Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber has publicly expressed two bold visions for his league. His first bold vision sees the league growing to 24 teams by 2020. His second bold vision is that the quality of the league will be amongst the world's best by 2022. Those two visions happen to directly conflict with one another. When sports leagues expand they run the risk of actually diluting the talent on the field. Over the next six seasons MLS will add up to 150 new players. For the league overall to improve, all of those players collectively need to be better than the players MLS has today. And the players they have today must also be replaced with better players.
But the challenges don't stop there. While adding talent can be as easy as paying more money for it (after all there are plenty of good soccer players around the world), Garber also has to make sure that the existing owners will be profitable. As now defunct American soccer leagues learned the hard way, you can overpay for talent.
But perhaps the biggest issue with simply buying the quality is that Garber also wants to ensure that American soccer players adequately represent the league. Will American soccer players develop as quickly as Garber needs to continually increase the talent pool? While Garber could potentially buy his way to a great league, that may mean the league is mostly foreign born players, an outcome that could defeat the purpose of building an American soccer league.
To examine what the league might look like to achieve Garber's twin vision, I built a simple model that attempts to project what would need to happen. Take a look at the graphic below. The central square represents the league as it currently stands.
What the MLS could look like in 2020
Note: if you'd like to skip the model and go directly to the findings, I've created a summary at the end of the post
League rosters are constantly evolving. Any given day players are joining the league and players are exiting. Here I've broken the league into two types of players, American players and foreign born players. The reason for this is because the two markets are extremely different. First of all, both markets have different roster rules associated with them. American players have Homegrown Player rules (which can also apply to foreign born players) for example. And MLS teams are limited to an average of just eight International roster spots per team. Further the number of American players that are developed and able to compete in MLS is a fixed pool, whereas the International pool, while not infinite, is significantly more vast. And as we'll see, more expensive as well.
Creating the next graphic was difficult given the dynamic nature of soccer rosters coupled with the limited availability and timing of salary and performance data. While I attempted to take a detailed snapshot of the league it can only serve as a rough proxy for the league at any given time and at the same time does not represent an exact moment in time. That said, at a high level here is how the league breaks out between the two populations.
American born players make up 59% of the league and play almost the same percentage of minutes. However they are paid just 45% of the total league salary. I used whoscored ratings to indicate relative performance quality. It's not perfect, but in aggregate a good proxy for quality. International players average .12 more points than American players, which is the equivalent of a player in the 40th percentile of the league compared to a player in the 55th percentile of the league. So while the difference appears small, the difference in quality between the two types of players is actually meaningful.
The two populations can be broken further into seven segments based on how the players entered the league. Here is a breakout of how various players are acquired into the league.
It's early in the lifecycle of the Homegrown Players program, but at this point, it is dragging down the overall quality of American players. This may be because clubs feel pressured to sign a player before they are perhaps truly ready to play. Even though Homegrown Players are not performing very strongly, the quality of international players is stronger across the board than the Americans.
The SuperDraft is the largest source of players constituting 42% of the league (38% are American born), and gets average performance from this pool of players, but only pays them 26% of all league salaries.
The next step is to project what this roster makeup could look like out to 2020. First we need to project the growth of the 7 populations of players. For the SuperDraft and the Homegrown Player pool we will look at trends in both players coming on and players coming off. For the International players we can assume an unlimited supply, even at the same salaries, that will be used to plug any gaps as the total number of players in the league is increased by 150. For sake of simplicity, the smaller sources will increase in size at the same rate that the SuperDraft and Homegrown players grow.
Here is a chart of the number of players that were brought into the league by the SuperDraft by year. In 2013, there were 43 players that made an MLS roster. There are still eight players from the 2003 SuperDraft on an MLS roster. For this model I assumed that of the 43 players that made rosters in 2013 will be eight players remaining in 2023. So the shape of this curve remains constant into the future.
Here is the same chart but for Homegrown players. There is much less history for Homegrown players and the data is choppier.
Next I took these model curves and applied them to each season until 2020, essentially assuming that the US development and academy systems will be producing no more talent than the current system does today. That is a very conservative assumption, but I look at it to establish a benchmark. Here is what the distribution of players looks like with 24 teams assuming that the US development system continues to produce MLS quality players at the same rate it has recently.
As expected in this scenario, the American players are unable to keep up with the total player growth in MLS when it moves to 24 teams. More international players are needed to fill that gap. International roster players grow from 26% of the pool to 34% of the pool. International roster spots would need to grow to 10 per team to be able to achieve that growth.
Next I relax that no growth assumption and assume more reasonable growth in the quality of US Soccer players. The numbers get more palpable. Here is what the distribution of players looks like when the assumption becomes that the US Player pool of MLS quality players grows at 5% per year. To put that in perspective, last season 43 players selected in the SuperDraft made MLS rosters. That number would need to be 58 in 2020 by today's standard of quality.
This distribution looks much more similar to today's distribution of players. The Homegrown system has really begun to help fill the US player pool. The International roster pool in this scenario actually drops a few percent.
A 5% annual growth rate in the United States' output of MLS quality players is what it would take to maintain the roughly 60%/40% split of American players to foreign born players as the league expands to 24 teams.
But that still leaves one rather large problem. Even with American players improving at 5% a year, the league hasn't actually improved. And yet Don Garber wants the league to join the elite in just two more years in 2020. Here is what happens to the average Whoscored ratings as the distributions above change.
