On Saturday, the Revolution trounced visiting CF Montreal by a scoreline of 4 to nothing. It was a good day for many players, not least of which was Giacomo Vrioni, who scored his first goal of the season in a substitute appearance.
If you’re a Revs fan, it really doesn’t get much better than a 4-0 win in the famed Maple Syrup Derby. This week, however, I don’t want to talk Montreal.
Or, more accurately, I really do want to talk about Montreal.
I can see the confusion mounting on your face. Let me explain.
Last season Montreal was 2nd in the Eastern Conference. They earned 65 points, just 2 shy of the supporters shield winning LAFC. They were, by every account, a VERY good MLS team. Then… well, then the offseason happened. Players left for Europe, and the coach left for Columbus; the vibes soured.
Now, just months later, Montreal finds itself in the Eastern Conference basement with little room for optimism. It’s a position that will feel familiar to Revs fans. Shortly after setting the points record in 2021, New England found themselves in a deep rut early the following season, eventually finishing 10th in the East.
All of this got me thinking. Why do teams have such a hard time finding sustained, year-over-year success in this league? Let’s take a look at a few possible reasons and what can be done to mitigate their effects.
Salary Cap Restrictions
MLS is famous for it’s weird and convoluted salary cap. For fans of European leagues, or even MLS fans with…y’know, lives, it can seem unapproachably complex.
There are roster buckets into which each player is sorted (based upon things like salary, pro years, homegrown status, age, etc.). Each of those buckets has maximum and minimum player salaries. Sounds easy, right? But wait! There are a bunch of ways to get around those restrictions. There’s allocation money that each team gets at the start of the season, which can be used to reduce salary budget charges. There are also U22 initiative spots, which provide financial relief on salaries paid to young talents. Then, of course, there’s the grandpappy of all loopholes, the Designated Player. DPs are immune to salary cap restrictions, provided their club is willing to pick up the bill. Each team is afforded 3 precious DP slots.
While confusing, these rules are a feature, not a bug. Limiting spending can seem frustrating to ambitious clubs and their fans, but it undoubtedly keeps the league competitive. Unlike, say, Germany, where Bayern Munich has won the league each of the last 10 years, all MLS clubs have a realistic shot at lifting silverware in any given year. In a country where soccer plays 5th fiddle (to football, baseball, basketball, and hockey), that competitiveness gives fans all the more reason to tune in.
DPs are king…but not just any DP
So, you may be asking, how does one build a dominant roster with all these restrictions?
The easiest answer is DPs. Remember those 3 players that you can pay any amount? The designated player rule was introduced in 2007 to bring David Beckham to the LA Galaxy.
Since then, ambitious teams have been taking full advantage. After all, if you have the best player on the field, let alone the 3 best, you’re nearly assured to collect win after win.
And for years, that’s sort of how it worked. The Galaxy won 3 MLS cups and 2 Supporters Shields from 2010-2014, mainly on the backs of DPs like Beckham, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, and Robbie Keane.
So can you still pay your way to success in MLS?
Thanks to league investment in Allocation Money, teams no longer rely on only a few star players. They can use those funds to fill out the middle salary range section of their roster. Teams are now much deeper and more complete than in years past. Additionally, DPs are more common now, with every team using at least 1.
That could explain why, when comparing team points to average DP G+ (as above), there’s a relatively weak positive correlation. Goals added is an ASA metric designed to index player quality regardless of position. Positive values means those players make your team more likely to win; negative means… well, the opposite. The graph shows that having good DPs makes a difference, but not an outsized one.
In fact, spending big and earning points were actually inversely correllated. The larger your roster wage bill, the less likely, statistically, you were to succeed in 2022.
The “trend” is again a weak one. I think this sample size is too small to make any real conclusions, but at the very least, this shows that you won’t necessarily be able to spend your way to trophies.
Success Breeds Obstacles
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that MLS isn’t exactly the top-rated soccer league in the world. A quick visit to most parts of “soccer internet” and you’ll certainly be reminded of that fact in short order.
As a result, MLS isn’t the preferred final destination for up-and-coming young talent. It is, increasingly, however, a great stepping-stone to help those players get to where they want to be.
Transfers to Top Leagues Inevitable, Desirable
With great success comes great…transfer opportunities. Montreal are a perfect example of this principle at play.
Last season they cruised to a comfortable 2nd place in the eastern conference, just 2 points behind Philadelphia and LAFC’s 67.
European clubs made note of that success. Djordje Mihailovic left for AZ Alkmaar on a $6M transfer. Montreal also dealt Alistair Johnston to Celtic for $3.5M and Ismael Kone to Watford for $8.1M. Those are big-dollar transfers and to more prominent clubs. It’s completely understandable why Montreal would be inclined to sell.
Welcome to Watford, Ismaël Koné! pic.twitter.com/DDIWN2ftLM
— Watford Football Club (@WatfordFC) December 5, 2022
It’s also clear, however, that they lost a significant chunk of their starting XI.
New England, of course, experienced something similar just a year ago. After winning the 2021 Supporter’s Shield, they also recieved significant interest from European clubs for their star players. Matt Turner, Adam Buksa, and Tajon Buchanan all found homes in Europe to the tune of $24M.
