Wednesday, January 21, 2015

MLS Player Acquisitions: Moving to MLS 3.1 (at least)

Giovinco is the shit, yo.
This past weekend, I posted some loose speculation about which Major League Soccer (MLS) club is currently "winning" the 2014-15 off-season (to save folks the click, I named Columbus Crew SC). To explain how I pulled that out of my ass, I typed up the following paragraph on how I rank any given player acquisition. So, from best to worst:
"An MLS player of good reputation is greater than a(n apparently*) good foreign acquisition is greater than a known MLS squad hack is greater than a homegrown player is greater than most players acquired through the Superdraft. I think most of that holds up, but I order the last two the way I do because homegrown players come with the bonus of familiarity with the relevant club and its system."
(* The asterisk acknowledges what I call the Fernandez/Paparrato Clause, which means overcoming a reflexive belief that any given foreign player is automatically better.)

Give any thought at all to that ranking you’ll notice an absence – e.g. the clearly high-end DP foreign acquisition, e.g. your Thierry Henrys, your Steven Gerrards, and (presumably) your Sebastian Giovincos. Barring a hateful, mutant personality, players of that stature rank higher than an "MLS player of good reputation." To provide a personal definition, if a player has a pedigree/CV that works like Ye Olde Lettres of Introducfionne (uh, that's "introduction" spelled fancy), he'll more than likely come good – even if it takes a season to get there. That said, I came across a really cool visual tool (that all of you have no doubt already seen and picked to pieces) that speaks to the relative rarity of DPs of that level. They're more exception than the rule. So, let’s turn to the norms. Or, arguably, what could be a new norm.

One departure and a pair of arrivals capture the shift – specifically, Claudio Bieler's departure from Sporting Kansas City and the transfer of Marcelo Sarvas and Sam Cronin to the Colorado Rapids. While the latter adds to a fairly small sample size – see, DC United's 2013-14 off-season maneuvers – it's following a model that brought eye-catching success to what was an historically shitty team (e.g. DC United 2013). And that should be enough to make you wonder at the very least.

I get a little lost on these numbers, but, for argument's sake, let's define MLS 3.0 as the era that ushered in the lower-level DP – that is, players few American fans have heard of, but who hail from countries with strong soccer traditions. Bieler, an Argentine, certainly fit that mold. He produced well enough through 2013, but, 1) that proved to be a clear high-water mark for his MLS career, and 2) his mediocre 2014 rose questions as to whether his play justified his DP salary. I saw Bieler miss a considerable share of chances, but KC fans (a remarkably forgiving bunch, at least per this sample) didn’t seem to mind. Basically, the model in play rested on an assumption that didn’t hold up: e.g. mo' money brings mo' talent, so teams gambled and paid for it up front. A second assumption held that mo’ talent was found among those playing abroad.

DC's 2013-14 off-season challenged that model: they went out and got players blooded in MLS, guys used to the physicality, inconsistent refereeing, and running, running, running. And...hold it...this goes back even further. If you really think about it, Real Salt Lake built their golden years on the same formula. Reclamation projects, in so many words, players who knew the league and played well in it – just not well enough for their then-clubs to necessarily agree with their assessment of own worth.

Before digging into the Sarvas and Cronin, allow me to recant some of the silly things said in my earlier post on that: as it turns out, Sarvas was eager to join the Rapids. And, yes, his prior relationship with Pablo Mastroeni, during that fleeting season with the LA Galaxy, played a larger role than Mastroeni's sensational, sensual mustache. And Sarvas is younger than I thought, etc. So, yes, I suck. (And, yes, this is how I roll: I will never shy away from admitting a mistake, or even a blown interpretation. Just might take a while.)

When the Colorado brain-trust wrapped their heads around last year's (clearly serious) shortcomings, their first instinct was to look inside MLS for solutions, not outside. And it wasn't just guiding the youth they wanted - though that played a role (see: Burling, Bobby; Harrington, Michael) - but they also replaced the departed Spaniard, Jose Mari. Yes, the kind of foreign player that seemed very much in vogue in 2013-14.

For what it's worth, I believe teams will go internal often as they're able in the near-term, and probably beyond. Drafting from within the league simplifies scouting: coaches see those players more often, for one, and the video is easier to come by besides; moreover, the scouts get a fairly immediate and thorough sense of how these players will actually play in MLS. They already know the culture, they've managed the travel, the level of play, the schizoid refereeing, etc. etc.

Hasty as that original post might have been, I also confessed to a blind-spot when it came to Sarvas. With all the stars on LA's roster, he didn't shine as brightly as he might have. And isn't that the point of the reclamation project - i.e. showing what the average fan, and maybe even his coaches, failed to see. Cronin’s arrival was different, so I got that move right away. He's a classic MLS d-mid: a eager runner and hard tackler, a guy who keeps it simple and makes everyone else the hero. A helluva a fit for me, in that he'll make what stars the Rapids field with him better – including Sarvas.

And don't get me wrong. I don't begrudge Bieler his shot in MLS and I respect his 2013. It is worth noting, though, just who it was who replaced him and how he came into KC’s squad. That was Dom Dwyer...who came up through the USL. And that's the wave of MLS 4.0, people...

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