Many of MLS’s most expensive players are struggling – here’s why

The question was about a different topic entirely, but the club executive couldn’t help himself.

“I doubt this is on your list,” he said, changing the subject midway through an answer to one of the queries in The Athletic’s anonymous survey of MLS technical staffers, “but the biggest issue facing the league right now is waste. We are wasting money. Wasting it.”

Spending in MLS has jumped significantly in recent years, particularly on acquisition costs. Twenty-seven of the 50 most expensive transfers in league history have been paid since the start of 2020, according to TransferMarkt. A good chunk of those moves have been made for youngsters, with 15 of those aforementioned 27 fees paid for players who were 23 or younger at the time they were signed. The shift toward spending more on younger players will likely only continue moving forward, with the league last year introducing the Young Money/U-22 initiative that allows teams a new, cap-friendly way to splash multi-million dollar transfer fees on youngsters.

The idea behind the concept — relatively new to MLS, but long-practiced almost everywhere else — is to buy talented young players early, develop them for two or three seasons, then sell them abroad for a profit. If executed properly, it could create a virtuous cycle. The proceeds from those player sales are then used to sign new, more talented players, who raise the level of the league further before they themselves get sold for even greater sums, and so on.

That sounds nice on paper, but the executive thinks the execution has been lacking, especially with younger signings.

“You want to go out and spend $6 million on a player from South America who you’ve seen three times and has got 15 senior appearances? Great,” he said. “You guys in the media will happily talk about it and rightfully so because it’s exciting, but the glorification of designated players and the amount of time, energy and attention that are given to players that nobody — nobody — has got a clue if these guys are going to hit or miss is wild. And they miss as often as they hit.”

As highlighted recently by The Athletic’s John Muller, MLS teams actually miss more than they hit on their pricey young signings, by at least one metric.

Designed and calculated by the folks at American Soccer Analysis, goals added (G+) measures a player’s total contribution by calculating how much each touch changes their team’s chances of scoring and conceding. Like any other advanced metric, it has holes, particularly when it comes to high-usage attackers. There’s little doubt it overrates some players and underrates others. It’s not a perfect way to measure performance, but, as far as these things go, it’s pretty solid.

Of the 25 players with the largest transfer fees aged 23 or younger at the time of their signing, 14 have a below average G+ rating in MLS. The group’s median career G+ score relative to the average player is -0.26. MLS teams have combined to spend $169 million in transfer fees on those 25 players, according to TransferMarkt. That’s an astonishing amount of money for relatively pedestrian overall production.

Player

  

Joined

  

Fee (M)

  

Date

  

Age

  

G+

  

Thiago Almada

$16

2/9/22

20

0.78

Ezequiel Barco

$13.50

1/19/18

18

1.64

Brenner

FCC

$13

2/5/21

21

-2.95

Brian Rodriguez

$11.50

8/7/19

19

2.08

Matias Pellegrini

MIA

$9.00

7/26/19

19

-0.89

Miguel Almiron

$8.25

1/1/17

22

12.04

Talles Magno

$8

5/18/21

18

1.41

Facundo Torres

$7.48

1/24/22

21

-0.26

Alan Velasco

$7

2/1/22

19

-0.27

Andre Horta

$6.27

7/10/18

21

0.15

Julian Carranza

MIA

$6

7/26/19

19

-1.55

Jairo Torres

$6

2/19/22

21

-0.12

Kevin Cabral

LAG

$5.90

4/8/21

21

-1.49

Gabriel Pereira

$5.50

3/17/22

20

0

Santiago Sosa

$5.45

2/12/21

21

-0.74

Federico Navarro

$5

8/5/21

21

-0.45

Lucas Melano

$5

7/17/15

22

1.62

Patryk Klimala

$4.80

4/22/21

22

1.54

Isaac Atanga

FCC

$4

3/31/21

20

-0.74

Caio Alexandre

$4

3/12/21

22

-0.41

Dejan Joveljic

LAG

$3.85

8/5/21

21

-2.25

Erik Lopez

$3.70

1/1/21

19

-1.61

David Ayala

$3.50

2/1/22

19

0.05

Ignacio Aliseda

$3.30

2/19/20

19

-2.24

Octavio Rivero

$3.30

1/1/15

22

1.83

Some of the struggles of the aforementioned 25 signings are to be expected. Signing players is an inexact science even in the best of circumstances. Signing them in the midst of a global pandemic — when many of the above 25 players were acquired, and when scouting was made more difficult by travel restrictions — is even more challenging.

