A View from Afar / Commentary

How to play Moneyball in MLS

Photo: Earl Gardner

In all the talk about MLS clubs like Philadelphia Union playing Moneyball, there tends to be some confusion at times.

Some people mix up the concepts of Moneyball, cheap, and dumb.

In actuality, they’re quite different.

Moneyball is neither cheap nor dumb.

Cheap and dumb are, in fact, cheap and dumb, respectively.

What the Union have been doing since John Hackworth was fired, at least in terms of what is publicly apparent, is not Moneyball. Whether they will continue on that route remains to be seen.

Let’s explore what Moneyball actually is, along with how it can be used in Major League Soccer.

Moneyball: What is it?

“Moneyball” is a term coined in the Michael Lewis book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, to describe how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane exploited inefficiencies in Major League Baseball’s player acquisition market to find underrated, quality players at low prices and compete with much richer clubs like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and even the Anaheim Angels and Texas Rangers.

Beane leveled the playing field by looking to player development and, more significantly, statistical analysis, identifying the most important offensive statistic (runs scored) and then finding an underrated and oft-overlooked secondary statistic that most often correlated with it (individual players’ on-base percentage). Oakland identified and acquired players with high on-base percentage who had been underrated in a league where most people concentrated on the big three stats of batting average, home runs and runs batted in.

In the process, Beane determined a new way of buying low and selling high. What was new was how he valued them. If you hit .250, rarely walked, but hit 30 home runs, you were not as valuable to Oakland as you were to another team. But if you hit .280 with an on-base percentage approaching .400, you were far more valuable.

Soccernomics: Moneyball for soccer

Soccer has its own Moneyball teams too, and the best example may be Olympique Lyon in Ligue 1, as described in Simon Kuper’s excellent book, Soccernomics. Lyon went from a debt-ridden second-tier club in 1987, when Jean-Michel Aulas bought the club, to winning seven straight league titles from 2002 through 2008 while maintaining profitability.

Aulas used his own business model tailored to soccer, but it had the same basic premise: Buy low, and sell high. Lyon identified young players they felt they could buy at one price and later sell for a much higher price when they reached their prime, and they sold anyone if they got offered significantly more than he was worth. For example, Lyon bought Michael Essien for 11.7 million euros in 2004 and sold him just two years later for 38 million euros. Further, by taking transfer decisions out of the hands of managers and putting them into the hands of a small committee — owner, technical director and manager — of which two-thirds was fairly stable, Aulas ensured the philosophy remained consistent.

It’s basic, common business sense.

The key to Moneyball in any sport

The concept is key: What’s most important is that you identify the inefficiencies, exploit them, and profit off them by prudently buying low and selling high.

The details of how you do this matter less. All that matters is that you do it right. (In other words, MLS Moneyball may not be the same as Oakland A’s or Olympique Lyon Moneyball.)

Logically, the inefficiencies and the model to exploit them will often differ from sport to sport and business to business. It may be statistically based – maybe soccer’s equivalent of on-base percentage is passing completion rate, and maybe it’s not – or it may be driven by other factors.

In Major League Baseball’s statistics-driven world, the inefficiency was that most people overrated certain statistics and underrated others. Oakland exploited this.

In European soccer’s model of putting transfer decision-making in the hands of a manager who could be fired after five bad matches, the inefficiency was that there was too little long-term decision-making going on. It was “win now and buy big.” Lyon exploited this by thinking long-term and creating a sustainable structure.

The Moneyball model for MLS: Kansas City

No MLS club has played Moneyball as well as Sporting Kansas City (although Columbus have impressed over the last year).

The primary inefficiency Kansas City has exploited is the fact that most professional soccer clubs, outside a few top European leagues, simply do not have first class infrastructure, high standards of living or positive work environments. In Latin America, eastern Europe and southern Europe, it’s often even hard to get paid on time.

