Thoughts from Sounderland: Regressing to the mean

The Sounders decided to ruin Mother’s Day by taking the worst loss in their MLS incarnation. They got their butts kicked. But before I go any further, a disclaimer: I did not watch the second half, and have utterly no interest in “breaking down” the match from Sunday. I am going to make a lot of generalizations today, and you know what they say about generalizations. But I will go on undaunted, painting with broad brush strokes, because no one wants to read a breakdown of all the goals that were conceded, and I certainly don’t want to write it.

There is a simple way to explain how they lost. I’ll explain “why” they lost next, but how they lost answers the “5-0! Really?” line of questioning: Regression towards the mean. MLS is a parity league, and these things happen. This manifests itself in a myriad of ways: bad luck being one of the more recognized. The good news is it only counts as one loss.

Now, as to why they lost, which answers the question “Why were New England the better team Sunday?” that also is relatively simple. New England defended in numbers, transitioned with speed, put the ball into dangerous areas, and took shots. None of it is particularly complicated, but they executed well against a tired and error-prone opponent.

So the Revs stifled and outran the Sounders, and the Soccer Gods threw down some thunderbolts to ensure there would be no comeback. But within this storyline are some tantalizing hints at the nature of MLS soccer, and the USMNT in this Summer’s World Cup.

With the release of Jurgen Klinsmann’s 30-man preliminary roster – which must be whittled down to the 23 who will represent the United States in Brazil by June 2nd – we see that fifteen players currently playing in the MLS have been picked. Even though we don’t know how many of them will make it to Brazil we can safely assume MLS-based players will play a significant role in the World Cup.

The thing that Jurgen Klinsmann knows, that at least a few among us are reluctant to admit, is that MLS is not yet a strong enough league to develop the kind of talent it takes to make a deep run at the World Cup. This is an uncomfortable truth for American soccer fans, and isn’t necessarily an indictment upon the MLS – or at least is doesn’t have to be if we understand MLS’s place in the global enterprise of Soccer-football. Yes, the quality and quantity of the MLS talent pool is growing – maybe not by leaps and bounds, but it is growing steadily. The problem is that MLS is diluting that pool of players with its aggressive expansion.

Dilution is a dirty word in the MLS, and I am pretty sure the moment I mentioned it I pissed some of my readers off (if I hadn’t already). The thing is, if you are arguing that dilution isn’t an issue then you are arguing with math. Now, the quality and quantity of that talent pool is expanding at a rate that is keeping up with, or even slightly ahead of, the rate of expansion, so that we are not seeing a drop off in the level of play in MLS. But that also means that without expansion, the level of play would increase at a greater rate. This is math; argue against it at your peril.

When the World Cup gets down to the final eight teams, most of the nations left will have star-studded rosters heavily populated with players from the top four leagues in Europe – that’s Spain, Germany, Italy, and England – AND/OR teams who compete in Champions League or at the very least Europa League. Yes, upsets can, and will, happen along the way, but the crucible of World Cup winning talent is the European elite. This is due in no small part to the concentration of talent you see at this level. Parity is not a consideration. This arrangement benefits everybody involved, including South American players and those from other European nations by providing that proving ground for the world’s very best.

What does this all have to do with Sunday’s game? Well, I have talked about MLS salary disparity in previous articles, but it’s worth a review. The eight highest paid players in MLS earn one-third of the entire league payroll, and seven of those eight players play for one of the four “big money” teams in MLS: Toronto FC, L.A. Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, and NYRB All these teams have payrolls of over $11M, and those seven players are making $36.44M of the $52.74M in total salary those teams are paying out. That’s almost 70 percent!

It goes a step beyond that. The 13 highest-paid players in MLS are all employed by the “big 4” or one of the two other Canadian teams: Vancouver and Montreal. These two teams enjoy their own “tier” in MLS salary rank, both paying a little over $6M in total payroll, with a bit of a step down the 7th place team FC Dallas. All told, these 13 players, divided among six teams, make just under 40 percent of the total MLS payroll of just over $115M.

What does this mean? If you are the New England Revolution, with the 2nd-lowest MLS payroll (ahead of only Chivas) you aren’t looking at a Sounder team with clearly superior talent at very position. You are looking at a team with just two elite players and the rest are from that same talent pool as your teammates; and what little gap there may be once you’ve mitigated those two elite players can be more than made up for with superior execution.

Having a league with basically just four teams paying for a couple handfuls of elite players from European leagues doesn’t really improve the league as a whole; it doesn’t even substantially improve those four teams. The “trickle down” effect is negligible if completely non-existent; for every Dempsey or Bradley there are literally dozens of Neagle’s – for whom MLS is the absolute highest level of soccer they will ever play – or Yedlin’s level – who maybe someday have a shot at Europe but certainly not right now. No one in MLS is going to come into town and overwhelm you with their sheer superiority, the way the Bayerns and Barcas and Man Cities and Juves of the world will.

One way of looking at the way New England played Sunday would be that they expended their energy in the attack and caught their breath, so to speak, while defending. Oba and Demspey by themselves are pretty unlikely to beat seven, eight, or nine defenders; they will need to use their teammates – who aren’t necessarily appreciably better than any of the Revs’ players. Furthermore, more bodies back defending means each one has to cover less area, saving all important energy for those lung-bursting attacking runs to catch the opponent with numbers forward.

It’s an organized and athletic approach which would suit the USMNT well going up against stronger sides this Summer. The task will be a little more difficult, because they will be facing teams with a significantly better pedigree than their own – even Ghana has more players at or near the “elite” level. But the immediate future of USA soccer is a game of defending in numbers and quick transitions featuring speed and athleticism, far more than a technical and patient approach. What New England did was a little bit of a blueprint. Yes, beating any of the USA’s three group stage opponents 5-0 will be virtually impossible, but couldn’t they play that way and – with a little good fortune – poach the results they need to advance?

I cringe whenever I hear Don Garber speak about his quest to turn MLS into a “World Class” league. It’s pretty unlikely this will ever happen with the current MLS business model. It’s also very unlikely the USA will accrue enough of the “elite” level talent within the next couple of World Cup cycles. But in the meantime, there is a style of play that may be less sophisticated, but can still be deadly effective if well-executed, and MLS can at least facilitate. Yes, there will always be those, like myself, who strive for a more technical, tactical, nuanced approach; but results really are the ruling factor at work. I’ve said before that style points matter – and they absolutely do matter to some extent – but who gives a shit about style when you get beat 5-0?

But, like I said… generalizations and broad brush strokes. I’m leaving out a lot of details because, frankly, this is a subject really worthy of its own thesis, or maybe it could even be Simon Kuper’s and Stefan Szymanski’s next book project.

In the meantime, we lose Dempsey, Evans, and Yedlin to Jurgen Klinsmann’s pre-World Cup Camp, despite the fact the official FIFA date for clubs to release their players is May 26th. This means the Sounders will play one of their six “all stadium” games – against a team with which they have a short but bitter rivalry – without three of their marquee players. If it’s any consolation, San Jose will be without their prolific striker Chris Wondolowski and CB Clarence Goodson.

Last season, right about this time of year, we saw the Sounders storm to a 4-0 win at home against San Jose. Although last season started much differently with just two points through five matches, with the team in the midst of picking up steam after the slow start when they played that match. We also lost at their place in two exceedingly unenjoyable 1-0 games; in fact, San Jose have beaten us five of the last six times in MLS play. We don’t want to suffer the indignity of losing to these guys at home. I guess at the end of the day we can just look forward to Saturday and hope the Mother’s Day Massacre isn’t indicative of any impending slide.