05 August 2008

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.

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At 05 August, 2008 12:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also see there being a pre-season/in-season factor. Off season the FO has more time to view film, travel, vet players. During the season it takes less legwork to pick up a known player. Also, players already in MLS have a better understanding of the level of play and thus don't need the pre-season to gel with the team. Of course, both Moreno and Gomez were mid-season acquisitions so what do I know...

At 05 August, 2008 14:36, Anonymous DCUinCT said...

Evaluating how to get successful signings can be evaluated based on history over the past few years as well as across teams. All MLS teams are now trying to scout players from CONCACAF and other regions to get higher quality and cheaper options. Part of the question is how much you are gambling (salary, salary cap) to what you are getting back, performance name recognition. Claudio Lopez is showing to be a good player, but not a DP when compared to Scholetto on those factors. Gallardo may or may not be as well. Beckham is a win on all accounts.
On the other end of the spectrum you have New England who has 3 cheap and overachieving African players. They have not gone for players that "should" play at MLS or above level, but scouted will for players to develop, just as they do with American players. DC needs to incorporate more of the development, not just for American defenders and defensive midfielders, but for some of the skill players (Disco Rod does not count). Erpen was a younger player and for that a decent gamble and a good trade. There are clearly other players from the US, Canada and regions within the hemisphere that show flash. DC is a good place for these players to come and grow, and for this team to take advantage of. The question is whether they can develop them (Quavas Kirk).

At 05 August, 2008 15:31, Anonymous Tolik said...

Before Goffmister's site went down for maintenance he posted a teaser about a goalkeeper with an exotic nationality. The teaser included a link to a Borat poster. That may be a hint for David Loria, Kazakh NT goalkeeper. He is 26 years old, and was the Kazakhstan league MVP in 2000 and 2006. He went through tryouts in PSV, was liked by the coach, but did not want to sit on the bench. Googling in Russian brings a lot of positive reviews. Interesting...

At 05 August, 2008 15:46, Anonymous Tolik said...




He also played in Halmstads BK in Sweden, brought in there on a short term contract to replace an injured goalkeeper. Halmstads did not do well on his watch, but there is no info if it was his fault or the team in general.

At 05 August, 2008 17:42, Anonymous Bootsy said...

David Grigorievich Loria plays GK for FC Shakter -- he's spent much, perhaps most, of his professional career with them. The charman of FC Shakter, according to Wikipedia, is Grigoriy Loria. I wonder . . . .

At 05 August, 2008 17:52, Blogger rke said...

> The mission of D.C. United is to serve the community and win championships.

I think the emphasis has shifted to the latter, for better or worse.

> If United were a publicly traded company, the shareholders would be in revolt.

Some might, but I would hope that most shareholders would take a longer-term perspective... Volatility is not failure -- especially if we're willing to sacrifice the Shield to get the Cup.

If job #1 is to win the MLS Cup (or Open Cup or Champions League), we're still very much in the running, and I think smart money would hesitate to bet against us.

This season has been plagued by injuries, and while that's not an excuse, it is an opportunity. We've looked good this year when the starters were healthy. If we go into the cup without injuries, there's no reason to doubt we can make it to the top.

But the injuries have exposed our lack of depth, which recent trades (Vide & Guerrero) are addressing. Hopefully we'll end up with a healthy team and some serious competition for the starting 11 for the rest of the season.

My sense is that we (the fans) have been spoiled a bit, and feel like we're entitled to the Shield -- and a season of dominance. That's looking unlikely for '08 and is disappointing.

However, winning tournaments is a different game, and takes a different strategy. Elimination rounds are high-risk, and it only takes one bad game to lose it all.

So far we've been unlucky (and unprepared, etc.) but there's still plenty of time to pull off a successful season. If "winning championships" is our mission, all we need is another star to call it a success.

(That's why we tend to like the Shield better.)

IMO, of course. Love this blog!

At 05 August, 2008 18:19, Anonymous Tolik said...

To Bootsy - It appears that son plays in his father's team. I would be worried, but he is playing for the national team, and well. (Regardless of geography, Kazakhstan applied and was admitted to the European championship, so they have a little of exposure now, a bit more than when they played in Asia).

And I can't imagine the father having some much money to buy the league MVP honor for his son, corruption or not.

At 06 August, 2008 08:56, Anonymous Jeremy said...

Sometimes I wonder if the FO is going for a Latin feel for the team at the expense of actual quality of play.

The business minds decided early on, and wisely, to attract the attention of the large immigrant population of the Metro area. Knowing that the only sure way to get the Latin immigrants to the games was to sign Latin players, they made every significant acquisition over the history of the franchise from a Latin country.

The strategy worked early on. However, it seems to me that there is a marked drop in the return on ivestment in the Latin community. I am not in the supporter's sections when I go to games, but I have read that even the majority of the Barra are non-Latin fans now. Whenever I am at a game, the Latin fans in the stands are invariably rooting AGAINST DC.

I do not dispute the validity of the Latin flavor of the team over the history of DC. However, since most of the growth in the fan base seems to me to come from people who are more interested in winning matches than cheering for people from their country of origin, I think that it might be time for the FO to re-think the rationale behind signing exclusively from Latin America.

If the new goalkeeper truly is from some other continent, perhaps that shows that the switch is already happenning.

At 07 August, 2008 00:33, Anonymous L. Filomeno said...

this has nothing to do with the above post - and I know all of the requisite arguments against the over commercialization of sports - but if you go to mlsgear.com right now and click on DC United, you'll find that the number 1 selling piece of merchandise is the DC United earring!

this product feature: "earring hooks snap closed so they will not fall off"


surely, this must mean something?

At 08 August, 2008 18:12, Blogger Shatz... said...

You make a great point that the front office's philosophy seems to be changing, at least for this season. When they had foreign acquisitions fail, they decided to get players they knew would succeed, or at least be better than their backups.

I'm not sure the baseball analogy fits though. Because its easier to evaluate a player's talent in baseball. If a player is batting .300 for one team, his average is likely to be about the same if he's traded to another team. But in soccer, and pretty much any other team sport, the team's chemistry and style of play have a greater impact. So its not as easy to judge whether the player will perform at the same level or not.

At 08 August, 2008 18:38, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can we get the spellchecker up and running again?
Appropriate and Appropraite in the same title is impressive.

At 11 August, 2008 04:48, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone still home at this weblog? It was the happen blog for quite a while, but appears to be dead now.

At 17 August, 2008 12:42, Anonymous Boots Man said...

I thinks this blog is still alive but only write about the US football scenario...


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