Kansas City has exploited those inefficiencies by creating a first class organization that provides an alternative to all that with the following:

  1. Fantastic work environment: SKC created a first class soccer stadium, a state-of-the-art home locker room, nutritious meals for players, and rewards for high-performing players.
  2. Positive fan environment: Free wireless Internet and high-definition TVs at the stadiums, shrewd marketing and a winning team that offers a friendly, personal face to fans.
  3. Smart sales: SKC sold players at profit, such as Kei Kamara and Uri Rosell, and have made it clear they will not obstruct their players’ ambitions overseas. Meanwhile, they shrewdly held onto the rights of some players, like Roger Espinoza, who they hoped would return.
  4. Actual scouting networks: SKC has one, which boasts regional scouts in various areas. Many MLS clubs do not.
  5. Paying their players on time. (More on this in a bit.)
  6. No fan violence. (More on this too in a bit.)

Have they always gotten it right? No, of course not. But they have transformed a nothing franchise that nearly moved to Philadelphia eight years ago into a model MLS club.

How MLS clubs can replicate Kansas City’s success

How much of this can be ported to other clubs? Almost all of it.

The biggest inefficiency in the world soccer marketplace is this:

Soccer is a horribly run business around the world, and the environment for players is in many places extraordinarily poisonous. Fan violence, team insolvency, crumbling infrastructure and corruption mar leagues throughout South America, North Africa, and eastern and southern Europe, including such big name soccer countries as Italy, Argentina and Brazil.

To exploit this, as I wrote last year, MLS clubs just have to do a few things to create a superior alternative:

  1. Offer a good work environment (stadium, practice facilities, fan atmosphere, etc.);
  2. Pay their players on time;
  3. Keep their players safe;
  4. Scout well;
  5. Identify younger players who will appreciate in value and be sold later at profit, and then sell them;
  6. Don’t overpay.

Target players stuck in problem leagues that don’t offer points 1-3, such as those in South America, central America, eastern Europe, and much of southern Europe. Meanwhile, sell players to wealthier western European leagues that will pay more.

That is the MLS version of Moneyball. Certainly, there are specific on-field statistical metrics and other nuances — many of which can be imported from Lyon — that can be used, but the basics are those six points above. It’s really that simple.

Is Philadelphia playing Moneyball?

There has been a lot of talk lately about how Philadelphia Union is trying to play Moneyball.

What needs to be clear is that, again, just because you say you’re playing Moneyball, it doesn’t mean you actually are. Being cheap is not the same thing as playing Moneyball.

Here are a few examples of Moneyball-like personnel moves from the Union:

  • Vincent Nogueira: Scalable transfer fee, sub-DP salary, top player in his prime.
  • Cristian Maidana: Reasonable transfer fee for a creative attacker, a key role that America simply does not produce enough good players for. Sub-DP salary, still in his prime.
  • Andrew Wenger: It has never been revealed whether Montreal picked up a chunk of his salary as part of his trade, but it is likely the case. Shrewd move, undervalued player who was underused in Montreal.
  • Michael Farfan: Sold to Cruz Azul at profit.
  • Any free transfer acquisition who produces at a reasonable salary.
  • Trying to sign a striker who led a top second-tier league in scoring last year before struggling to fit into a new team.

Here are a few examples of non-Moneyball moves from the Union:

  • Paying a transfer fee for a goalkeeper in a country known for producing quality goalkeepers.
  • Paying an expensive consultant to live in Europe instead of a general manager who lives in his office.
  • Valuing the younger and cheaper Amobi Okugo less than Maurice Edu, despite their on-field performances actually being fairly similar in quality.
  • Losing/eliminating your entire press relations staff* — save for a recently hired former intern.
  • Cutting your technical staff to bare bones.

Union chairman Jay Sugarman wants to play Moneyball, and he is absolutely right in this.

But there’s a difference between Moneyball and just being second-rate.

65 Comments

  1. Well, looks like we can get used to being poor, regardless. Or acting poor. We have one DP?
    /
    Contrawise- the smart money might be this right now. We came close and we failed because of a lack of winning mentality. Curtin instills that, takes this squad, and comes in 4th or 5th in the East. It’s possible.

  2. The Black Hand says:

    Moneyball…great.