“It’s sort of a version of venture capital, where you know you’re not going to hit on all of them, but you want to spread your bets in such a way that when you do hit, it makes up for when you don’t hit,” LAFC GM John Thorrington said.

Signing young players is naturally a less certain proposition than signing their older peers, as well. There’s a smaller sample of professional matches to draw from, and a higher risk that younger players will struggle to adapt to a new environment than older players, who, at least in most cases, are more seasoned on the field and more settled off of it.

That, too, is borne out by the data. Of the 25 most expensive transfer fees MLS teams have paid for players over the age of 23, only eight have a negative career G+. The median career G+ for the group is 0.99. Those 25 signings cost roughly $40 million more in combined fees than the 25 most expensive deals for players 23 or younger, but, even accounting for the extra spend, the difference in performance between the two groups is stark.

Player

  

Joined

  

Fee (M)

  

Date

  

Age

  

G+

  

Pity Martinez

$15.95

1/24/19

25

2.29

Rodolfo Pizarro

MIA

$12

2/17/20

26

-0.83

Luiz Araujo

$12

8/5/21

25

1.72

Brian Fernandez

$10

5/6/19

24

1.83

Michael Bradley

$10

1/9/14

26

14.77

Alejandro Pozuelo

$10

3/18/19

27

-0.53

Jermain Defoe

$10

2/28/14

31

1.08

Alan Pulido

SKC

$9.50

1/1/20

28

0.31

Chicharito

LAG

$9.40

1/21/20

31

0.99

Clint Dempsey

$9

8/3/13

30

9.5

Alexandru Mitrita

$8.80

2/4/19

23

4.13

Lucas Zelarayan

CLB

$8

1/1/20

27

-2.63

Xherdan Shaqiri

$7.70

2/9/22

30

-0.01

Giovani dos Santos

LAG

$7

7/15/15

26

0.42

Sebastian Driussi

$7

7/29/21

25

0.63

Raul Ruidiaz

$7

7/10/18

27

-0.67

Gustavo Bou

$7

7/10/19

29

1.59

Marcelino Moreno

$7

9/22/20

25

3.66

Ake Loba

NSH

$6.80

7/7/21

23

-0.73

Yeferson Soteldo

$6.50

4/24/21

23

-0.1

Kaku

$6.05

2/16/18

23

3.25

Nico Lodeiro

$6

7/27/16

27

1.45

Carlos Vela

$5.50

1/1/18

28

18.53

Jonathan dos Santos

LAG

$5.50

7/28/17

27

0.83

Karol Swiderski

$5

1/26/22

25

-1.39

Thorrington, NYCFC sporting director David Lee and FC Dallas technical director Andre Zanotta each described the issue in far more measured terms than the anonymous exec, with Lee saying that he thinks MLS teams hit on young foreign signings at a “fairly normal” rate relative to the rest of the world.

Still, each acknowledged that there have been issues with MLS teams overspending on young players, which makes the prospect of selling them on for a profit at a later date vastly more difficult.

“I do think MLS, as a whole, can do a better job on buying players at the right prices,” Lee said.

NYCFC, LAFC and Dallas are all, in one way or another, somewhat uniquely positioned to do a good job of signing young players. NYCFC is part of City Football Group, the massive global network of clubs headlined by Manchester City. By virtue of being in CFG, NYCFC has a bigger scouting network and more sophisticated infrastructure than most MLS clubs. LAFC isn’t part of a multi-club network, but it does have a committed ownership group that has invested significantly to allow Thorrington and his staff to build out a deep scouting network of their own. Dallas isn’t given the same level of resources by ownership, but, in Zanotta, the club has a chief soccer officer with a deep understanding of the South American market backed by years of experience working at some of the biggest clubs in his native Brazil.

Those advantages have allowed all three clubs to find talented young players at what appear to be relatively low prices. NYCFC have perhaps the most experience in the space. After starting out by signing veterans David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo as DPs, NYCFC have shifted to spend  significantly on younger, less-proven players who might later be moved on for profit. The strategy hasn’t always worked, but the club has a pretty strong track record. They currently have a huge success on the books in reigning Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos and a pair of other promising youngsters who were signed from South America in Talles Magno and Santiago Rodriguez.

Castellanos and Rodriguez were both acquired by New York from fellow CFG club Montevideo City Torque. Castellanos was initially brought on loan in July 2018 when he was only 19; NYCFC exercised their option to purchase him outright for a reported $467,000 fee that November. Rodriguez was brought in last summer at the age of 21 as a U-22 initiative player; his loan runs through the end of this season. Having them in the CFG setup was a huge advantage for NYCFC in acquiring them at bargain prices for the club, which could reasonably end up selling Castellanos for $15-20 million this summer.

Talles Magno didn’t come to New York from a CFG club, but his signing last May from Brazilian outfit Vasco da Gama is another example of the legup the network gives the reigning MLS champions. The attacker was reportedly a $20 million target of some of the biggest clubs in the world in August 2020, but a confluence of different factors motivated Vasco to hang onto him not just through that summer, but through the following winter transfer window, too. Keeping him was a bit of a gamble; it didn’t pay.

Vasco was relegated from the Brazilian top-flight a month after the January 2021 European window closed. Dropping to the second-tier worsened an already difficult financial situation at the club, meaning they had to sell Talles Magno quickly. MLS was one of the few leagues in the world where the transfer window was still open. Because CFG had already scouted the player at length with the thought of potentially bringing him to Manchester, NYCFC was positioned to pounce. They signed Talles Magno last May for an $8 million fee that could rise to $12 million. He’s shown flashes of huge talent in 2022, recording five goals and five assists in 18 appearances across all competitions. If Castellanos does get sold this summer, he’s a candidate to move from the wing and replace the Argentine at striker.

“Talles was a player who was worth, according to what (Vasco) wanted, $25-30 million not 12 months before we purchased him for a lot less than that,” Lee said. “And the reason we were able to purchase him at that price is because his value was lower. He hadn’t had the best season, the club got relegated, there were all these factors that contributed to that. But instead of trying to buy a player at their peak, which then makes the next transfer very hard, it’s trying to buy a player when you think the value is right. And that was only possible because we followed the player for so, so long and we felt like it was the right moment to get that transaction across the line.”

Dallas may have found a similar deal this winter. Wallet fattened by the recent sales of several homegrown players, including the January transfer of Ricardo Pepi to Augsburg for a reported $18 million, FCD acquired promising 19-year-old winger Alan Velasco from Argentine club Independiente for a reported fee of $7 million this offseason.

The deal was seen by many around MLS as a steal.

“That kid should have cost what (Ezequiel) Barco cost,” Thorrington said, referring to the Argentine Atlanta United paid $13.5 million to acquire, who is now on loan at River Plate. “Very similar player, very similar statistics, very similar profile and they got him for millions cheaper.”

As in the case with Talles Magno and Vasco, Independiente was in a position of need, and was looking to raise cash quickly to alleviate some financial struggles of their own. But another part of the reason Dallas was able to get the deal done for $7 million was because of Zanotta’s working knowledge of the South American market. Prior to moving to FCD in 2019, Zanotta spent the previous seven years working as a sporting executive for Brazilian clubs Gremio, Sport Recife and Santos, where he helped complete the transfer of Neymar to Barcelona in 2013.

“I think with Velasco we got a good deal,” he said. “One year before, we spoke with Independiente and they were asking $13, $14 million. Even I spoke with John (Thorrington), and he said they tried at that time and they were in that range, as well. And then in this year we could get him for a lot less. So we need to understand the market. Many, many clubs in South America, they have a lot of financial issues. I know the clubs in Brazil that if you go there and you push, they cannot say no to a good offer, and Argentina the same. That was the case for Velasco. We could get there in the right moment and then the desire of the player to come to MLS also helped a lot.”

