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MLS Trade Value Rankings: Midsummer update Part 1

Clint Dempsey (left), Michael Bradley (center) and Giovani dos Santos (right) have all fallen off Pro Soccer USA's MLS Trade Value Rankings. (USA Today photos)

We’re halfway into the season, a short time away from the MLS All-Star Game, and we’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned that Red Bull New York, Atlanta United, NYCFC and Sporting Kansas City are really good. We learned that the Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquakes are not.

We learned that if you’re going to let fans vote for All-Star teams, you may as well just pencil in the starting XI for Atlanta. We learned that when a coach says “I haven’t spoken to anyone” about taking a new job at Nice, it means “I’m definitely headed to Nice.” And we learned that being part of a global soccer network like the City Group has its perks in these situations.

We also learned that things change quickly in MLS. In early May, Orlando City just came off their sixth win in a row and it seemed like finally Jason Kreis’ plan was in place and all of the offseason moves were coming together. Now? Kreis is fired and the team is looking at possibly another year of not tasting the playoffs. 

Similarly, Toronto was the greatest MLS team in history just a few months ago, a few penalty kicks from being the first MLS team to win CONCACAF Champions league. Now? They’re disjointed, injured and at real risk of missing the playoffs.

Because things change quickly, I wanted to update the MLS Trade Value Rankings that I published in February, before the season started. The goal of the list is not to gauge the best players in the league, but the best trade assets in the league. The difference is real,  Both Colorado and D.C. United lie below the playoff line, but D.C. has players on their roster that have trade value. If they need to make moves to gain allocation money or trade within MLS to get a high-quality player, they probably can.  Colorado, on the other hand, is stuck with seven-figure contracts for players who don’t play.

The rankings will be released next week, but before revealing the list, which I’ve expanded into a top-100 (seriously, why did I think the original list should’ve been top 75?), here are a few things I got right and wrong from the original list:

GOT RIGHT:  Gauging value of San Jose & Colorado players

When I released the original list, there was one team who did not have a single player in the top-75:  San Jose.  The fans were not pleased.

Fast forward halfway into the season, you have a team that’s about to self-implode.

There are some large issues within this club, but worse yet, what are the moves that San Jose can make to fix its roster outside of signing foreign players? When we look at the Quakes’ best players, who’s trading for Wondo or Vako?  There’s possibly some value within players like Nick Lima or Jackson Yueill, but neither have been able to stand out enough to show a light into the future. There’s not much they can do or move.

GOT WRONG: Undervaluing prospects

In my original list, I had bonafide blue-chip prospects like Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies in the top 10 (spoiler alert: they’re still there). Those are easy to point out, given the amount of minutes we’ve seen from them and their international interest already.  But prospects that haven’t seen too much MLS action, such as Andrew Carleton and Paxton Pomykal?  I had them as No. 75 and No. 74 on the original list, and that’s too low — as evident by an FC Dallas fan’s reactions when I suggested Pomykal could be a piece to trade for Ignacio Piatti.

It’s a trade that you see very often in baseball when a team is pushing to win a title immediately: a blue chip prospect and some good assets for a legitimate top-10 player.  The difference here is that in Major League Soccer, prospects are seen to have higher value, given how few high-level prospects there are.  The return on trading one has to be rather large — an All-Star level player today or even an older MVP candidate.

I find it hard to gauge, but I asked an expert, Adam Beiz of the Scuffed Podcast, which covers United States national team prospects at length, to help with the trade valuation of prospects moving forward. Below is our back and forth over email in mid-June, mostly unedited.

TUTUL:  “One of the things that I think I had wrong (with my original Trade Value list) was having MLS Homegrown starlets ranked too low.  I had Carleton at No. 75 and Pomykal at No. 74.  That was lower than players like Abu Danladi (No. 66) or CJ Sapong (No. 52).

Obviously, this is wrong. I think if Philadelphia called Atlanta inquiring about Andrew Carleton for CJ Sapong, Bocanegra would hang up immediately. Part of making the judgement of where these MLS Homegrown prospects land in the Trade Value list, is because their minutes in MLS are quite limited.  So I’m coming to you, the expert here, to provide some judgement here.