    • The problem is that everyone is trying to play Moneyball now. The big clubs have entire staffing dedicated to the principle. Gone are the days when the A’s pulled a fast one on everybody. Economics are dominating the sports landscape, and I fear it is just another area where the Union are behind the 8-ball.

  3. this is reality but I cannot be part of the conversation. thanks for the time and thoughts. continue on friends.

    • This is such a good article. God damn I am despondent. Tried to stay away but couldn’t. To me the analogy is like having $4000 cash in a savings account but carrying $6000 in credit debt. Just doesn’t make sense. It makes Union Sense and I am certain, certain I tell you that Union Sense is not sound with the product on the field. Part of me is convinced this is the plan and they are just waiting and banking on Academy to fuel them – though you wouldn’t know since none of those kids even see the field. Dan I was feeling so good today.

      • Nah, don’t get down because of this stuff. By highlighting things like this, you can actually effect change. We have good readership, including among the Union, and some folks are very open-minded. Curtin seems like a good dude, by all accounts, and his learning curve may be quick. There’s hope.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        They are 100000% banking on the academy to keep this team afloat because it’s cheap, and you have good odds of producing a few guys that can play. You nailed it

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        and the academy is pay to play so they actually are having someone else pay to prdouce a few guys. lol First class all the way

  4. For the record, the reference to the PR staff is to the fact that the Union just laid off Kerith Gabriel, in addition to the losses over the last 6-8 months of Chris Glidden and Aimee Cicero. I understand that many people like to throw Kerith under the bus with the Union, but the fact is that he is a solid guy, was good at his job, and was a good sportswriter before that.

  5. You and I haven’t agreed on a lot over the years, but you’re 100% spot on.

    I’ve seen the Moneyball tag tweeted a few times and asked, well, who plays the analyst? Sugarman saying he likes analytics isn’t the same as investing in staff to do the analysis.

    Great work!

    • Thanks, Scott. And that’s a great point. That’s actually my full-time job these days, working as an analyst. (Different industry, of course.) If you don’t have someone actually doing that critical thinking and analysis, all you have is words.

  6. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Dan,
    What was the story with letting Kerith and team go? I saw a tweet from Tannenald, but never heard the backstory… Can anyone at PSP elaborate? Although it sounds like I’m just mongering for rumors, i think this is an important story that fits the narrative of what the Union are doing. As you mentioned, it is the same as cutting the staff to bare bones, or having YSC/Union School be pay to play. It is becoming quite evident that there is NO money to invest in the team AT ALL. Whatever money is generated through ticket sales, transfers, advertising, TV rights, etc. must be going to either A. a debt service or B. Sugarman’s pockets. Any elaboration would be much appreciated!

    • Valid question, fairly put.

      Reorganization. They combined the marketing and communications departments into one department. They eliminated Kerith’s position in the process. Current VP of Marketing and Communications Ashley Dabb will oversee the department.

      The new press officer is a guy named Chris Winkler. I haven’t met him, but I’m told he’s a nice guy. He was apparently just hired. He’s fresh out of grad school, I think. I believe they let go of the guy who was in the job after Chris Glidden left for the LA Galaxy last year, but I don’t know that for sure. (Chris Glidden was also fantastic, by the way.)

      I don’t have great, reliable insight on their financials, but I believe there is a chunk of money set aside for a striker. (I generally take Jim Curtin at his word. By all accounts, he’s a good dude.) Whether it’s enough or not is another story.

    • to play devils advocate….perhaps the cuts to a bare bone corporate staff indicate all resources will be put into the on field product?

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        But if there is a salary cap, shouldn’t those funds be accounted for anyway? If there is a basic business plan, shouldn’t all of those funds be budgeted allready?

  7. Great piece, Dan. You get right to what might be the biggest head scratcher of this offseason. Every time Philly is linked to a player, it’s a guy in a first-world league (France, England) and not where you would think — and here I couldn’t agree more — providing an excellent stadium, practice facility and nice Philly suburban homes for players and their families, would be a big draw: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, etc, and so forth.

