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What is the ideal roster construction strategy?

MLS now has many ways to build a roster. What can we say about the different methods?

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Columbus Crew at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

With the DP rule, the influx of TAM, GAM, HGPs, and other MLS oddities, we’ve started to see teams approach roster construction in different ways. Are all of these ways equally valid, or is there a system that maximizes the value of the limited asset that is Allocation Money?

First, let’s talk about an ideal roster. Dave Clark touched on roster make-up here and We Ain’t Got No History looked at age distribution of the top clubs in the Premier League. For an even deeper dive, Experimental 3-6-1 looked at the age profiles of the top four divisions in England. Seattle’s age distribution isn’t bad (especially if you include some academy players signed to S2 who might see Open Cup minutes this year.) However, there are quite a few key players who are about to age out of their peak years, and most of the players aging into their peak don’t have the upside to match them. Thus, for Seattle, getting transfer targets either just entering or just before entering their peak should be the priority.

Second, what kind of players should Seattle be targeting? Atlanta has made a lot of noise with their signing of Ezequial Barco. While this is an exciting move for MLS, I’m not sure this is the kind of move Seattle should looking to replicate. I would be much more excited by a move for someone like Diego Rossi. Young players are exceptionally volatile — just ask Dynamo Kyiv if they regret shelling out $10M for Derlis Gonzalez. I’m not sure the on-field production of someone like Rossi would be that much different than Barco. If Rossi improves you could easily double your money, and you might even make a larger profit than you would on an improving Barco. The kicker though is in the risk. A player like Rossi is probably a TAM player in year two, while a more expensive player usually also requires a higher contract. If Rossi doesn’t improve, having him on the roster at a TAM level allows you to go after another DP, while Barco (if he were to use a DP slot) would not be so easy to replace. Finally, a team like Seattle only has so big a transfer budget. Missing on a $4M transfer would hurt, but I don’t believe it would blow up the budget for years, whereas missing on a $15M transfer certainly could. This kind of move may make sense for Atlanta, who has an obscenely wealthy owner and are probably counting on an Almiron profit to offset some of the Barco cost. For Seattle, though, the lower profile move I believe to be the better play.

Next, lets think about where these players should come from. There recently has been a lot of movement of players within MLS for what used to be thought of as a lot of Allocation Money. The most recent example had Ola Kamara moving to the LA Galaxy for what amounted to $400K of AM. (And yes, I know Gyasi Zardes was also included, but ask yourself this: what would you trade for the right to give him $600K in salary? If it’s more than zero, just mentally add that to the $400K that LAG gave up.) Is this the kind of move the Seattle Sounders should look at making? I contend that it’s not a good move. Let’s look at two players similar to Kamara, Adama Diomande and Bjorn Johnsen. Keep in mind these aren’t players I’m advocating as transfer targets, they just have similar profiles to Kamara. Both would probably require a transfer fee, which would make them a DP. Using a DP tag to acquire the player allows the Sounders to save $400K of AM, albeit at the cost of using a DP slot for one year (assuming that their salary would be under the TAM threshold in year two). With that extra AM, Seattle could bring a player like Joe Inge Berget. You could make the case that maybe Seattle would be better off burning the TAM to acquire Kamara and use their DP slot on a more expensive target. However, I subscribe to the idea that soccer being a weak link game means you are much better off eliminating bad players by spreading the TAM dollars around to as many players as possible. I also believe that a player’s skill (when acquired from an international market) will correlate almost perfectly with their salary, which means I would much rather use the limited resource of TAM on salaries rather than what is essentially an intraleague transfer fee.

Finally, let’s put it all together. We have four basic laws of roster building:

  1. You should try to keep a good distribution of emerging, pre-prime, prime, and post-prime players.
  2. TAM should be used on salaries, not transfers.
  3. Spreading TAM on as many players as possible allows you minimize the weak links on the roster.
  4. When buying young, minimizing risk without hindering the potential upside is more important than trying to make a big splash.

With these laws in mind, how would I construct a roster? There are basically two types of players I would purchase as DPs. The first are players like Nicolas Lodeiro and Derlis Gonzalez, where you are going to capture a good chunk of prime performance and can justify the transfer fee and lack of sell-on value for the amount of value you get from on field performance. The second are players like Diego Rossi (or what would have been Fredy Montero, if the rules then were the same as today.) These players have TAM-level salaries, but are DPs in year one because of their fee. The youth DP cap hit keeps them from being a big cap burden. Their is a big reward if you hit on one and can sell them on, but if they don’t pan out you haven’t broken your budget.

To spend the remaining TAM, I would focus on giving raises to players who might otherwise leave (think Ozzie in his prime or Cristian Roldan’s second contract) and bringing in players on free transfers (Victor Rodriguez and Kelvin Leerdam are almost perfect examples).

The overall strategy would look something like this: try to buy one player every year. If you have the two prime-age DP slots filled, focus on a young player who would be a TAM player in year two. If you need to purchase a prime-age DP, attempt to find one that fits into your age distribution. With any remaining TAM dollars, identify free transfer players who can come in and quickly improve your team. Of course, this is all easier said than done, and we haven’t even touched on the ideas of promoting academy kids and making sure the developing and emerging players don’t stall out, but I believe this provides a template that would ensure ongoing on-field success.

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