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On MLS’s weak link problem

Written by Will Parchman

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NYCFC’s stunning 3-2 come-from-behind derby win over the Red Bulls Sunday afternoon was enticing for all the requisite reasons. The rivalry itself appears to have turned into something a bit more legitimate a bit faster than most of us expected, and the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium was an electrically charged wire.

The stars came out for it, too. David Villa scored a hat trick, his first (incredibly enough) in MLS. Bradley Wright-Phillips added two on the other end. This was, it must be said, the sort of spectacle MLS wants from its rivalries. For all intents and purposes, it worked.

There was one aspect about the game that I could not help but notice, blinking like a lighthouse beacon through fog. It was this goal of Villa’s, which drew NYCFC level at 2-2.

The goal itself is beautiful enough. Villa crosses up RBNY defender Aaron Long – this reminded me so much of Messi’s pantsing of Jerome Boateng in the Champions League – rakes the ball back underneath his path and then finishes near post. It’s the sort of goal maybe a handful of players in the league are even capable of dreaming up in the run of play, let alone executing at full speed.

But there’s something else about this sequence; the salaries.

Villa’s salary for 2017 is $5.61 million, putting him comfortably in the top 10 of the league’s wealthiest earners. More specifically, he was the most handsomely paid player on the field Sunday by some distance. Long was on the extreme opposite pole. His salary was the lowest of any player who started the game at $65,000. With this salary, it’d take Long about 86 years to earn what Villa takes home in one season. And Long was being asked to track Villa in space, on the backpedal, one-on-one.

At least in hindsight, the result was relatively predictable.

In 2016, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast touched on the topic of weak link/strong link theory. Gladwell used it to make the point that our higher education system is a weak link problem; we gain little to nothing by continuing to philanthropically fund elite schools like Princeton while ignoring smaller, regional schools that need those resources far more. And we are doing far more of the former than the latter.

In making this point, Gladwell references The Numbers Game, a well-regarded look into why soccer, too, is a weak link game. In it, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally argue that money is better spent shoring up the team’s weakest link rather than pouring money on top to fortify the strongest. Had the book been written now, they likely would have had stern words for PSG on their decision to buy Neymar for the GDP of a small Caribbean nation.

Here’s Sally speaking to Gladwell.

“Soccer is a game where, if you get a single goal, if you just happen to be lucky, that goal may hold up. And so mistakes turn out to be a very important part of soccer as a team sport. That leads you to think about, well, mistakes more often happen or are more often produced by weaker players on the field.”

And here’s Gladwell’s summation.

“Sally’s argument goes like this. A soccer team has 11 players on the field at any one time. Suppose one is a superstar, and your worst player is maybe only 45 percent as good as the superstar. Because soccer is a sport where everyone on the field depends on everyone else, that 45 percent player can make one mistake and completely negate the skill of the best player.

“You can have eight beautiful passes in a row, but if your worst player, your 45 percent player botches the ninth, then the previous eight beautiful passes are all wasted.”

This is more or less exactly what happens with the Red Bulls on Sunday, except the disparities in MLS are probably even more stark than 45 percent. The skill disparity between the best player and the worst player on the field is so deep, so abiding, that the result of Long’s matchup against Villa is almost preordained. It’s inherently unfair. And perhaps on a different day, without Villa on the field, Wright-Phillips’ goals aren’t essentially wiped out by a player on his own team making $1.5 million per year less than he is. But here we are.

This is not to pick on Long, necessarily. These things happen on a weekly basis, players on or near the league minimum running up against players who’d be top earners on Premier League teams. There is nothing else quite like it in the global game outside China, or at least not as a baked-in premise of the league’s allocation process.

This is where MLS improvement needs to be most heavily focused. Not in the DPs, but in the bottom third of its rosters. They’re simply not good enough. Not yet.

PSG didn’t pay $222 million for Neymar (and much more to his father and Barca besides) simply because it loves him as a player. PSG’s defense is little improved from the unit that was ripped apart in the Champions League last year. It does not see the game as a weak link enterprise, but rather as a branding exercise that also includes soccer. This is why PSG has yet to sniff a Champions League trophy and probably never will until its ethos changes.

Even Real Madrid understands weak link theory, if on a different scale from much of the rest of the world. It had weakness in steel and width and signed Dani Carvajal and Casemiro in one transfer window for a combined $13 million. Both played critical roles in Real Madrid’s 2016 and 2017 Champions League titles. I have no faith PSG would even think to make deals half as shrewd as either under present management. It has yet to truly grasp soccer’s essence, that the game allows you to be only as strong as your weakest hinge.

I would argue Real Madrid is as good as they’ve been not as much because Cristiano Ronaldo is a cyborg and Luka Modric can see into the future. Allowing that those things count, it’s rather because their “weakest” players outside those superstars are so strong. This is why PSG can spend just as much as Real Madrid and never beat them in a major continental competition. They’re spending in the wrong places. It’s blindingly clear one team has been doing this for a long time and the other has not.

The difference between Europe and MLS, of course, is that European clubs have the choice to ignore weak links. For MLS front offices, hamstrung by money restriction, scouting network and the ability to woo players in the first place, it’s a much harder thing indeed to truly fill a roster from the bottom up. Not impossible, just significantly more difficult.

If there’s one thing MLS as constructed does not like, it’s depth. Even in the starting XI.

MLS has been serious about brand building since David Beckham swept us into a breathless new era of mega-million-dollar Europeans. It has been less serious about bottom-up team building. And this is precisely why people like me annoy the general public about Homegrowns and academies. Under such restrictive cap rules, it is really the only way teams can reliably add these sorts of lower middle class players even increases in TAM can only go so far in remedying.

Until the checkbooks are allowed to creak open more fully, academies have an incredibly important role to play in the lifeblood of a modern MLS team. Look down the rosters of the deepest MLS teams, and they’re inevitably fleshed out by names like Muyl, Tabla, Mihailovic, Carleton, Pomykal, Trusty, Allen, Wingo, Edwards, Davies. Until things change, this, for the most part, is the headline of your bottom third.

MLS has historically been tied to this economic plan. You can’t really begrudge the league for attempting to stuff fans in once-empty seats that now brim with noise and color and light on gamedays. That’s something. But it also plowed over the lengthening disparity CBA negotiations and mega-deals have not and perhaps cannot fully address.

The league can and will continue to sign Villas, but the real improvement will be in what it does with the Longs.

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