    I got the sense reading stuff about Maidana that his family is pretty happy in their new home. The U.S. is a pretty nice place to live, particularly when you’re making six figures. A stable place to live and a good, stable job in the sport should easily make the U.S. a great destination for pro soccer players.

    I’m just about ready to give up on the Union making any smart moneyball moves this offseason. They’re clearly not looking in the right places. I would think those sort of moves would have been apparent and executable by now. Maybe we’ll luck out with our draftees in the way the Cardinals always do with young bullpen pitchers, of which they seem to have an endless supply. But at best, that gives us depth. Not a better starting 11 than we had last year.

    • I’m not totally in agreement here. South and Central America have their own pitfalls as a source for bringing in quality players. The European strategy isn’t inherently bad. It seems like the Union are trying to pull off the same type of deal that they worked with Nogueira, and I think most of us would agree that that was a decent piece of business.
      .
      That’s not to say they shouldn’t be looking in other places too, but Europe is not automatically bad for a team with limited funds.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      Why are we looking in the wrong places (aka W. Europe)? Could it be, oh I dunno…Meulensteen? Insightful, analytical article. Well done.

    • Great point. Teams should be looking at S. American, E. Europe first teamers in their prime rather than retirees coming here WAY overpriced.

  8. The 4th largest sports and media market in the country and 2nd largest on the east coast(no podunk shit pile here) with an MLS franchise sitting between NY and DC being run like a 2nd rate outpost. Yeah we know.
    Let’s campaign for Philly FC or FC Philly our real MLS team!!

    • I scoffed at this for a moment and then realized this isn’t even an bad idea. The Union are clearly entrenched in this mentality and I predict the same headache for another five years. A second club with cash to splash could actually succeed in this city. Not giving up on the U, but it’s something you have to at least ponder.

    • Wilkerson McLaser says:

      I was with you until “FC”

      • LOL I was groping and trying it out for size. Lets just hope the Union make the signings and that we get new ownership. It’s amazing how this organization struggles at doing nothing.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      The Fury or The Atoms are on the comeback trail!!

    • Now that you say it, if the NASL really wants to fire a shot at MLS, Philly might be a place to do it.

    • It would create a fun derby though………………

  9. The Moneyball solution for the Union should be through their highly touted, nationally recognized academy. Produce them yourself….then sell high. This should be a goal after the academy develops. Bring in a few studs (DP’s) and surround them with kids that we developed ourselves………like Southhampton, Ajax, Lyon, Dortmund, etc. Many successful clubs do this…………

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      It probably is, but the problem is you are years away from selling a kid for a real profit. I get that idea, and I’m not opposed, but in the interim you could spend a few freakin bucks to make your first team a contender and build your fan base. The shine has worn off. We are six years in now… time to show us you know how to identify a need (or two) and then address it.

      • I'm Sak, Please Fire Me says:

        Plus there’s no guarantee those guys ever sign with us. Anyone who is going to be worth big bucks stays unsigned long enough to make the Bucks themselves.

        Remind me again, when is Steffen signing with the U?
        Fire Me Please

      • That was always a long shot…………and remember……when Steffan and Madison were playing with the Union……..it wasn’t a real academy yet. That has only happened in the past 2-3 years. They just called it one.

      • that depends on the mindset of the club. Clubs like Real Madrid and Man Utd rarely have their academy kids crack the first team, maybe a few tops. The rest are sold off to other clubs for profit. Clubs like BVB, Ajax, Southhampton, and even Arsenal rely on their academies to help offset costs and provide a conveyor belt of talent for all their teams. Different clubs…..different philosophies…

      • Yo Sak……………there is no guarantee, there never is at any academy around the world! But if you have a stable club that gets results………they are more inclined to stick around and see what the contract looks like.

      • agree on all points. My comment was for the future…….not our present predicament.

      • The Union not having any contract with the academy players is still a big problem if they’re talented enough to get interest from top level European clubs. They could be gone in an instant after years of investment and we get nothing back. This will be a issue with the real studs, the kind of studs that are potential 1st team material. We’ve already missed out on Steffen, Barbir, and Pulisic. We’re luckly Pfeffer didn’t dash for Europe, especially the way they’ve used him. The Academy has been talked up as great, but it hasn’t scored a goal, earned a shutout, or made us a buck yet. Can’t sell that to frustrated fans today. A few more years, then maybe.

