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Building Depth in a Cap League - Update

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Next year the Sounders will compete for four major trophies - Supporters Shield (30 regular season games), MLS Cup (30 + 4 Playoffs), US Open Cup (up to 6) and the CONCACAF Champions League (up to 14). There will be significant issues with balancing the roster and lineups for this run.

The depth of MLS squads is significantly tested with an active roster of 24 players (4 only developmentals) for League Play and Playoffs, and small Disabled List to gain a touch more depth if a player goes down with significant injury. The salary cap is high enough that MLS squads outspend all clubs but the Mexican ones, but considering that if formats stay the same there will be four from Mexico in the CCL they must be targeted. One could argue that Mexico should get an extra slot, but I doubt we will see a major change in the rules. The only change that makes the most sense is that the Caribbean winner goes directly to the Group Stages.

To make things even more interesting, Sounders FC front office will probably decide that they enjoy making money and will bring in at least one, if not two major international clubs in order to get that upper deck open. In creating a "worst case" scenario for depth you can see that if Seattle tries to win a Quadruple next year as an MLS club they would need to play as many as 56 matches in just over a year (CCL ends the April after it starts).

This will be a bigger challenge for Hanauer, Schmid and Henderson than building a competitive expansion team.

It will be vital that Sounders build depth through development of more Rotational and Substitutes than they currently have. Players will have to accept that they may not see league play for a few weeks at a time, while they are getting significant minutes in the other competitions. Seb Le Toux would be a an example of this kind of use in the current season. Seb is a quality sixth attacking player (in a formation that starts five), but his use and performance in non-league matches next season will be vital.

Hanauer will likely need to find the defensive equivalent of Le Toux. Maybe that is Patrick Ianni, with his positions flexibility he would seem that natural fit. He can rest all five of the defensive positions. He and Le Toux are both athletic, young and yet have a decent amount of professional experience.

But that's basically the model that Sounders FC used this year to win the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Two strong Rotational players that got a ton of non-league play. Sounders need to probably triple that number. They need six quality players to add to their depth, but they need to do it with both a roster cap, and a salary cap. Adrian has done a fine job of finding MLS level talent that is underpaid, but how does he fit a few more onto the roster?

One thing that we have learned this year is that the Disabled List players can play in non-League matches. We saw one player signed directly to the DL this year, and a few "injured" players played in early US Open Cup matches. While the DL players do count against the Salary Cap, they are bonus players for the Roster Cap.

Seattle for 2010 should likely have two players on roster that sit on the Disabled List purely for non-League play. These two players need to be good enough to start in Open Cup and non-Mexican CCL matches, but probably would only be substitutes in the League play. The player on roster at this time that sticks out the strongest is one Roger Levesque. His grit, determination and positional flexibility fit the role quite well. Roger has also shown that in Open Cup competition he excels. He hasn't shown that in limited League opportunities.

Could Adrian and Co really convince a player that they are a key component to a club, but they would only play in 1/3 of matches in a season? I actually think that several players already know that is their role. They recognize that they are depth and cover, not starting quality. While they seek opportunities to show that they deserve league starts, many of the 20+4+4 recognize that they aren't amongst those 14 key players that appear in nearly every match. These two pseudo-DL players would at least operate under the recognition that they would appear in a majority of non-league matches, getting the opportunity to travel to places like Trinidad, Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico.

There is another work around as well. Any MLS team can sign an Academy player or two during a season and use them in non-league play. DC United just added a young keeper under these rules. It allows a team to sign and carry two Generation Adidas players from the Academy, and NOT have them count on the active roster until they are used in league games. This means NO cap hit and NO roster Cap hit. Seattle's Academy doesn't start until spring 2010, but if they can find talent quickly and discover the next Nik Besagno (Maple Valley GA level talent, yes he didn't pan out) they could add talent for the late summer and fixture congestion.