So first question, who are your top-10 MLS Homegrown prospects in the league that haven’t gotten meaningful minutes in MLS and why?  Few rules:

  1. They have to be signed officially to the parent club.  So Gio Reyna wouldn’t count for NYCFC.
  2. They have to have played less than 400 minutes total in MLS.  So Jaylin Lindsey, Ben Mines, Pomykal all are fair game. Salloi or Adams wouldn’t count.”

ADAM:  “I’m gonna take so many Ls on this.  By way of disclaimer: A. Ranking these players is basically a guess and some of it will end up being wrong, and B. Among Homegrowns not getting a lot of minutes, there’s a pretty quick drop-off from the handful of players with high-end potential to those who look like they’ll top out at serviceable professional soccer player.

  1. Efrain Álvarez — Six goals in 394 USL minutes is a stat that doesn’t lie. These have been mostly bangers. He’s also a clever, ambitious passer and a tricky dribbler who isn’t easily dispossessed. He could be a tad cleaner in possession but he’s 16 and for me he’s the most valuable Homegrown in the league.
  2. Andrew Carleton — He struggled a bit early in the USL season to translate his attacking creativity to a field full of grown men, but he’s starting to sort it out and there’s no American player at any level with as much crowd-pleasing flair in his game. If he can nail down ball security at the MLS level he will be a game-breaking No. 10.
  3. George Bello — He’s been injured for more than two months, but what he showed for Atlanta United 2 in the early part of the USL season was convincing. He’s a technical left back who’s comfortable with the ball, a smart passer and eager to bomb forward. He also has the speed, quickness and intelligence to lock down his flank in defense.
  4. Jaylin Lindsey — He’s proven for Kansas City in matches at Portland and in U.S. Open Cup against Dallas that he can be trusted in big games. His upside isn’t as high as Bello’s, but he’s a smart competitor with elite athleticism who’s ready to play fullback in MLS right now. And he’s versatile: a natural right back, he’s played left back in both of his full 90s for SKC.
  5. Wan Kuzain — A solid connector in the midfield, the left-footer has made three appearances for Kansas City, scored a goal and got an assist in U.S. Open Cup. He looks utterly competent and his passing is occasionally penetrating. 
  6. Chris Goslin — Like his teammate Carleton, he’s struggled a bit with the transition to professional soccer, but he’s capable of dominating the center of the pitch, shutting down the opponent, stepping past defenders and finding productive passes. He could rise in these rankings if he continues to improve in USL and Atlanta United 2 strings a few wins together.
  7. Ben Mines — A lot of pace, power and fearlessness for this Red Bulls winger. Not a great passer, but he’ll cause problems for any defense and scored a goal in his only MLS appearance — the game-winner in a 4-0 win over Portland in March.
  8. Matt Real — The left back for Philadelphia had his season interrupted by youth national team duty, but he’s gotten his feet wet in MLS and is viewed as a core part of the U.S. U-20 squad by Tab Ramos. 
  9. Paxton Pomykal — A creative left-footed attacking midfielder, he has looked competent in extremely limited minutes for a good Dallas side. Hard to see what he offers until we see a few 90-minute performances at the professional level, but he’s tricky on the ball and looks to make a pass in the attacking half.
  10. Gianluca Busio — The 16-year-old has been a squeaky-clean shuttler of the ball in USL and limited first-team minutes. The next step for him is to start influencing games”

TUTUL:  “That’s a solid list, and a few of these we’ve already seen flashes of their quality at the top level, like Lindsey and Kuzain. There’s always going to be a few nitpicks on any list (cue NYCFC fans asking about Joe Scally or James Sands and the Union about Anthony Fontana) but it feels sound to me.

