mls Nashville SC

Race to the top, how the MLS Cup finalists were built: The takeaways

Ian Ayre and Mike Jacobs photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

We’ve taken a look at how Columbus and Seattle acquired their current talent. The Crew’s build won out Saturday evening, but in a one-off game, that means a little less than having won three one-off games to get there (and of course each team finished near the top of its respective conference).

What can a look at those roster builds tell us about how to construct a successful roster in Major League Soccer? I strongly encourage you to listen to Allocation Disorder, the most recent episode of which touched on similar things.

It’s all about scouting

Largely, it doesn’t matter what mechanism you use to sign players – this is largely a “jimmies and joes” business, no matter how intriguing the boardroom “x and o” mechanics are, what matters is getting the players in place.

Simply put: your front office needs a talented eye when it comes to evaluating player talent and player fit. NSC’s Chance Myers actually got a shoutout in the Allocation Disorder episode linked above as being good for this type of role. Sounders Sporting Director (one level on the corporate hierarchy beneath GM Garth Lagerwey) is probably the best-known example of a guy who’s great at the job. If you know what good players look like – and what they don’t – you’re going to make fewer mistakes and have more “hits” from guys who aren’t sure-thing signings.

An underrated part of this section (I initially had it spun off as its own bullet, but it fits in nicely here) is evaluating fit, and cultural fit can be just as important as on-field fit in some circumstances. You need guys willing to buy into a system and a team culture. For Nashville specifically, the front office has really elevated the importance of this aspect in its build – and you can see where it’s paid off. Sam and Paul (just listen to the episode, y’all) mention Seattle’s Gustav Svensson – and he’ll apply to another heading below – as getting a guy who, by all career-milestone and salary-demand accounts, could have the attitude of a guy who’s too good for MLS. But Seattle accurately judged that his personality was as a guy who’d buy into being a more limited role on a broader project, and he’s bought into that role entirely.

Given Myers is a guy who just retired from the league a couple years back and knows everybody in it – and it’s worth noting the value of having a former agent in Ally McKay on the team’s side of the table, too – I think this is where Nashville’s best set up to succeed. And you can see from the outside, with guys like Dax McCarty and Dan Lovitz playing some of their best ball in years, a high-dollar signing in Walker Zimmerman fitting right in personality-wise, foreign DPs slotting right in with team culture from the moment they hit American soil… it’s working out.

Use International slots wisely

This is an area that doesn’t contain hard-and-fast rules – “wisely” can mean a number of different philosophies – but it is an important one. With only eight international slots available to each team every season, and plenty of talent from the global market available, clubs must be smart in how they use international slots.

You can get lesser-known guys and have them hit (Bradley Wright-Phillips was an obvious one for New York Red Bulls back in the day), you can trade them as part of a package for a player of comparable quality to one you’d be able to acquire internationally (Nashville SC “used” an international slot in trading for Walker Zimmerman), or you can go out and get a guy who’s basically a sure thing to find success a la Zlatan, Alan Pulido, Carlos Vela, et al. There is no “right way” to be wise, but having a philosophy of what constitutes wisdom within your organization’s build is important.

Nashville has leaned toward the “flip them for value” philosophy, getting rid of half last year’s allotment in trades, and already down two for 2021. It’s worth noting that international slots have typically gone for $50-$75k in General Allocation Money, so to get $175k yesterday indicates that either the market for them has inflated a bit, or simply that Mike Jacobs “won” that trade in a massive way. (The other 2021 slot that’s been dealt was part of a deal for Alex Muyl – 2020 and 2021 international slots – so around $100-150k worth in GAM before performance incentives for a guy who started nearly every game after arriving, plus his Homegrown rights).

Probably the biggest way to get ahead in this department is turn around green cards as quickly as possible for longer-term signings, in order to take guys out of international slots and free those slots for further use. The pandemic has added to the 12-15ish-month turnaround on green cards, but Nashville flipped them for Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster before kicking a ball in MLS, and you can bet that Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar aren’t far off (particularly Leal, whose parents and brother moved to the United States with him), and Miguel Nazarit may not be, either.

Don’t be afraid to spend on defense

This is the one area that MLS General managers may actually need to hear, because for the most part, defenders are bought on the cheap, while attacking players are big-money signings. That’s obviously a fair way to approach Major League Soccer – certainly it’ll sell more tickets at times – but the best teams this season were willing to spend on getting a strong backline.

Whether that’s Svensson himself (on a TAM contract), Román Torres (who’s now on a smaller number than in his first stint with Seattle, but joined the league on a TAM contract), Joevin Jones (TAM)… there are a lot of good defenders on Seattle’s team. For Columbus, the obvious name is Jonathan Mensah (a Designated Player), but Milton Valenzuela joined as a Young DP as well, and at a position where teams usually scrimp on using any sort of extra assets, the Crew’s goalkeeper, Eloy Room, is both decently-compensated and occupying an international slot.

Spending on defense may not be sexy, but it wins games. You can see Nashville’s belief in this philosophy: extensions for both centerbacks and the goalkeeper after last season (with Zimmerman on a TAM-level contract), and using an international slot on a defender who didn’t even see the field (and was a TAM signing with transfer fee, too) in Nazarit.

