“Moneyball” had been an outlier in baseball, as traditionally, the biggest spending teams were the ones to win divisions, make deep runs in the playoffs, and win the World Series. That is still mostly true in the NBA, where the league has been dominated for years by “Dream Team” ambitions and superstar-laden squads.
But in MLS, “Moneyball” may not be an outlier much longer, but rather the norm.
Welcome to MLS 4.0 where the league is being set to be taken over by teams choosing frugality over big names and where a team-concept beats three Designated Players any day. The problem is, it might just be the league’s worst nightmare.
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The league’s two lowest spending teams, FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, are in their respective conference finals with the Red Bulls having won the Supporters’ Shield this year for the league’s best record. Their opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals (Sunday, 5 p.m., ESPN), the Columbus Crew, have far from a massive payroll - ninth lowest in the 20-team league.
Only the Portland Timbers, who have had an erratic year, are in the league’s top half in terms of salaries, having spent just a shade over $6 million this year for the ninth most expensive roster in MLS. These aren’t the Yankees of MLS being talked about here. Those clubs such, as the Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC, are already out of the playoffs. Others such as Orlando City and New York City, didn’t even make the postseason.
Gone are the days, at least temporarily, where the marquee names and Designated Players are good enough to get a franchise to MLS Cup. Analytics and shrewd roster moves are in.
The Red Bulls rode a yeoman-like roster of no names to the shield and the conference finals, eschewing their high-spending ways of the past. Then there is FC Dallas, a young team predicated on South American talent and homegrown products providing flair and balance to their roster.
Five of the top 15 salaries in MLS didn’t even make the playoffs this year and seven of the top 20 moneymakers didn’t taste the postseason. The most expensive player left in the postseason is the Crew’s Federico Higuain, who at $1.175 million is the seventeenth most expensive player in the league. Ironically, the playoffs are sponsored by Audi, a high-end automobile manufacturer. But there are no high-end names left in the postseason.
What this means for MLS moving forward remains unclear.
Teams such as the Galaxy have found success in recent years blending names such as David Beckham and Robbie Keane in with their own American talent to lift more MLS Cups then any other franchise in league history. But while it seems on paper that teams spending less and getting more is a good thing, MLS can’t be happy.
The success of the league is built on drawing bigger and bigger names to these shores.
The league’s top five drawing teams are also its top five spending teams with Portland, the sixth best club attendance wise, the highest ranked draw in the league left in the playoffs. This is a problem for MLS as they continue to want to bring the likes of Kaka, Frank Lampard and David Villa to MLS. Stars mean fannies in the seats and better television ratings. And both of those things mean that the league can get more for expansion franchises, with Atlanta entering the league in 2017 for a reported $70 million fee. If teams can win without stars, will attendance and ratings fall faster than the salary cap numbers?
Last year’s conference semifinals on ESPN2 averaged 298,000 viewers for the three semifinals series that boasted significantly more star power on the field, including the likes of Landon Donovan, the aforementioned Keane, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. This year’s number is down to an average of 242,5000 for the four matches in the conference semifinals on ESPN (TV numbers courtesy of Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy).
Numbers that seem to point towards the impact that a lack of stars can have off the pitch. But to the team lacking big names that will lift the MLS Cup in a few weeks, it won’t matter very much.