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Part Four: Efficiency Is Key

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These five MLS clubs have figured out how to get the most out of their money.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth in a series detailing the effect of money in Major League Soccer. The previous article can be found here, and links to all articles can be found at the bottom as they are released.

Managing money can be a difficult thing.

Luckily for Major League Soccer teams, they pay people to handle that sort of thing.

In the last piece, we looked at the clubs that underachieve, but here we’re going to acknowledge the teams that perform better than their payrolls would suggest.

Inside the Stats: MLS’ 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).

Orlando City and New York City FC, both of which entered in 2015, will be looked at.

In order to determine which clubs are the “best” 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.

So which clubs are the cream of the crop?

5. FC Dallas (3.5)

We start off with a club that is an obvious overperformer. The Toros’ academy is well-known, providing cheap talent for the team. Take a peek at their residuals:

FC Dallas year-to-year residuals, 2007-2018

The last five years are especially impressive. Dallas won the Supporters’ Shield in 2016, finished runner-up in 2015, but spent the least in the league both years. If a “Moneyball” approach works in MLS, Dallas are the ones who have it figured out.

4. Sporting Kansas City (3.82)

SKC don’t seem like a club on a budget at first, but they are one of the most consistently overachieving teams in the league. Even when Sporting Kansas City splash the cash a little bit more, they tend to achieve well too.

Sporting Kansas City year-to-year residuals, 2007-2018

With just two negative residuals, Sporting Kansas City/The Wiz are a consistent bunch. Their finishes weren’t always the highest, but as far as bang-for-your-buck goes, SKC know what they’re doing.

3. Houston Dynamo (4.25)

Houston may not be a top team in recent years, but they’re still a consistent one, and they’re not overpaying to do it. Their average spending position puts them around 14th, but they often finish higher.

Houston Dynamo year-to-year residuals, 2007-2018

After a brief lull from 2014-16, the Dynamo have returned to strongly positive residuals, including a tenth-place finish in 2017 with the lowest payroll. Their performance could perhaps be improved, but from an efficiency standpoint, Houston’s got it down.

2. Columbus Crew (4.83)

With #SaveTheCrew declared a successful mission, fans in Ohio can return their attention to what’s happening on the field — just in time as MLS expands further into the state. Their team may rise and fall in the standings, but they often overachieve as far as payroll is concerned.

Columbus Crew year-to-year residuals, 2007-2018

In the terms of our discussion, Columbus provides a good model to look at.

1. Real Salt Lake (5.34)

RSL do not, at first glance, seem to be the model team for efficiency. Their highest finish in the last four seasons was 10th place in 2016, but during that span Real Salt Lake averaged a salary rank of 14.25. Much of their success with positive residuals came earlier, but at least they are blowing the budget while finishing lower down the table.

Real Salt Lake year-to-year residuals, 2007-2018

So there it is: Real Salt Lake is the most efficient team in MLS.

Of course, efficiency doesn’t mean a team is performing well — it just means they’re performing cheaply and decently. That may not placate a fanbase year after year, but these five clubs are doing the right and safe thing.