One of the first things you learn in any beginning economics class - or even when you sit down and do a budget for the first time - is that when money is involved, you have to make choices. No one has endless piles of cash (except maybe Real Madrid or Manchester City) to spend on the things that they want. Soccer teams are no different, whether it be because of a salary cap like in MLS, or in Europe where teams have budgets and also have to comply with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules (or not - it’s not really clear what exactly the FFP rules are supposed to do other than give UEFA something to do). MLS has a modified its “hard” cap with exceptions like General Allocation Money, Targeted Allocation Money, Designated Players, Home Grown Players, and Generation adidas players, but the point remains that teams have limited cash to spend on their players.
With the idea of choice in mind, teams must make decisions as to which positions that they will devote their resources to filling, in a way that makes sense to performance on the pitch. Many teams look for aging European stars to fill the role of DP strikers, with varied results. Other teams look for rock-solid defenders or popular American stars coming back “home” to America after a career in Europe. Other teams have found and imported DPs from Latin America to fill an attacking role.
Like most of the world, the more the successful teams in MLS history have spent good amount of money on forwards and attacking midfielders, with other positions, such as defensive midfielders and full backs, seen as lesser priorities and to be filled with average MLS players or American products from the college ranks.
Under Earnie Stewart, the Philadelphia Union have taken a “Moneyball” approach to finding talent. In the Netherlands, Stewart was able to take smaller-budget teams and find success without throwing lots of money at big-name flops. Much like Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, who famously plucked players such as Theirry Henry out of relative obscurity, the idea is to identify talent that was going underutilized and miscast and bring them into a system that could showcase their talents and “underpay” for a player’s services. In theory, and often in practice, investing in youth and developing players can often work out and bring glory and results to a team.
Put some respeck on Dennis Bergkamp's name. Look at how my guy had one of the best CB's in Juventus history on strings. pic.twitter.com/EYqcM8KFI5— H² (@TrequartistaFC_) May 11, 2017
Those great Arsenal teams weren’t however all full of no-name players who Wenger “made” great, they also featured an all-world player who was already great before he showed up in London, Dennis Bergkamp. Bergkamp was already a star and commanded a large transfer fee, what was then an Arsenal record £7.5 million, and a substantial salary after his time in Serie A with Inter Milan and in the Netherlands with Ajax. Bergkamp played up front, but was often used as a withdrawn number 10 role, instead of as a striker in a traditional English 4-4-2.
Much like Bergkamp with Arsenal, recent success in MLS is often tied to breaking the bank to sign a big-name number 10. The Montreal Impact have Ignacio Piatti, a star signing from San Lorenzo in Argentina, the Portland Timbers have Diego Valeri, another Argentine who came to MLS from Lanús, and Toronto FC have Italian Sebastian Giovinco who had starred for Juventus, Parma, and Empoli before coming to MLS. Going back a little further, the Columbus Crew had its best run in MLS when their number 10 was Guillermo Barros Schelotto, signed from Boca Juniors, and currently have another Argentine, Federico Higuain, signed from Colón. All of these players elevate their teams, and in the cases of teams like Montreal or Columbus, take an otherwise very average roster to the MLS playoffs and beyond.
The Union apparently are committed to using a 4-2-3-1 formation, utilizing a lone striker up top with an attacking midfielder and wingers behind the striker and using two holding midfielders. The attacking midfielder who plays right behind the striker in that formation, typically known as a number 10, is the most important person in that formation. The team’s attack usually flows through the number 10, and he provides the link between the forward, the wingers and the holding midfielders. While he typically doesn’t have a lot of defensive responsibility, he needs to be the team’s most creative player.
Right now, the Union have a DP in Maurice Edu, a holding midfielder, and the other DP on the roster is US National Team player Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya was used at the number 10 earlier this season, but he is not a natural number 10. He prefers to play in one of the holding midfield roles or on the wing. The team looked sluggish when he started at the number 10 role, as he is not as creative or as offensively gifted as a typical number 10.
That's goal number.. 11 I think for Alberg in a Union shirt. 5 penalties, 6 from run of play— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) April 22, 2017
The Philadelphia Union have chosen Roland Alberg to feature as the team’s number 10. Alberg has a decent scoring record from his time in the Eredivisie, scoring 16 times in 71 appearances for ADO Den Haag, but he is not a DP nor is he a budding star. At 26 years old, Alberg should be in the prime of his career. While he had an impressive goal-scoring record last year, scoring nine goals in 28 games, he has often underwhelmed this season. Questions surrounding his fitness levels dogged his early season form. Since being inserted into the starting lineup this season, Alberg has had one good match, and three poor matches, with Kevin Kinkead of the Philly Voice giving him grades of C+, A-, C-, and C-. It is important to note that the Union exploded to score three goals against the Red Bulls after Alberg had been subbed off in the 63rd minute. Alberg is a good squad player, but he is not a first team player on a MLS side that is going to challenge for the playoffs.
A “Moneyball” approach got the Union Alberg, and with the lack of success so far this season, it appears that using that philosophy on the attacking heart of the team is not working. Good MLS teams use their resources to identify and pay an established creative playmaker for the number 10 role, not pluck an obscure player from the Dutch league to play a critical role. While the investment in the personnel at the Union is not below league average, the results are well below average. The number 10 role in the 4-2-3-1 formation is not a position to find a “value”; it is the most critical position for the team to fill and requires a substantial investment to produce positive results on the pitch.