Options for improving the quality of the league
Unless the quality of the US talent or the international roster players signed dramatically improves, Don Garber has a long road ahead to improve the quality of the league. He does have one thing on his side though, and that is there is no great way to measure the quality of the league. How will we know when the league has arrived? Outside of the eye test, there really is no great method.
But bear with me and I'll attempt to give the idea of measuring league quality in 6 years a shot. I'm going to list three bundles of current MLS players. Each bundle contains roughly the same quality of MLS player. Bundle A is collectively the lowest quality but is above average, bundle B is slightly better and bundle C is be the best. Here are the bundles:
Michael Parkhurst, Cristian Maidana, Ned Grabavoy, Chris Klute
Andrew Farrell, Dax McCarty, Jose Goncalves, Jeff Larentowicz
Gyasi Zardes, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Darlington Nagbe, Fabian Espindola
The point here is to not get too caught up in a are-these-the-right-players discussion. Hopefully you'll agree that these bundles get increasingly better moving from A to C.
Now imagine a league where half the players are better than each bundle and half of the players are not as good as the bundle. Is there a bundle where you would say that the league would be considered a top league in the world? I would argue that bundle B would be a nice target for the average player in the league if I'm Don Garber. You might feel differently.
Now the model can be used to determine how the league might improve to a point where each bundle represents the average player.
The first view looks at what would need to happen if all of the player improvement happened to just the International Roster players. I'm just doing this to put out of your mind that this is a feasible option. Here is the current distribution of international roster based on whoscored ratings.
Remember in the last scenario that the growth of US soccer players did not ultimately improve the quality of the league, because that growth was used to fuel league expansion. Now focusing on the quality of the international talent pool, the yellow bar represents what would need to happen to that quality by 2020 for the league to reach the combined quality of bundle A. Said another way, if all of the current international roster players were replaced in 6 years by players that averaged the quality of bundle C players, then the league would achieve the level of bundle A. Infeasible and yet not good enough. It's also the case that signing so many bundle C players would cost quite a bit of money as they are rather expensive. Note that players that have a whoscored rating of 7 or higher (the average bundle C player) are a good deal more expensive than other international players.
The league is not very efficient at identifying and paying average league players, but they pay a good deal more at the top of the quality spectrum. I calculated that if MLS replaced all international players with players of the quality of bundle C, then the payroll would increase by about 60%.
The takeaway here is that if the league is going to see their visions as reality, they will need the young players of America to gain significant ground.
Let's continue with the scenario where US soccer continues to increase it's MLS quality player output by 5% a year. The reality is the league doesn't have to keep taking all of those players. Players that would once qualify for a roster today will not be good enough to make it in 2020. If we assume that player growth continues at 5% but cut off the bottom of the player pool and allow there to be actually no growth in US players (i.e. 43 players per year will come out of the SuperDraft) then the average American soccer player will look like bundle A in 2020.
It should be noted at this point that if the young American soccer players do continuously improve like I'm projecting, there will be increased interest from foreign leagues. This benefit may actually manifest itself in other leagues, making Garber's job even harder.
If the international roster spots increase to fill the void left by American players that are no longer good enough to play in MLS, then the league will need to increase the total roster spots for international players to 10. The league would then eventually be split roughly 50/50 between American and international players.
If the league replaced all of the current international players and then some with players of the caliber of bundle C and all of the American players in the pool on average looked like bundle A, there would be a league that reaches the average quality of bundle B. It's a lot to take in. It's even more for the league to actually achieve.
In summary - what will it take to make MLS a top 24 team league in the world?
Don Garber should have no problem achieving his first vision of expanding the league to 24 teams. There are currently more suitors than there are spots available, so that should be the easy part. The hard part will be improving the quality of the league. Here is what I think will need to happen for Garber to have a chance to see his second vision through:
1. US Soccer development - The youth development process has been improving dramatically in the past decade. Major League Soccer will need to see those efforts bear fruit. The number of MLS quality players coming from lower leagues or the college ranks must grow by at least 5% each year.
2. International roster growth - Despite that growth in US player quality, Major League Soccer must grow the international portion of its roster. The reality is there is more quality abroad and until the US Soccer academies can fill rosters, the best place to attain talent will be internationally. International roster spots will need to increase to 10 per team, up from 8. If this change isn't made in the next CBA, be wary of promises to improve the quality of the league.
Update: The limit of 8 International players, while an explicit MLS roster rule, is not something that can be collectively bargained by players and the league. The roster rule is set by the USSF. A change in this particular roster rule may not happen as part of the next CBA, but can be changed as needed by the Federation.
3. New roster mix - The result of #2 will be that the mix between American and foreign players should shift from 60%/40% to about 50%/50%.
4. Increasing player wages - The player wages will need to roughly double relative to revenues to compensate for the increase in talent and better compete in the global market. Luckily, this level of player wage is not out of line with other top leagues around the world. Currently, MLS players are paid 20% of league revenues while other leagues' players earn at least 40% of total revenues.
Coming out of the next CBA, fans will need to see evidence that the league is on a path to improved quality. The salary budget for the 2014 season was $3.1 million. That number needs to ultimately more than double in order for the league to have a chance at joining the elite.
Here is what I think the league could look like in 2020, and this I believe would be considered a top league in the world. And don't forget, Garber gave himself two extra years after expansion to full achieve his vision.
Read more coverage of the various aspects of the MLS CBA negotiation: