Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series exploring the relationship between spending and success in Major League Soccer. Information from previous articles is helpful to know in digesting this one.
The previous article in the series can be found here, and all articles can be found as they are released in the storystream at the bottom.
Money may not be what makes the Major League Soccer world go ‘round, but that doesn’t mean clubs shouldn’t try to optimize their spending.
It doesn’t make sense, after all, for a club to set the goal of spending money in an inefficient manner. MLS salaries and payrolls are still (relatively) small — compared to the English Premier League, at least — so even minor differences in salaries can make a big difference.
Some clubs are bigger spenders than others. Whether they’ve got big pockets or fanbases that need flashy signings to be impressed, there’s a steady flow of money going out. Other clubs keep their purses tightly shut, hoping to recreate the magic of “Moneyball” and succeed on a budget.
Because we’ve learned that money doesn’t mean a whole lot — or really anything — in terms of performance, either approach can work, but only if put into practice properly. Let’s take a look at some clubs whose money management could certainly be improved.
Inside the Stats: MLS’ seemingly infinite expansion leaves some clubs without much history to examine, so we’re ruling three clubs out of this look: LAFC (which entered in 2018), Minnesota United (2017) and Atlanta United (2017).
In order to determine which clubs are the “worst” at paying the right players, we’ve calculated the residuals of each team’s season. Even though we know their payroll rank doesn’t mean anything in terms of performance, we’re going to operate under the pretense that a club that spends the most should finish near the top.
Thus, a negative residual marks underachievement for a given season, and a positive one overachievement.
Let’s see what has gone wrong for the bottom five clubs in terms of those residuals:
5. Montreal Impact (-4.71)
The Impact may be the least thought-of team in the league, and aren’t generally considered to be big spenders. Since joining MLS in 2012, their average spending rank is 8.57, meaning they spend a little bit more than average. Here’s a look at their year-to-year residuals:
Montreal did have one good year, in terms of residuals, in 2017. That year wasn’t actually all that great, though. The Impact’s spending ranked 21st and they finished 17th in the Supporters’ Shield standings.
4. New York City FC (-4.75)
It’s no surprise that NYCFC have made the list of under-performing clubs. Bursting onto the scene as an expansion team in 2015, mini-Manchester City struggled early on while still spending mightily — their 2018 spending rank of 4th was their lowest of their 4 seasons.
Finishing 17th in their inaugural season did not exactly help matters. Since that 2015 season, NYCFC have managed better performances to match their wages, even pulling off an even residual in 2017. The next step: turning it positive.
3. LA Galaxy (-5.58)
Again, the LA Galaxy being considered heavy spenders is no shock. The club that brought David Beckham to MLS has to have the money to back. The original team in Los Angeles has been the top spender 4 times since 2007, never falling lower than 5th. If only that strategy was fail-safe for the Galaxy.
It’s hard for a team that routinely finishes so high in spending to overachieve at any point, but the Galaxy have some big negative residuals. Look no further than the last 2 seasons, when they measured up a combined 28 spots below their salary rank.
2. Toronto FC (-9.5)
Perhaps a team nicknamed “The Reds” can be forgiven for routinely posting residuals in the red. Weighed down by a hefty wage bill — Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore carry three of the league’s seven most expensive contracts — Toronto often fail to live up to the standard their payroll dictates.
Toronto’s best season came in 2017, when they spent the most and won the Supporters’ Shield. That campaign is more than cancelled out by seasons like 2018, though, when TFC came in 19th.
1. Orlando City SC (-10.75)
The Lions are still relative newbies to MLS, joining alongside NYCFC. Orlando has yet to find its groove, though, despite paying their fair share of bills. OCSC scaled their wages back for the 2018 season, but their Shield performance was decreased as well.
Orlando may have one of MLS’ nicest stadiums, but they’ll have to work on a system to match. For now, though, the Lions claim the title of the least efficient team in Major League Soccer.
Some times routinely post positive residuals, and we’ll look at them in the next article.