Next question is about how much is potential worth in the league. So if you were a GM of a random team in the league, what would you be willing to trade for each of your top 10 prospects? I’ll give you a few levels as reference:

  • Tier 1 — Willing to give up an older MVP-caliber player to get this prospect (i.e. BWP, Villa, Piatti)
  • Tier 2 — Willing to give up an expensive, MLS All-Star level player to get this prospect (i.e. Altidore, Vazquez, Nagbe etc)
  • Tier 3 — Willing to give up a good, young player that hasn’t been able to crack All-Star level yet (i.e. Jordan Morris, Diego Fagundez)
  •  Tier 4 — Willing to give up a solid, MLS-starting caliber player (i.e. Michael Barrios, Julian Gressel)
  • Tier 5 — Would only give up less than that, such as allocation money and/or draft picks.

Obviously, you’d have to take into account how high the ceiling is and how low floor could be for each one, but interested in your thoughts on this!”

ADAM: “Question: Isn’t there a tier between the Gressel of the league and allocation money — say a serviceable journeyman? Like a Marc Burch or Tyrone Mears? Not great, but able to find a job pretty easily?  Here’s my initial response, but let me keep thinking about it:

  • Tier 1 — None of these Homegrowns is that valuable yet, and no Homegrown with less than 400 minutes in MLS could ever be, probably.
  • Tier 2 — With a full season of dominance under their belts at USL level, which neither of them has put together obviously, Carleton or Alvarez miiiiiiight be worth that. The GM trading Altidore or Nagbe for one of them would need more certainty that they’ll pan out and some high amount of allocation money (you know what that is better than me) thrown in to make the trade work.
  • Tier 3 — This is still a bit of a reach for Alvarez and Carleton, but starting to get more realistic, and Bello enters the conversation.
  • Tier 4 — I’d trade a tier 4 player for Alvarez, Carleton, Bello and Lindsey. I’m not as convinced of Lindsey’s upside, but he’s versatile and Vermes trusts him, and that gets my attention.
  • Tier 4.5 — I’d give up a useful but unremarkable journeyman for any of the others, but no more.
  • Tier 5 — Same goes for allocation money.”

TUTUL: “So it seems that you have Alvarez and Carleton on a different level then the rest of the prospects. And next level down you have Bello and Lindsey, and then everyone else.  The tantalizing aspect for a prospect is obviously potential + low salary + likelihood of getting a future transfer fee.  That’s why Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies are top-10 assets in the league, they provide top-level MLS ability at sub-$100,000 salary and almost guaranteed seven-figure transfer fees coming up. 

The difficult part of evaluating the trade value of a prospect is there hasn’t been that many transactions in MLS to gauge a market value.  In other leagues, like MLB, its a bit more clear as prospects are traded for established players all the time.

The closest thing we have is the sale of the rights of Eryk Williamson from D.C. United to Portland for $200,000 in allocation and Cam Lindley’s rights from Chicago to Orlando for $100,000.  The other proxy we have are the sales of draft picks for allocation money.  For example, NYCFC bought the No. 3 draft spot in 2017 to eventually grab Jonathan Lewis for $250,000 in allocation.  

That would put the value of the prospects there at around the level of Dillon Powers (sold at $100,000) to AJ DeLagarza (sold at $175,000), both players that you would say are at your Tier 4.5.

Question for you: The top-10 prospects you named, you would rate as better prospects than Williamson, Lindley or Lewis were, correct?  I think with that information, we can start getting to decent valuations.”

ADAM: “Right. I don’t know Lindley’s game very well, but Williamson wouldn’t break my top 10, so if the league values Lindley at half what Williamson is valued, then he won’t break my top 10 either. I might put Lewis ahead of a couple of the Homegrowns, but he wouldn’t break into my top 6.

You’re right, I do put Carleton and Alvarez in their own category with Bello close behind. And only reason Bello’s not there right with them is because he’s been injured for the past two months and we haven’t gotten to see if he sticks in USL. Lindsey is a step down from Bello in terms of potential for me, but the fact he plays a weak position in the league and the trust he’s earned with a tough coach put him above everyone else. And then Goslin and Kuzain are in a category by themselves, followed by the remaining four.

For purposes of your tiered system, I think the max I would give up today for Goslin on down is a Tier 4.5 player. Could change in a month, but for now a player like Gressel or Barrios just offers too much.”