LAFC haven’t hit on all their high-cost young signings, missing on former DP Andre Horta and getting lower than expected production from current DP Brian Rodriguez. The club has, however, successfully integrated a number of different youngsters signed directly from South America, including Diego Rossi and Eduard Atuesta, both of whom were sold in recent months for more than their initial purchase price. Midfielder Jose Cifuentes, signed in 2020 at the age of 20 from Ecuadorian club Universidad Católica for a reported fee of $3 million, is perhaps the club’s next candidate to make the jump overseas.

LAFC leaned heavily on their large scouting network to make all of those signings, but Thorrington highlighted an aligned vision within the club as a reason why a good number of them had success once they arrived in MLS.

“These aren’t just arbitrage opportunities where we’re saying, ‘Oh, you got a young talented player, throw him into MLS and then boom,’” Thorrington said. “If it was that easy, everybody would do it. Everyone would be like Scrooge McDuck, we’d all be swimming in money. It’s a multidimensional process.”

For LAFC, that process begins with intense talent and character evaluations from their scouts on the ground in South America. Once a player is recruited and signed, they’re brought in to play for a coach (initially Bob Bradley, now Steve Cherundolo), who is committed to teaching and eager to give minutes to youngsters. They’re also surrounded by proven veterans in key spots that give the club a better chance of winning and give the youngsters that do see the field a more comfortable, stable environment to slide into.

“You need to figure out what your principles are and how you are built as an organization and create that scaffolding,” Thorrington said. “If you are a club who has a coach who likes working with mature players, and you’re like, ‘Wait, hang on, this U-22 initiative sounds great. Let’s go invest in young players and spend $6 million on them and whatever.’ That is an inefficient way to spend money. The way any business should be run is you create your principles and you create the infrastructure that supports those. So if you have this infrastructure in place that has nothing to do with investing in scouting first, then investing in players, then developing, of course it’s inefficient.”

Of course, not every MLS team is part of a global powerhouse like CFG, has a lead soccer executive who knows South America as well as Zanotta or boasts a scouting network as solid and an organizational vision as aligned as LAFC. Growth is being made in these areas at clubs around the league, but many still have a ways to go.

“It’s tough for me to say because I don’t know for sure the process in other clubs and what motivated the decisions behind signing certain players, but I see and I hear in the league that there are many clubs that lack staff, that lack people,” Zanotta said. “I’m not just comparing to the top leagues in Europe, but also South American clubs.”

That means their process can at times become shoddy, which can, as the anonymous exec pointed out, lead to overspending, especially on young players. That overspending has a knock-on effect. Lee, Zanotta and Thorrington all think an “MLS tax” has developed in some South American countries, where one case of an MLS team overspending on a player sets a new, inflated price point that other MLS teams have to contend with when trying to sign a player from that league.

“It’s very difficult, once other MLS teams are paying X amount, for any other MLS team to come in and pay X minus Y,” Lee said. “They’re gonna say well, ‘No, because this player was sold to MLS for this.’ So I definitely think (a tax) exists.”

No team will ever do this perfectly, but it’s important for MLS sides to improve their scouting infrastructure and processes so that they raise the likelihood of hitting on new signings and avoid overpaying for incoming talent. As the increased number of high-cost young signings and addition of the U-22 initiative show, they’re not backing off anytime soon. The league has only been in this space for a few years, but so far, the returns haven’t been overwhelming. MLS teams have made real strides in developing and transferring academy products, but they need to do a better job of getting production from and later flipping their young international signings in order to generate the revenue needed for the league to level up. In order to do that, improvements need to continue to be made to back-end infrastructure.

“We, as a league, have to sell,” Lee said. “We have to sell these talents. U-22 came in last year, we’re still very early, but, fast forward three, four years, you hope you’ve seen that first wave of U-22 signings either still be in the league and performing very well, but hopefully there’s a good portion of those who have also been sold and those teams were able to make profit.”

(Photo: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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