  10. Nice read Dan!
    .
    I’d add that signing aging veterans like Carrol and Fred who’s onfield performance could be easily replaced by cheaper alternatives (who could then gain experience and value) also flys in the face of Moneyball.

    • I raised this point when they signed & someone had a good point -as they are on roster, MLS pays their salary. So Union get 2 asst coaches for ‘free’ at the cost of two roster spots.

  11. Edu and Amobi might be similar is stats, but Edu brings more leadership and gravitas to the team. It might all be worthless, but Edu is the captain we have been missing since our first season.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Not sure I agree. I would give the edge to Amobi…in every stat.
      .
      Can’t say that I saw Amobi look lazy…ever. I sure did see a lot of jogging and ball-watching out of our Captain…

      • It has been re-hashed in here often, but this where I don’t understand the people who say they prefer Edu as the CDM over CB. He looked so much more involved and effective as a CB, and conversely, I saw quite a few instances where he got forward, the ball was lost and he was jogging back in the general direction of the Union goal while there was a giant gaping hole in front of the back line. But to be fair, I may just be noticing the plays that confirm my already formed opinion.

      • Thank you Mike. If I was coach an seen my so called box to box mid taking his good old time getting back to defend I’d pull him from the game right then & there. He’s VERY eager to jump up and score but not getting back. I’d take definitely take Amobi over Edu at DM any day. Okugo plays defense FIRST and jumps up when opportunity arises,and was no slouch getting back. Edu needs to swallow his pride and be the CB this team needs, cuz it’s about the TEAM not yourself.

      • part of that was Hack wanted Edu to be a box to box midfielder…..not a holding CDM……….there is a difference.

    • Edu is a better option at CB, while still having the flexibility to play CDM. Outside of that, it’s hard to argue Edu over Okugo given the financial side of it. Having both players would look awfully nice right now.

      Mo may or may not be a great leader (honestly, not sure), but based on seeing the team in action the other day, he’s definitely not the most vocal out there with teammates. That would be Williams and Cruz.

    • You must not have read the article on MLSsoccer.com earlier this week about Orlando expecting Okugo to be one of their leaders. They seem to think he has the right stuff

  12. Interesting piece, Dan. I’ve always wondered about the scouting department because you never see a ‘Head of Scouting’ on their personnel page. This leads me to believe there is either no scouting department or they just don’t want to pay a head of scouting. Either way it just doesn’t look good.

    — The Flyers list every scout they have on their webpage: http://flyers.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=36258

  13. This is basically a 10x better version of the article I wrote two months ago.

  14. Assuming the Union assigns an intern (unpaid, of course) to monitor the local soccer coverage I suggest he/she tells the team to stop using the “moneyball” term. Everyone else has already covered why the team’s actions aren’t lining up with that general philosophy and it just sounds silly. You would think a team that has struggled on the field like the Union would at least invest heavily in a Marketing/PR/Sales department to play PT Barnum-ball (“there’s a sucker born every minute”) but this team is even cutting corners there.

    A few weeks ago, and for another reason I went back to look at the Sugarman press conference. I was surprised how much he talked about the hiring of a full time sporting director, it took up a good bit of his comments. The press conference was mid-November and he did say they were expecting the search to take months. 2.5 months later, and I haven’t heard a single thing about that search, or even if it is still ongoing. Muelensteen did make an appearance at the draft, but other than that he’s been silent. I guess I just have to trust Muelensteen is doing work behind the scenes, and Sakiewicz is conducting the quietest SD search ever but I just don’t have much trust for this group. The most annoying thing about this team to me, is that the public comments never seem to jive with the public actions. They should be investing in a quality PR department for that reason alone.

  15. Sitting here at Nevada Smith’s watching ManU. Already hearing pink cow fans referring to the Union as Chivas USA 2. Getting sick of this shit. Thanks Union I’d throw my Cider but I wouldn’t waste it on your behalf!!