Take advantage of market inefficiencies and MLS Rule quirks

This is the most pure moneyball segment of our programming. If you look for market efficiencies, you can get good players in exchange for relatively little.

For example, when LA Galaxy signed Zlatan Ibrahimović, a similar style of striker in Gyasi Zardes was deemed surplus to requirements, and the Galaxy agreed to a straight swap with Columbus for Ola Kamara (largely to get Zardes’ TAM-level salary off the books – whereas Columbus has elevated him to a DP) with the Crew also receiving $00k in TAM. Two years later, Kamara is the linchpin for one of the worst attacks in the league at DC United – though LA did profit off a transfer to China in-between – and Zardes finished second in the Golden Boot as his team won MLS Cup. That’s moneyballin’

Here’s another, also for Columbus. It’s a path that’s not broadly available, but has been massive. Midfielder Darlington Nagbe is from Ohio, and is such a big family guy that he has turned down USMNT call-ups in the past to hang out with his family in Ohio. The Columbus Crew also happened to hire a coach with whom he’s very close (Caleb Porter coached Nagbe at University of Akron and Portland Timbers). All that combined to make Nagbe want to go to the Crew, so the club got him for a $1.05m trade and an international slot, much lower than his value would be on the market if the player didn’t have strong preferences. Yes, this is a mechanism that only applies to a very specific case, but it allowed the Crew to capitalize on a market inefficiency.

Svensson is one for the Sounders. By MLS rule, transfer fees for players acquired abroad must count against that player’s cap number. However, Svensson left the Chinese SuperLeague at a time when the league instituted new rules significantly restricting non-Chinese players, so Guangzhou was forced to get rid of him and Seattle got a free transfer in the exchange for a guy who would otherwise not be available for less than a TAM number. Market inefficiencies.

Winning on market inefficiencies on the simple inadequacy of other clubs’ front office staff also works: Columbus got Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe (former Porter guys) after FC Cincinnati couldn’t find ways to be successful with them, while Seattle re-acquired Roman Torres on the cheap because Miami – which had signed him in free agency – couldn’t find ways to be successful with the longtime Sounders defender.

From a Nashville perspective, you can look at a guy like Dax McCarty (a distressed asset to a Chicago team that was looking to have a – no pun intended, but actually yes pun intended – fire sale after 2019) as one example here. A focus on the college draft (which to be fair, would otherwise be a “don’t do this” based on the Sounders and Crew builds) could also be a way to exploit a market inefficiency.

Don’t miss on DPs

Nor be afraid to use one on a domestic player if he’s good enough.

This is a more specific “take advantage of MLS rule quirks” as well as “scout well,” but it’s important enough to get a separate bullet point when both of those are mentioned above. Every MLS team only gets three cracks at players who make more than $1.6 million in salary, and those three DP slots cannot be traded. Those guys should be the best on the team, or at least make not only the cash spend on the salary, but also the use of a finite asset (and the opportunity cost thereof) worth it.

Seattle’s DPs are Nico Lodeiro, João Paulo, and Raúl Ruidíaz. Columbus’s are Gyasi Zardes, Jonathan Mensah, and Pedro Santos. That’s 6/6 in hits. And it’s worth noting that, while most DPs are going to be developed internationally, Zardes was accurately deemed worthy of a DP spot despite being Homegrown American talent.

For Nashville, jury’s still out on the DPs – the nature of 2020, the nature of an expansion team, and the timeline of Jhonder Cádiz’s arrival all make it tough to evaluate – but it seems very likely that Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar are en route to hitting, and the potential for Cádiz to do the same beckons (particularly since he was signed largely to impact the 2021 season, with whatever NSC got from him this year a bonus with that DP slot otherwise going unused in 2020).

Build a strong academy

This is the one step that Nashville simply can’t replicate right now – and you can question whether they’ll ever be able to do it pulling strictly from local talent, and even getting outside of Homegrown territories, there’s an uphill climb to get enough professional-potential players long-term.

However, Seattle’s Homegrowns include Jordan Morris (who’s developed to the point that he’s too valuable salary-wise to get Homegrown distinction), who was in the running for league MVP at times this year. The rest of the HG players are young ones that the Sounders still have to be hopeful about. But there’s a blueprint for success.

Columbus only has three players developed in their own academy on the roster, but they’re Aidan Morris, who went the distance in the MLS Cup Final win, Aboubacar Keita, who played over 1,000 minutes this year and is on a stardom track, and Sebastian Berhalter, the son of the National Team head coach (who to be fair got very limited playing time this season, but fit in as a pro, at the very least). That’s some pretty good production for talent that’s not making a ton of money at the senior level – of course, the infrastructure costs that got those players to this point are worth noting, but those infrastructure costs also don’t count against the salary cap.

Nashville has traded for the Homegrown rights of a few players, but for the time being, the NSC Academy is going to be a few years away from producing senior-team players.

What other takeaways did you gain from out look at the Sounders and Crew?

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