Keeping Appropriate Distance and Creating Appropraite Value
In the course of being engrossed by the game to game mentality and analysis, it is easy for me to lose perspective of an entire season. At times like this, it is useful to look back on previous posts to remind myself of what I was thinking earlier, and to reapply that perspective to where we are now. I am prompted to do this, in part, because Booked for Dissent is in the middle of a series analyzing Dave Kasper's moves over the past few years. There's a lot there that is provocative, and it reminded me of something I wrote before this season began:
The mission of D.C. United is to serve the community and win championships. United has let their most visible humanitarian go to Houston. United has let the 2006 MLS MVP leave for a designated player. We are being told, in other words, that this team is more likely than that team to fulfill those two goals...
...this, we are told, is the best team to embody those principles...
While it is easy to focus on players in a game, this is a year that demands that we truly examine our coaching and front office. Players will win or lose games, but the front office and management will win or lose this season. They, more than any other parties, are responsible for the 2008 campaign. They had done right by us in the past, but the price of professional sports is inevitably "what have you done for me lately." The departure of Boswell, of Gomez, of Perkins... these all signify that while I give the roster moves of the past great credit, they do not matter for this season. This season is about the choices we have seen being made... Risk, in the markets, defines uncertainty, and riskier investments have a greater chance of crashing and burning, but also a greater chance of truly spectacular yields. D.C. United is now the most exotic South American tech stock in MLS.
Lifton is, I think, writing an analysis to evaluate the team along those lines, as he notes:
So really only three of the unknown commodities - Martinez, Emilio and Fred - could be considered as quality acquisitions. And the higher salaries given to those who have failed, notably Filomeno and Niell, have come at the expense of deepening the squad with players better suited to the style of play and demands of MLS.
To date, United's return on investment has yielded a .500 record, 4th place in the Eastern Conference, a similar finish in the CONCACAF Champion's League to last season, an elimination in group play in Superliga, and a semi-final US Open Cup appearance. Only the US Open Cup run is an improvement, all the rest is either treading water or regression. What's more, the US Open Cup run has been largely powered by the reserved, not the flashy acquisitions. If United were a publicly traded company, the shareholders would be in revolt.
Which, in a strange way, brings us to the acquisitions of Joe Vide and Ivan Guerrero. In baseball, the concept of Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) has been well established. It examines players not in isolation, but in comparison to what your typical backup player would do in the same position. There is much literature using VORP in the way that baseball SABRE-types can do with such facility, and which we can not, but the I want to borrow the concept if not the statistics. United's acquisitions have frequently never been baseline against the average MLS player, or the average MLS backup. That makes some sense, since United's approach to signings has frequently been to find the players to ensure excellence, not competence. The problem is that while United has searched for excellence, they've incurred a larger risk of getting either replacement-level or below replacement-level players in return. Our acquisitions have been tremendous (Gomez, Emilio, and hell, let's even throw in Gallardo and Fred despite the arguments that can ensue) or utter busts (Donnet, Filomeno, Niell). About the only time United ended up with someone who was an average player was Erpen, whom we traded away.
The issue here is at least partially one of translation. The South American market is one that does not translate as one-to-one with MLS, and so projecting out ability is difficult. We simply can't tell with a high degree of confidence how players will adapt to the MLS style of play. Period. You may get great result, crappy results, and any combination in between. And if most of your acquisitions are from South America, you're pretty much betting the dice will come up sixes multiple times in a row.
Which is why the acquisition of Vide and Guerrero is important -- it represents a shift away from the high risk/high reward theory of player acquisition that has dominated the last three years. Vide is not going to be a superstar, or likely be a replacement for Clyde Simms. What he is, however, is someone who you can evaluate in this league, and you can tell that you will get at least replacement player value from him, if not slightly better. Guerrero has more upside that that, but again, the baseline is higher for him than for signing, say, another Mattias Donnet. We can translate his performance more easily, and it won't be a complete bust. At worst, he's likely slightly better than your fungible replacement player, and at best he'll be a solid contributor. This is a mindset shift.
The season is not over, but this is the heartening sign - faced with a season where high expectations have met pervasive mediocrity, United has not tried to fill the inside straight to save the season. Instead, they've made lower risk, lower potential reward moves, but ones that serve to develop depth and provide confidence in the new players. That makes me hopeful. I think, when all is said and done, this season is likely to be viewed with more disappointment than joy, but it won't be remembered as a travesty.