As a MSc Football Business student, Max Never produced an impressive research project investigating the cost-effectiveness of the Major Soccer League’s (MSL) transfer fees. His research revealed crucial trends in overspending on certain players and positions in US soccer, where he now works. Here, Max summarises the dissertation and its significance for the future of the MLS…

This dissertation evaluated the recent developments of player recruitment in the MLS, with a focus on designated players (DPs) in attacking positions. The purpose was to uncover trends and biases, and to create an initial framework to assist MLS clubs in better player recruitment and fund allocation. First, the aim was to understand if players were worth the investment in terms of on-field performance. If not, how much of a role did their commercial potential play? Next, which types of DPs were worth signing? Where could teams expect to scout in terms of value for money? Which teams have been recruiting successfully? Finally, in what direction is the overall MLS transfer strategy evolving and how does it affect the league’s bottom line?

The database, created solely from secondary data, contained performance data from Wyscout and other data on 157 MLS players in attacking positions that were transferred into or within the MLS, between the 2016 and 2019 season. It included designated and non-designated player data from every official MLS game the player featured in for the buying club. Pivot tables and linear regressions were created to analyse the data.

On average DPs in attacking positions were found to perform better, while being overpaid and overvalued. Yet upon studying the individual cases in detail, a number of DPs and non-DPs turned out to be successful signings. The answers began to reveal MLS clubs, such as New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United, that were recruiting efficiently within the parameters of the league's governance structure, opting for two diverse strategies that both pointed towards a shift in the leagues overall transfer strategy. 

A number of trends and biases in recent recruitment of attacking DPs in the MLS between the 2016-2019 seasons were analysed in my paper. DPs were found to be overpaid and overvalued. According to the performance data points retrieved from Wyscout, DPs in attacking positions performed better than non-DPs in almost every key aspect of the game and were more valuable based on their Transfermarkt value. Nevertheless, the difference in performance and status did not justify the difference in salaries and transfer fees paid.

A large part of the sum paid for DPs could be related to their marketing potential. In terms of performance only, DPs were overpaid by almost 50%; when adding their status to the equation, these numbers dropped significantly. Non-DPs turned out to be underpaid and undervalued, hence the model was not able to predict who the DPs were in the sample based solely on performance. As expected, players with high xG/90 stats, from either Eastern Europe, Western Europe, South America or a main regional minority that joined from a league with a high SPI were found to earn a premium.

Transfermarkt value and Instagram followers, representing the reputation of the player, were also found to be influential in the awarding of salaries, the prior also being the main determinant for transfer fees. In terms of recruiting and performance of individual MLS teams, the study showed that an attacking DP signing can pay off, if the strategy of the signing is clear beforehand and aligns with the footballing methodology and market demands of the club, and if the right mix between immediate performance, and marketing and resale potential is found.

In contrast to the European leagues, where team wage bills are the largest determinant for performance, in the MLS teams from big media markets with large spending powers spent far more on attacking players, yet their success on the field only increased minimally. New York Red Bulls proved to be a prime example of efficient attacking player scouting, showing that the USL, the second professional tier of U.S. soccer, as well as the college system, are leagues where MLS teams can get their value for money, due to players being free agents with lower demands.

The general profiles of the recent attacking DP signings analyzed in this study, as well as those brought in by the 2020 newcomers Nashville SC and Inter Miami, confirm president Don Garber’s statement about the MLS transitioning from a retirement to a development league to be true. If the MLS can continue to spot, develop and sell on talents such as Alphonso Davies, Miguel Almiron and Zack Steffen, the league will be able to profit not just from match day, commercial and broadcasting, but create a fourth revenue stream through player sales.

If the MLS establishes itself as a credible development league, attracting more international talent, the level of performance will increase and the above described cycle could begin to take effect, enabling the MLS and the men’s US national team to reach the next level. As a result, football (soccer) could move one step closer to competing with the traditional American sports