Seattle Sounders: Roster Building and the Puzzle of Scarcity

Scarcity is the chief rule of economics, the limiting factor from which all decisions descend. All sports leagues deal with a scarcity of resources: the player pool, roster spots, salaries, etc., but MLS has an especially acute scarcity problem.

As discussed before, the talent pool for soccer players is by far the largest in all international sport. Most countries produce soccer players. Couple this abundance with MLS’s limited salary cap (which for the 2014 season sits just above $3 million), and you have quite the knot. One perennial aspect of this issue, for example, is how can MLS best convince enough good players to jump to an upstart league that can’t pay much? This was, and is being, solved by league-wide changes to roster building: the DP rule, allocation money, etc. For the individual teams, the scarcity problem is different. What is the best way to build an MLS roster?

The fine art of roster building is quite the popular topic in Seattle. Last year, the Sounders went on an MLS-Cup-or-bust run. They squared off their roster, jam-packed the top eleven with talent and went all in. We all know how that worked out. Previous to last year, Seattle had arguably been the gold standard in effective depth. They built quality rosters, not just 1 through 11, but 1 through 22/23. Their three straight US Open Cup Championships (and that star-crossed championship loss) are proof of the efficacy of that approach. However, a team’s approach can vary.

A club’s priorities must be spread between three competitions: the MLS Cup, Supporters Shield, CONCACAF Champions League, and the US Open Cup. MLS has a fairly straightforward incentivation system. A team that wins one of the domestic titles: MLS Cup, Supporters Shield, or US Open Cup gets to compete in the Group Stages of the CONCACAF Champions league. Competing in CCL earns your club more resources (less scarcity) through allocation monies. You must succeed within MLS (or the Open Cup) to have a crack at CCL and its tangible reward of allocation money, and the intangible reward of potentially competing in the FIFA Club World Cup. While Seattle clearly sought to compete across all competitions, other clubs dismiss the Open Cup or CCL. It is a simple consideration of opportunity cost. If you build for MLS Cup, as the thinking goes, you are sacrificing depth and thus a fair chance at an Open Cup run. Scarcity limits your agency.

Are the Sounders building the right way?

 

Are the Sounders building the right way this year? We have a shocking surfeit of depth. Jalil Anibab was a stud in Chicago. Last year he started every minute of every game for a playoff-caliber team, but has barely seen the field for Seattle. Marco Pappa is a two-time former Best XI Selection, but he’s in and out of our lineup, as is Kenny Cooper, one of the most prolific scorers in league history. We can look at all of our depth and be satisfied we have such proven quantities warming the bench. Or we can ask why we started young, unproven Michael Azira in back-to-back games already. We can ask if we have the right kind of depth. To do this we need to best consider how to maximize effective output from each position.

Below is the Seattle Sounders’ current roster (I’ve removed injured and on-loan players). I have roughly grouped the players into the following positional categories: Goalies, Center Backs, Zach Scott, Full Backs, Defensive Mids, Brad Evans, Attacking Mids, Forwards (yes, Scott and Evans get special flexibility considerations).

I’ve also color-coded the players. Green equals I love seeing this player take the field. Yellow equals Well, I guess we gotta run with him today. Red is Oh crap. We’re starting him? This ranking was done with my humble and flawed perspective, if you don’t agree with my rankings, let me know (click the image to enlarge).

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The first thing you notice is how stacked our team is. The defensive-side of the roster is chock-full of quality players, from having two quality keepers all the way to six quality CB and FB options for the backline. And despite Evans and Rose’s recent injuries, our defensive midfield is stacked. We could afford to trim the roster at that position.

The offensive-minded portion of the squad is more suspect. We are carrying more yellow-type players on this part of the roster, and this is the heart of our scarcity problem. We are allocating many roster sports to marginal players. Granted, you only ever want Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey up top, so you can afford to worry less about quality forward depth, right? On the one hand, we know Deuce will be gone for the World Cup and Oba wasn’t an iron man last year. On the other hand, we have Cooper and Neagle, quality MLS starters, who can always start up top for a game or three. So why carry Barrett and Weaver and Bowen?

Thus I am making a modest proposal. What if the Sounders traded Marco Pappa and Andy Rose for a player like Real Salt Lake’s Ned Grabavoy? Trade two halves for one whole, and the whole team gets better. Marco Pappa is very creative, but a defensive liability. Andy Rose is a very competent holding midfielder, but his ceiling isn’t too high. Grabavoy is an incredible two-way midfielder and would immediately start on this, or any, team. It’s addition by subtraction. We’d have another roster spot, perhaps to add a player after the World Cup, and you’d still have flexibility all over the roster.

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