The start of MLS free agency is Monday. During this time, clubs may engage with players from other teams who are eligible for the free agency process. Eligible players are those out of contract and option-declined players who are at least 28 years old and who have completed a minimum of eight service years within MLS. Fans begin to dream which players their club will sign during the offseason and how these players will make their team a force to be reckoned with as they march to an MLS Cup victory.
While many of the articles that you see written about free agency in professional sports provides fans with a list of potential players that they believe would best fit with a specific team, I am going to try something different. Rather than provide you with a list of players I think FC Cincinnati should target during free agency, I am going to provide you with my philosophy on what type of players FCC should focus on acquiring and the reasoning behind it.
Over the past couple of months, I have read an interesting book that has made me rethink how soccer front offices should build a roster. The book named The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong provides a simplistic approach on how to construct a winning soccer club. One of the questions asked by the authors Chris Anderson and David Sally is which matters more when building a great soccer team: How good your best player is or how good your worst player is? They determined the answer was how good your worst player is.
The reasoning behind this answer was that mistakes play an influential role in which team wins a game, more so than in most other sports because soccer has fewer scoring opportunities. Typically, the team that makes the least mistakes throughout the entire match tends to win the match. As in any team sport, weaker players tend to make more mistakes than stronger players.
To put this idea into context, there are 11 players on the pitch for one team at a time. Suppose one player is a superstar (or in the case of MLS, a Designated Player), and your worst player is only half as good as your superstar player. Since soccer is a sport where everyone on the field is dependent on the ability of everyone else, that player that is only half as good as your superstar can make one mistake and completely negate the skill of your superstar player. You can have nine great passes in a row, but if your worst player messes up the 10th pass, then the previous nine great passes are all wasted.
After performing a statistical analysis on some of the top-flight clubs in European soccer, Anderson and Sally found that if those teams upgraded their poorest players instead of improving their best players, they would score more goals and win more games. While having a better superstar player or the addition of another superstar player did provide some benefits, having a stronger bench or better 10th or 11th player on the pitch was more influential to whether the team won more matches.
Additionally, they found that it was more beneficial for a European superpower to spend $100 million across four or five strong players rather than spending it all on one superstar caliber player. However, not all billionaire professional sports team owners are necessarily in the business of just winning soccer matches. They are also in the business of gaining name recognition and driving business sales, something that a superstar player is more likely to provide.
Using this philosophy as a guideline, it essential that FC Cincinnati improves its overall roster by using its funds to fill as many needs as possible rather than just filling one or two needs with high priced talent. While the acquisition of multiple designated players during the offseason is exciting, it is unlikely to provide much long-term impact if the rest of the team from a 24-point 2019 campaign is left untouched. With MLS playing through international breaks, where many teams lose top-level talent (such as Kendall Waston and Allan Cruz to Costa Rica), it is crucial that FC Cincinnati has the depth necessary to have quality players during these international windows.
As Cincinnati Soccer Talk’s own Ken Hoetker has mentioned before, a solid game plan would be for FC Cincinnati to fill out its roster with multiple $500,000 to $700,000 players. The next step is to then buy down their salaries with general allocation money (GAM) and targeted allocation money (TAM) to the point where they are no longer designated players. Remember, both GAM and TAM can be used to reduce the salaries of players whose salary would otherwise qualify them as a designated player. (Why does Major League Soccer salary cap rules have to be so complicated?)
While the acquisition of Brandon Vazquez does not precisely fit into the type of player as described above, I still believe that this trade follows the philosophy of improving your weakest positions. Vazquez provides depth at a position where FC Cincinnati had no depth at all last season and costs around $90,000 less than Alvas Powell, who FC Cincinnati lost in the expansion draft on the same day.
The goal for FC Cincinnati should be to continue building quality depth during the offseason and finding strong players around that $500,000 price range that fill the weakest needs of the team, not throwing all of its money after a couple of designated players. If FC Cincinnati acquires GAM and TAM through creative methods and responsibly uses it during the offseason, it has the opportunity to build a team that is much improved over last season’s inaugural squad.