Foreign Talent in MLS: A Recipe for Success?

Last week, Business of Soccer broke down MLS salaries in 2013 and examined how players from each region of the world are compensated as well as the selection of American-born players and foreign-born players on MLS All-Star teams past and present.  This week, we will take a closer look at how clubs in 2013 built their rosters, comparing the salaries and make-up of American-born and foreign-born players on each team.

Below is a bar graph that breaks down the number of American-born and foreign-born players that were under contract in 2013.

Fourteen of nineteen teams in MLS, or 74% of clubs, had more American-born players than foreign-born players on their roster.  The five teams that had more foreign-born players were Montreal, New York, Portland, Toronto, and Vancouver.  Most fans would not be surprised to see the three Canadian-based clubs have fewer American-born players on their roster because Canadian teams are more likely to have more Canadian talent on their team.  Surprisingly, an analysis of each of their rosters shows this to be untrue.  Montreal had only four Canadian-born players in 2013, leaving seventeen players from outside of the US and Canada.  Vancouver also had only four Canadian-born players and sixteen outside of the US and Canada.  Toronto had the most Canadian-born players with a mere six of their seventeen non-American players.  In actuality, Canadian clubs built their teams using more foreign-born talent than most other teams in the league in 2013.

Chivas USA, sister club of Liga Bancomer MX side Chivas de Guadalajara, had a tumultuous 2013 season both on and off the field.  Many MLS fans have attacked Chivas USA and their perceived insistence of acquiring mainly Mexican talent.  Upon closer examination of their roster, in 2013 only nine players on Chivas USA were foreign-born.  While many of the American-born players may have spent time in Mexico or have Mexican roots, Chivas does not necessarily target Mexican players exclusively.

It is also interesting to note that New York and Portland built their team with more foreign-born players than American-born.  Both of these teams had arguably the most successful regular season campaigns in 2013.  New York won their first trophy in team history in 2013 winning the Supporters Shield while Portland topped the Western Conference.  Both clubs earned a birth into the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League.  This illustrates the positive impact foreign-born talent can have on MLS.  Because of the uniqueness of a city like New York, it is easier to attract more foreign-born players to the Red Bulls.  The league’s ability to attract quality foreign-born talent to clubs like Portland, who have smaller cities and diverse markets, strengthens the product in those smaller markets.  Portland has the highest percentage of foreign-born players on their team (58%), excluding the three Canadian-based teams.

Business of Soccer also compiled data on the spending habits of each club in 2013, comparing the salaries of American-born players and foreign-born players on each team.

Since each team has a different number of players and a wide range in spending, it is best to compare the percentage of American and foreign players on each team to the percentage that each group take up in the club’s total budget in 2013.

Ideally, one might conclude that the percentage of total players representing American-born talent for each club would be equivalent to the percentage of the club’s total salary that those players represent.  In a perfect statistical world, if American-born players make up 42 percent of a club’s roster they would take up 42 percent of the club’s total budget.  Chivas USA, Colorado, Houston, Philadelphia, and Seattle compensated their players most equitably in 2013.  Los Angeles, and New York each paid their American-born players significantly less than foreign-born players.  New York had the biggest discrepancy in compensating Americans, assigning only 11 percent of the team’s total salary to compensate the 45 percent of American-born players.  This may not come as a surprise considering Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, two of MLS’ highest paid players, are foreign-born and take up most of the Red Bulls’ total salary.  Two-thirds of Los Angeles’ roster was comprised of Americans yet Americans took up less than one-half of the team’s total salary.  This is interesting considering that American-born Landon Donovan is one of the highest paid players in the league, and indicates that many of the Americans on Los Angeles’ roster not named Landon Donovan are paid significantly less. However, there are top foreign names on the roster like Robbie Keane and Juninho that both collect a pretty penny as well for the foreign-born talent portion of the roster.

Note that Real Salt Lake, Seattle, and San Jose each paid America-born players more than foreign-born players.  Eighty percent of RSL’s total salary was used to pay their American-born players, who make up 63 percent of the team. Top American-born talent on these teams like Clint Dempsey, Kyle Beckerman, and Chris Wondolowski all boosted the salary of US-born players on their respective rosters.

This analysis gives more insight into the values of each club.  This is not to suggest that foreign-born players need to play in New York or Los Angeles to receive a big payday.  It simply indicates that Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Toronto are more willing to spend big money to acquire elite talent from around the world.  Chivas USA, Houston, New England, Real Salt Lake, and San Jose focused on developing young American talent or signing proven American veterans in 2013. At the end of the day though, it was none of these teams that lifted the MLS Cup at the end of the season. Sporting Kansas City, 2013 MLS Cup winners, paid only two players more than $300,000: American-born Graham Zusi and Brazilian born Benny Feilhaber. Perhaps the secret recipe is much more a blended mix of talent from both within the US and from abroad.

What do you think about the make-up of MLS rosters and player nationalities? Let us know in the comments section below or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.