These tools only adds depth, and just a little bit. It would be done by following the letter of the MLS law, and likely violate the spirit. Seattle also would need to add one more player of high-end talent (Montero, Hurtado, Alonso, Jaqua level) and do so within the cap. Without significant changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Roster and Salary Cap rules the only way to do this would be through use of Allocation Funds. Seattle should actually look at ways of trading its two lower round picks for the Dollars. Seattle will need top level talent and not depth. Outside of the first round, most players aren't going to contribute within year one, likely not in their second year either.

Another option would be to find a team that needs to cut salary and poach top talent from them. Kansas City and San Jose both might like to do this for pure cost v revenue standpoints. Rumors early in the season were that Bobby Convey was available, trading for him now would enable Seattle to drive the negotiations next season. Toronto on the other hand needs to clear cap room to finally add Julian de Guzman. Seattle could look at the following high dollar players on the Reds squad and try to fit them into the Rave Green for a late run this year and have heavy depth next - Amado Guevara (300k - any attacking role), Carl Robinson (300k - DM, CM), Chad Barrett (~150k - TF), or Danny Dichio (~150k - TF). Sounders FC do have the cap room to add a player of such talent, but melding them into the current squad would be difficult. Robinson would likely be the easiest to find a role for, but Guevara is the most talented in the group.

Houston is the model for how to operate within the dual Caps (Roster and Salary) and still succeed. They use about 15 players in league play while carrying another 2-4 that play primarily in non-league competitions. Kinnear, due to National Team call-ups, manages his talent in such a way that his club lost three key players in the off-season (DeRo, Jaqua and Ianni) and Eddie Robinson to season ending injury and still has a shot at three Trophies. He has been forced to develop depth on an annual basis. Sigi Schmid has been forced to do this a bit with the nagging injuries and suspensions. Next year Seattle will be tested even further in challenging their depth, roster construction and lineup management.

To be as good as Houston it will take several National Team caliber players who are backed up by more than a dozen MLS starting caliber players. Oh, and several US Open Cup winning quality player who are non-starters in League play. There are loopholes in the MLS rules at this time that may exist after the next CBA. If they do, Hanauer and co. must use them to the fullest.

-Having two players of Scott and Leveque's quality as purely non-League players would be a start.
-Adding one major talent through the allocation process is another step.
-Taking advantage of teams that are either trying to build for the future through the draft or by adding a DP is another.
-Lastly Sounders FC must find a GA quality player from its Academy within a mere six months.

Through these methods Seattle takes a talented club with a single trophy and chance at another in 2009 and adds 1 starter, 1 rotational and at least 1 substitute while increasing its roster flexibility for the next transfer window to take advantage of whatever CBA changes occur in the favor of the profitable clubs in the league. While it is difficult to build a club to compete for a quad in MLS' rules, it isn't impossible. It just hasn't ever been done.

The Update

It would seem that the myth concerning roster sizes being too small is again proven to be a myth.

Mexican Teams average 29 players per team at basically 1M$ per player
MLS average 25 players at basically 160K$ per player
The following leagues average 28 (20+4+4 of MLS) players on less on their non-reserve squads - English Premier, English Championship, English League One, Italy Serie B, Argentina Primera A, Chile Primera, France Ligue 2, Belgium Jupiler Pro, Germany Bundes-2, Scotland Premier, Netherlands Eredivisie, Sweden Allsvenskan, Ireland Eircom League, Denmark Superligaen, English League Two, Spain Segunda, Russia Premier Liga, Spain Primera, Norway Tippeligaen, Scotland Second Div, Israel Ligat ha'Al

Sure we could count Reserve Players for the other leagues, but those guys are RESERVES for a reason. Since MLS Developmental Players play in league play regulary (on average) they are included. If one were to include EPL Senior+Reserves+Academy players their average roster bloats (46 players on average), but they also play in 3 different leagues at the same time.

Again, it isn't about the size of the roster, but the depth of talent. That is the continuing challenge facing MLS, and moreso teams like Seattle, Houston, and DC United who make deep runs in three competitions.