Note: The updated rankings are about to get a whole lot younger and will feature many of the names that Adam mentioned. See the previous rankings in the photo gallery below, and keep reading — we’re not done yet.

75. Andrew Carleton, Atlanta United FC – 17 years old; CAM; $77,400 salary. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

GOT WRONG: Overvaluing past performance

It’s a mistake that many GMs across all sports make, assuming that because someone was just traded for a lot of money or had a breakout season that they’ll be worth it moving forward. Which leads us to our final point:

Players who fell off list after half a season

Some of the players fell off due to natural decline in production. Some because they’ve gotten a pay raise (good for them!), which reduces their trade value moving forward. Some from spectacular falls from grace. 

Without further ado, here is the list of players who were top-75 in the beginning of the season but won’t be top-100 by All-Star break:

(All salary information from MLS Players Union as of July 2018. Advanced analytics from American Soccer Analysis.)

  • Daniel Royer, New York Red Bulls – 28 years old; LW; $668,750 salary (TAM-eligible)
  • Joao Plata, Real Salt Lake – 26; LW; $683,333 (TAM-eligible)
  • Michael Barrios, FC Dallas – 27; RW; $400,000

Royer (former No. 73), Plata (No. 72) and Barrios (No. 64) were on the list because of their output and importance to their club’s attack, despite relatively large salaries.  They’re in their prime years and are still quality players, but to make this trade value list at that age and salary level, you have to be the second- or third-best player on a contending team. None of them are that.

Royer has been good, but overshadowed by the brilliance of Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra. Plata was recently benched in favor of a young Homegrown, Sebastian Saucedo. Barrios is part of an effective rotation for the resurgence of FC Dallas and, ironically, his salary, while lower than Royer and Plata, is less cap-friendly since it can’t be bought down with TAM.  They’re not top assets, but every MLS team would likely to have them on their rosters. Barrios has the highest value since he’s the friendliest asset in the global transfer market.

  • Kortne Ford, Colorado Rapids – 22; CB; $89,500
  • Ian Harkes, DC United – 23; CM; $137,737
  • Abu Danladi, Minnesota United FC – 22; ST; $186,000
  • Diego Rubio, Sporting KC – 25; CF; $266,875

This group of players fell off the list because of their limited playing time this year. While teenage Homegrown prospects are provided the benefit of the doubt when not given MLS minutes, this isn’t true for someone who’s a bit older than 22.  You have to be on the field to make progress, and not playing due to injury like Ford (No. 68) or Danladi (No. 66) or managerial reasons like Harkes (No. 67) or Rubio (No. 63) hurts their development and in turn their trade value.

  • Mauro Diaz, FCD – 27; CAM; $949,890 (TAM-eligible)

The only reason Diaz (No. 61) isn’t on the list anymore is because he’s not in the league anymore, being sold to Al-Ahli for what has been thought to be a low seven-figure number. The worry in the beginning of the season was whether Diaz could return to form after injury. In the first half of 2018, he showed he could and was arguably a top-10 attacking player in the league.

This is also an example of FC Dallas cashing in on an asset, even if it wasn’t completely proactive. While the actual fee is still somewhat of a mystery, it can be safe to assume that it produced a fair amount of General Allocation Money that can be traded for a real need like striker.

  • Sacha Kljestan, Orlando City – 32; CAM; $1,100,000 salary (DP)
  • Kendall Waston, Vancouver Whitecaps – 30; CB; $604,116 (TAM-eligible)
  • C.J. Sapong, Philadelphia Union – 29; ST; $525,000 (TAM-eligible)
  • Luciano Acosta, DC United – 24; CAM; $652,000 (TAM-eligible)

These players fell off the list because of their high or increased salary and the greater level of scrutiny of what a successful DP or TAM player is.  If you’re 32 and just got a salary bump to DP-level like Kljestan (No. 57), then you have to be producing at top-10 level to be a real trade asset.