    • The Black Hand says:

      Tell them to show off their ring!!

      • I’ve done more then that. I reminded them the team in NY is NYCFC and their team the NJ Pink Cows are pretenders in search of and identity and to go empty that F#*king bed pan they sadly call a stadium!

  16. For everyone who uses the argument, “we’re a top TV market,” please explain how that has played a part in MLS success, outside of LA.
    http://www.stationindex.com/tv/tv-markets
    You have NYRB who have thrown money around. But after that, CHI and DAL haven’t spent big. Boston just got around to it this year, and they needed league help.
    You have to get to #14 on the list before you run into another toy of Paul Allen.

    The bottom line is that we have cheap or poor (by sports owner standards) owners.

    This will be wildly unpopular on this board, but I’m giving Curtin this season. If we can’t make a serious push to be a consistently competitive team, I’ll move on. I’m lining up my Orlando FC jersey now…just in case it’s needed after this year.

    • I respect your opinion but with the size of this market and the way MLS is trending, Philadelphia can’t afford to play it cheap and small. Chicago and Dallas also don’t sit in the top market corridor either. Philadelphia is the direct competition to NY on every level. I live in NY and Philadelphia is mentioned a lot across all topics in this city. Businesses are always looking to Philly as options to relocate and there are an awful lot of transplants back and forth between both cities. Why on earth are we to just accept being the little fish in a big pond it makes no sense and just like your link shows, it makes us look ridiculous. Here’s another listing.

      TOP 50 U.S. MEDIA MARKETS
      Local Television Market Universe Estimates (as per The Nielsen Company).

      Designated Market Area (DMA) Rankings

      1 New York, NY
      2 Los Angeles, CA
      3 Chicago, IL
      4 Philadelphia, PA

      • I’m not saying we should accept it, I’m saying there is no correlation between Media Markets and MLS spending. Using that as a basis of the argument that we should be able to spend more doesn’t put more money into the pockets of the owners. Same situation in Chicago, Houston, and Dallas.

        There is the possibility that when the Sons Of Ben convinced MLS that Philadelphia was worthy of a franchise that there were no interested owners. Sugarman and his group may have been convinced to buy the team by MLS, but would not have done so without MLS searching out ownership.

        Philadelphia has always suffered from the Second City Syndrome, and been treated like NYC’s baby brother. But just because that pisses us off doesn’t mean that it’s going to change any time soon. It hasn’t changed anything for the other 4 teams in this city. It seems unlikely to factor into the Union’s plans, as well.

      • With the other teams Philadelphia is almost always in the conversation and do for the most part, compete financially due to market size and revenue shares. So there is no reason to think that won’t change in MLS particularly the way the league is trending locally, nationally and internationally. Philadelphia could have and probably can attract big money ownership because of MLS wanting to be in this market. Sugarman looks to have underestimated this market and fan base and looking at some of the investors of late appears to be rethinking how this market and revenue factor in to Union plans. The 2nd city syndrome is not a belief held by a majority.

  17. Great read, really enjoyed it.

    Would have liked to see RSL used in the article as the ideal Money Ball “Model” in place of Sporting KC. I only say that as KC is an original charter club, has been in the league since inception. There were dark days for the “Wiz” at Arrowhead and that Ball Park they used to play at.

    I could be off, but Sporting Park is the most expensive Soccer Specific Stadium in the country – pair that with the club re branding and they seem to have it going on down there (fan support, atmosphere, etc.)

    I’m sure they could have profited significantly on the sale of Zusi and Besler – but good on them for keeping them in KC as their core players.

    • Thanks for the compliment! I considered RSL. Certainly, they were very well run during the Kreis-Lagerwey-Checketts days. I think they’re on the way down though under the new owner. A shame they couldn’t keep Kreis and Lagerwey, but that was the owner’s fault. He should not have low-balled Kreis in negotiations.

  18. Excellent article. Intelligently expands the idea of moneyball beyond smart player acquisitions. The ideas here really line up with some of the comments Okugo made when he left, about taking care of the players. No-one wants to work for a stingy employer.

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