, you need to look less at your strongest links and more at your weakest ones. A soccer team is a weak link game. Like the space shuttle, one small, malfunctioning part can cause a multimillion-dollar disaster.”- The Numbers Game
Whether consciously or not, The MLS opted to follow a basketball system, primarily because a team of 5 that has three identifiable players is a marketer’s wet dream. What they can’t change is the fact that soccer showcases 11 players and the ball moves with a haphazard purity that doesn’t give a shit about television contracts. Soccer is a game whereby the purpose of tactics, coaching, and player selection is to amplify everyone, yet the league’s position is meant to amplify a few. It’s not surprising that businessmen think the few (them) are more responsible for their success than all the labor (their employees) created for them.
Consider the story of PTFC and Rodney Wallace. The Timbers reportedly offered Wallace $250k and it appears Rodney Wallace was looking for something closer to $350k. There are teams in MLS that would love to give Rodney $350k but the Timbers’ league-mandated, exclusive ownership of his rights essentially banished Wallace from MLS. He’ll likely look in East Asia for his next gig, to be forgotten by the world like Seneca leaving Rome for Corsica where he would drink wine until his belly turned sour and his body fermented until his death. Like Rome with Seneca, MLS is clearly better with Rodney Wallace in it, just as it was with Ryan Johnson but the system is designed to deny him leverage and we are all worse off for it.
Bruce Arena recently spoke on why the MLS continues forward with its arcane salary structure:
“There’s not one person that would say less money is better,” he said. “It’s obviously more money and how you do it is the big question. I think the simpler you can make things the easier it is for everybody involved”
Asked why he thinks it’s done that way,
“I don’t know. It’s a bunch of smart people in a room trying to be smart.”
The salary cap increase of 5% this offseason as dictated by the CBA apparently surprised coaches and general managers alike. As pointed out by my good friend Jeff Bull, this has led to a slow transfer season across the MLS. MLS salaries are increasing at a rate at which the cap cannot keep up, leading to stagnation across the board.
There is a concept in game theory about the rules that govern men in times of leverage and in times lacking it. The underdog has a tendency to do what the favorite is doing and find themselves undone by a far superior opponent. It’s only when the dog realizes he’s the dog in this situation, that he begins to think about how to do something a little different. Don Garber worked for 16 years in the NFL, he’s not trained as dog. Further, the NFL markets itself as a traditional shitty beer drinking sport while most of the sport is about is progressive adaptability. It’s not really a surprise that he has the entire MLS system working against itself.
The MLS is a dog though: it’s popularity is growing,but not at a rate equal to the enthusiasm to tap into the United States market. Garber said this himself to ESPN in 2015. Stefan Szymanski, author of Soccernomics, even went so far as to say MLS was in danger of collapse. ((Though it should be noted that article was openly mocked as the ramblings of a madman hollering at the moon.)) People like the USMNT because they want to see the country compete with the rest of the world. Despite our best intentions, it appears nationalism still touches our fickle hearts. When it comes to our domestic league, we haven’t been able to compete, thus an opportunity for soccer in america lost.
We can compete though, if we are able to release ourselves from the shackles of the marketing company running our domestic league. Caleb Porter created a dynasty at Akron, in three years with the Timbers he’s led the team to 1st and 3rd place finishes within the Western Conference and, of course, won an MLS cup. He represents one of many young American coaches who are vying for the opportunity to compete on a grander stage. Yet MLS would rather have a geriatric Pirlo stand around and create weird viral photos than provide a fair opportunity for their championship club to keep the band together. So here we sit with our star left back in Mexico playing for a club with CONCACAF ambitions while he eyes a spot on the Mexican national team, our left wing exiled to the outreaches of soccer wilderness and our young striker stuck in Dallas playing for the greatest team no one cares about.
All due respect to Bruce Arena, these aren’t smart men, these are men who do not understand how little they know about what they imagine they can design.