Hauls from past 4 SS winners in the year after
2018: NYRB rec'd 3.14M for Adams and Abang
2019: LAFC rec'd 1.7M for Zimmerman, Ramirez and Miller
2020: Philadelphia rec'd 19.97M for Aaronson and McKenzie
2021: New England rec'd 24M for Buchanan, Turner and Buksa#NERevs
— Andy From Revs Nation (@AndyRevsNation) June 7, 2022
It’s just a fact of life for successful MLS clubs. Increasingly so in recent years now that other leagues are scouting MLS more thoroughly.
The Dreaded CCL Dip
CONCACAF Champions League was, until last year, kryptonite for MLS squads. Seattle broke that curse last season, becoming the first MLS squad to win the tournament and earn entry to the Club World Cup. Every MLS team that came before then had tried and failed to climb that mountain. Many of those teams also failed to climb the smaller, less important mountain of MLS regular season play.
The idea that competing in CCL makes you less competitive in league play is a prevalent one. And it’s not without its share of historical examples. Trying to pay attention to 2 different high-level competitions is a hard thing to do. It doesn’t help that CCL kicks off at the very beginning of the MLS season before teams have had an opportunity to work out all the kinks.
Matt Doyle of mlssoccer.com puts it succinctly while writing about LAFC’s current CCL campaign.
“…there is a long and illustrious history of MLS teams with continental aspirations going all in on the pursuit of glory, then paying the price in league play. All you have to do is take a spin up to the northern reaches of I-5 to see the most recent iteration.” He continues, “Deep CCL runs wreck MLS seasons more often than not, remember.”
The “most recent iteration” he’s referring to is none other than the aforementioned Seattle Sounders. They achieved ultimate continental success, then returned to league play and… missed the playoffs for the first time in club history.
We see this time and time again. In 2017, Toronto FC wins the MLS Supporters Shield. In 2018, they make it to the CCL finals and… then finish 10th in the Eastern Conference. 2019’s LAFC set the points record, made it to the CCL final the following year, and… then finished 7th in the Western Conference.
Focusing on 2 competitions is hard, and it only gets harder the longer you remain in the champions league. You can almost see it happening to Philadelphia now.
Is there any way to avoid these pitfalls?
Wait, come back!
Things like the salary cap and player interest in playing for top European leagues aren’t going anywhere. Those, among other reasons listed above, make it nearly impossible for any team to be a constant force in MLS. That said, some teams do better than others in that regard, and we can take away a few lessons as a result.
With a spending cap, albeit a squishy one, maximizing the value of your team contracts is crucially important. Finding undervalued talent in up-and-coming leagues can be an excellent way to get more production for less money.
For a long time, New England had no actual scouting department. Often players were scouted by highlight clips on DVD. Recently, however, they’ve stepped up their game. They’ve set up shop in Brazil with a full-time international scouting office.
More than just recognizing undervalued international talent, finding ways to maximize your contract value up and down the roster is key. LAFC are a prime example. They hit on their DPs, sure, but they also get good players on great contracts pretty much everywhere. The best example probably being the (apparently legal) signing of Gareth Bale to a TAM contract.
True Youth Pipeline
A quick way to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck from the lower end of your roster is by developing talented young players in-house.
There are several great examples within MLS of teams that utilize their academies well. FC Dallas, San Jose, New York Red Bulls, and the Philadelphia Union all produce high-quality players for their first teams.
The latter of which managed to win the Eastern Conference in 2022 while also paying one of the lowest wage bills in the league. All while selling players like Brenden Aaronson to RB Salzburg and Mark McKenzie to Genk.
Those were moves they were happy to make because… well, they had more coming down the pipeline. The Union give their academy products a true pathway to first-team minutes, and those players deliver. After Brenden Aaronson was sold, his brother Paxten joined the first team and played so well that he earned himself a move to Eintracht Frankfurt.
What’s more, there does appear to be a slight correlation between teams that use younger players and earning more points.
It’s yet another weak correlation, but perhaps that trend will continue in the coming years.
Pssst. Come here. Yeah, you. Lean in.
“*There’s no salary cap for coaches*”
One of the most effective ways to turn a franchise around is by hiring the right coach.
Arguably, New England is the best example of this. They were mired in mediocrity for years under Heaps and Friedel before the Krafts brought in one of the winningest coaches in league history. Bruce Arena took over in 2019, and since then, the Revs have made the playoffs 3 times and won their first-ever Supporter’s Shield.
LAFC’s hiring of Cherundolo and the Crew’s recent hiring of Wilfred Nancy are other examples.
Often overlooked is the infrastructure glue that holds all of the above together. Facilities, training staff, front office, grounds crew, front office. All of these things contribute to helping players to play their best.
MLS seems to be in pretty good shape in this regard. Giacomo Vrioni’s agent recently had this to say of MLS facilities:
— Seth (@SethMan31) March 30, 2023
US teams have the money to invest in high-quality training facilities. Not only does that make it easier for players to train, but it also may attract better players into the league.
Winning in MLS is hard. Winning year in and year out may seem nearly impossible. That’s for good reason. There are numerous obstacles, both structural and league-mandated, standing in the way of that sort of sustained success. Even the best teams have their ups and downs. Well-coached, well-run organizations can rise above the fray if they pull the right strings.
Photo Credit: Brenton Tse, Angels on Parade