Kljestan has had relatively good year so far for an MLS player, but not what is needed to make Orlando a contender — or even a playoff team. Same for Sapong (No. 52), who has gone from an underrated and productive player on a good contract to a sitting-on-the-bench, can’t-buy-a-goal player with a heavy contract. And at 29 years old, it’s tough to see a strong sellers market for Philadelphia. Waston (No. 53) and Acosta (No. 43) have been good, not great, on average to poor teams. If either were to get an offer from abroad, I’m not sure Vancouver or D.C. would say no.

  • Ronald Matarrita, New York City FC – 24; LB; $395,000
  • Justin Morrow, Toronto FC – 30; LB; $300,000

In my original list, I mentioned left backs matter in the modern game and the market would reflect this in MLS.  This is still true, but there happens to be a new corps of younger, equally talented and less expensive backs in the league who kick Matarrita (No. 36) and Morrow (No. 37) off the list.

Both have struggled with injury, Matarrita in heartbreaking fashion before he was supposed to represent Costa Rica in the 2018 World Cup and Morrow in Toronto’s defense-breaking fashion during the regular season. Matarrita’s minutes have been taken mostly by Ben Sweat, who makes a fraction of his salary. And while Matarrita could potentially make it back to this list if he find his form again, Morrow is on the wrong side of 30 and now injury prone.

  • Justin Meram, Orlando City – 29; LW; $578,758 (TAM-eligible)
  • David Accam, Philadelphia Union – 27; LW; $1,250,000 (TAM-eligible)

After million-dollar moves within MLS, Meram (No. 31) and Accam (No. 30) have fallen off a cliff. They were brought in this year to be central pieces of their teams’ attacks, but now have been relegated to the bench if not out of the 18 all together. Combine their production nosedives with salary bumps from their new deals, and that equals a massive fall out of the Trade Value rankings.

Of the two, Accam’s fall has been worse. His expected goals + assists per 96 minutes is down to 0.37 from 0.65 a year ago. This mirrors large drops in shots, shots on targets and key passes per 96 minutes. Combine that with his deal structure in Chicago, which makes turning him for profit on a potential sale abroad near impossible (and in essence makes it incredibly hard to trade Accam for anything).

Meram, on the other hand, has some positives to show and probably is a little bit unlucky.  His expected goals + assists per 96 minutes is a healthy 0.55, which is actually higher than his prior year with Columbus.  He’s been poor at finishing this year (-0.24 per 96 versus his expected goals), as are his teammates when he’s passing (-0.10 per 96 versus his expected assists). If he gets a good run on the pitch again, he may be able to turn around. But for now, as a 29-year-old TAM player, he’s off the list as well.

  • Giovanni Dos Santos, Los Angeles Galaxy – 29; CF; $6,000,000 (DP)
  • Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders – 35; CF; $1,650,000 (DP)
  • Michael Bradley, Toronto FC – 30; CDM; $6,500,000 (DP)

The last group of players off the list played their part in national team lore, but their falling production and extremely high salaries make them unmovable in this market.  The Galaxy hoped Dos Santos (No. 27)  would impress in the World Cup and coax some bids abroad, but that didn’t happen.  Even the Liga MX sides believe his salary is too high. Dempsey’s (No. 25) salary has dropped significantly, but so has his production and minutes on the field — even for a struggling Sounders side. He feels closer to retirement than another productive season.

Nobody has had a larger fall in the last few months than Bradley (No. 23). He was penalty kicks away from leading Toronto FC to becoming the first MLS team to win the Champions League and perhaps returning to grace after the United States’ World Cup qualifying failure. His versatility and neverending motor allowed TFC to make the run, but as Toronto has fallen, so has the play of its captain. Looking at him now, he’s a few steps slow, which was unfathomable earlier this year. 

Bradley is one of my all-time favorite players, and I wouldn’t bet against him to recover to form as one of the top defensive midfielders in the league. But with his salary at 30 years old, it’s tough to see him as a trade asset anywhere.

That’s the reality of this version of MLS. To stay ahead requires constant evolution, and nobody is spared from that, not even Captain America.

Coming up next, is the beginning of the countdown, No. 100-51, of MLS’ top 100 players in trade value. Stay tuned.

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