East, West & In Between: Value For Money in MLS Cup Playoffs

The Revolution are heading west in search of glory, not among the stars in Hollywood, but rather, against them in the form of the Galaxy.  Both teams were runners up in their regular season conference tables but come playoff time that made no difference as they dispatched everyone who squared up against them.

Thanks to the MLS Players Union, we are able to look at every team and know exactly what their total player payroll is down to each individual player.  It’s an interesting slice of MLS to look at especially given the growing number of contract mechanisms and the importance the league places on simultaneous financial stability and growth.

At a glance it appears simple to look at how far a team progressed in both the regular season and playoffs, compare it to how much they’re paying their players while looking at how much the teams who beat them/advanced farther paid their players to determine a basic idea of whether whats being paid is worth it.

It’s not quite that simple and a significant portion of MLS fans, and sports fans in general understand that the devil is in the details, it’s in the team, the dynamic, the balance, the luck and a hundred combinations of any other factors.

Yet, the question still remains, can you look at performance, and somehow cross it with the data we get from the Players Union and create a picture of the value for money?

Complete and thorough team value for money would take a list of factors and computational ability that both time and resources at the moment render impossible. However it remains possible to narrow the focus onto certain indicators to create one viewpoint of value for money: Goals and assists.

In anticipation of the MLS Cup Final we took a look at the two teams involved throughout the course of the playoffs and looked at every goal and assist. Additionally, we decided that while team payroll is an interesting comparative fact, not every player on the roster plays, in fact not every player on the bench gets in the game. To keep a focus on the money directly involved in performance, we focused only on the Galaxy’s and the Revolutions’ starting XI and only the bench players who made it in the games.

With a total team payroll of $13,159,911 in Los Angeles and $7,257,915 in New England, a $5,901,996 difference, it makes sense that the team sheets for these two teams throughout playoffs would have the financial gap that the graph shows. That difference between the two teams in total payrolls almost mirrors the difference between the two teams in playoff XI+subs. At $6,612,595, the margin of difference is $710,599.

Having broken payroll down to the Starting XI+subs level, lets take it a step further and translate that value to team performance. Normally we like to breakdown performance via the Castrol index by virtue of the fact that it incorporates total performance and can be an indicator of consistency.

In the case of playoff performance the fact is, it’s do or die. A player can get into a relative form or carry over from the regular season but what matters in playoff elimination play are goals and the assists that usually go with them. Those are the most visible key contributions a player can make to a game.

Normally with a difference of payrolls it seems reasonable to assume that cost per goal and assist would naturally be higher with Los Angeles than with New England.  The flaw with that approach is that when looking at payrolls on the whole, it doesn’t take into account that Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan alone represent just over $9 million of any starting XI.

This caveat demonstrates how if Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane don’t contribute to goals or assists for a couple games and players who earn less score and assist, then its possible for the cost per goal and assist would be dramatically lower compared total team payroll.

We took each goal and assist and attributed the individual players guaranteed compensation against the goal or assist with no double counting of salary. If a player had two goals, than that compensation was still only counted once against the total goal and assist tally.

As it happens, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan had huge games in the second leg of the conference semi-finals and so the difference between the two teams in terms of cost per goal and assist fits the pattern established by Payroll and Starting XI+subs.

For New England, their most efficient stage of playoffs were the Conference Semi-finals. With 7 goals and 6 assists, the cost per goal was $155,485 and the cost per assist came out to $656,980. This came as a result of goals and assists being spread out among the lesser paid players. Los Angeles on the other hand, and coast, had a better Conference Finals. Though there were only 2 goals and 1 assist, the contributions came from AJ DeLagarza, Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas who combined to a $258,750 cost per goal, and $155,000 cost per assist.

In total, going into the MLS Cup Final, New England has 11 goals and 10 assists, and Los Angeles has 7 goals and 5 assists. Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Jermaine Jones have all had very productive playoff performances with the LA pair notching 4 total contributions (goal or assist) each and Jones putting in 3 contributions of his own.

The most in 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs is 5 contributions from Charlie Davies and Thierry Henry.  Does this mean they are the most valuable players? Not Necessarily.

Playoff Individual Player Value

When you take into account how much players get paid, the cost per contribution changes and is put into a narrower focus. For this chart we only used players with two or more contributions where assists and goals had equal contribution value. In total 37 different players scored or assisted in this season’s various playoffs runs, with a final goal tally of 37.

Charlie Davies, by earning under six figures with 5 contributions, 4 of which are goals, leads the value chart by a mile.  In fact, New England dominates the top five slots in terms of performance value. Despite very strong playoff performances from Donovan, Keane, Henry and Jones, the four players anchor the bottom by virtue of their significantly higher compensation amounts. With LA and New England players obviously having the longest playoff runs and more opportunities to have goals and assists, there are still 5 players in top value consideration whose playoff runs are over.

Total and complete team value for money is an incredibly complex and in some cases very subjective and intangible thing to discern.  The point of this breakdown was not to find total team value but rather to look at performance in terms of goals and assists through the lens of individual and Starting XI compensation levels. If you’re an owner or GM, it serves as one way to asses of an individuals performance in playoff situations and whether they might possibly be under, over or adequately paid or as simple as determining whether the player should be kept.  Various lenses in terms of performance and compensation should be used and this is just one.

What do you think about all of the different factors that contribute to team and player value? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.

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