No. 100 Matthew Real: Philadelphia Union – 19 years old, LB, $54,500 salary (HGP). (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
Welcome to the MLS Trade Value Rankings, the mid-summer update. With the MLS Player Union releasing the 2018 salaries and half of the season finished, it’s time to count down the top 100 trade assets in the league.
If you haven’t read part one, click here to see where I made mistakes in the preseason rankings, what I got right, who dropped out and how we’re evaluating MLS prospects with minimal minutes.
The theory in this ranking is simple: The higher you are in the rankings, the less likely you are to be traded to another MLS team for someone lower in the rankings.
Seven rules that run this list:
- Quality matters — While this isn’t a list of best players in MLS, the end goal for every team is still to win the MLS Cup. If a player is likely to boost a team’s chances in that quest, that’s probably the biggest factor in his ranking.
- Contracts matter — MLS has a complicated salary budget system, so the lower the budget hit the better. Contract length, type and actual compensation levels (especially for designated players) matter as well. For example, you won’t see Yangel Herrera on the list even though he’s one of the top young talents in the league because he’s on loan.
- MLS roster status matters – Not only does the compensation matter, but the type of status the player has on the MLS rosters matter. For example, if a player takes an international slot — because that itself is a resource. If the player is a Homegrown, that’s an extreme positive since his salary is likely supplemental and not against the cap, plus the ability to keep all future transfer fees. Designated Players (DPs) must produce at a higher level than anyone else, given there are only three spots per team, but Young DPs are worth more than regular DPs because of a lower cap hit.
- Age and potential matter — With contract length also comes projecting future performance.
- International markets matter — A player who can be sold in the international market adds trade value because this can bring additional assets (cash and allocation money). Similarly, if a player was bought via transfer fee, his ranking may be lower since allocation money only comes with profit.
- Star power matters — Teams have to sell tickets and jerseys, and there’s no doubt big names can do that.
- Must be in MLS for at least one transfer window — Sorry, no Rooney. Or Ruidiaz. Or Horta. They’ll be in the 2019 edition.
Got it? Good. Let’s get started with the fun!
(Note: All salaries listed are players’ 2018 guaranteed compensation based on the latest report released by the MLS Players Union. All advanced statistics such as expected goals and assists based on American Soccer Analysis.)
LOTTERY TICKETS – BRONZE TIER
100. Matthew Real, Philadelphia Union – 19 years old; LB; $54,500 salary (HGP)
99. Ben Mines, New York Red Bulls – 18; MF; $60,518 (HGP)
98. Gianluca Busio, Sporting Kansas City – 16; W; $82,504 (HGP)
You might be thinking, “How do these teenagers with minimal to no minutes in MLS have more trade value than proven MLS players like Joao Plata or Daniel Royer? Does their potential outweigh more established players that can help now?”
The answer to this is more in the roster status of each of those players. A player like Royer, with his $668,750 total salary, is very good but requires Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). In the international market, the ability to for a team to find a “Royer”-level player with TAM could be easier than trading for him within the league.
Homegrown players with the ability (or potential) to start in the league are much harder to find and much more lucrative for clubs. They’re likely to be on the supplemental roster and not count against the cap, and they don’t require any other resources like international slots or allocation money. Finally, as the league starts transitioning towards a selling league, a sale of a Homegrown goes 100 percent to the club.
All of this points to: If Craig Waibel picked up the phone and called Peter Vermes to offer Plata for Busio, Vermes would say no.
The three players above have shown flashes of their quality at the professional level, thanks in large part to all of their clubs having second-tier United Soccer League teams.
Real has the most MLS minutes of the three and is a central part of the United States under-20s. Ben Mines already scored his first MLS goal and has more than 700 professional minutes for Red Bulls II. Busio may not have MLS minutes yet, but at 16 years old he’s already played well enough to make a USL team of the week.
They may not pan out. Predicting which prospects will break through is notoriously difficult. But if they do, the return for an MLS club is huge, which is why they have their place on the list.
FRINGE U.S. MNT PLAYERS STRUGGLING TO GET ON FIELD
97. Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders – 23; ST; $234,500 (HGP)
96. Kelyn Rowe, New England Revolution — 26; CAM; $258,000
Jordan Morris used to be the future of the U.S. men’s team and the Seattle Sounders. A year and a half ago, he carried the Sounders through the playoffs after having flu-like symptoms.
IS THIS JORDAN MORRIS'S FLU GAME? DO ALL JORDANS GET ONE?
— Tutul Rahman (@tutulismyname) November 27, 2016
Today, Morris finds himself at the fringe of this list.
I originally had him even lower , but the wise words from Harrison Crow of American Soccer Analysis reminded me of Morris’s value: “Jordan Morris, despite his injury, still has more project surplus value as a forward than Matthew Real as a left back. (His) star power, scoring goals, positional value as a striker and his home grown status are still there.”
If Morris can find his form again, he’ll soar up this list. But Morris’s elite attribute was his speed, and after tearing his ACL, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever get that back. It’s the harsh reality of being a professional athlete.
Kelyn Rowe was expected to take over much of the playmaking responsibilities for the New England Revolution after the benching and eventual departure of Lee Nguyen. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Rowe is finding it harder to get minutes.
But Rowe’s xG+xA/96 (how many expected goals and assists per game) remains steady despite fewer minutes. In 2017, the year he started to get national team caps, his xG+xA/96 was 0.36. This year its 0.38 despite being played all over the field. Rowe could be a target for crafty GMs betting on a turnaround in the future.
CHEAP NEWCOMERS MAKING AN IMPACT
95. Brandt Bronico, Chicago Fire – 23; M; $67,500
94. Jacori Hayes, FC Dallas – 23; M; $75,750
93. Florian Valot, New York Red Bulls – 25; M; $71,136
In today’s MLS, the top signings are now designated players or TAM-level players. But in a league with a cap, having productive players on cheap salaries is critical for roster building. The majority of these players come from smart picks in the SuperDraft or, more recently, from USL teams.
Bronico was a fine find from the SuperDraft, picked 47th overall. Since given the chance, Bronico has excelled for the Chicago Fire. His xG Chain (the sum of expected goals, where a player had any action) per 96 minutes is 0.66. This is higher than any other Fire mainstay, including more expensive players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Aleksandar Katai, and shows how important he’s become.
Hayes stepped in admirably in the beginning of FC Dallas’ season when Kellyn Acosta was injured.
The 2017 draftee is now coming off the bench behind Gruezo, Ulloa. But the faith in Hayes’s play allowed FCD leadership to move Acosta to Colorado for assets and Dominic Badji, and Hayes arguably is the future in the center of the pitch for FC Dallas.
Valot was nothing short of a revelation for the Red Bulls before he tore his ACL this year. He scored three goals and five assists and played incredibly well in the team’s Concacaf Champions League run. Signing Valot is one of the many fruits from RBNY’s commitment to its USL team.
92. Sebastian Lletget, Los Angeles Galaxy – 25; CM; $252,667
91. Carlos Gruezo, FC Dallas – 23; CDM; $730,750 (Young DP)
90. Jonathan Osorio, Toronto FC – 26; CM; $209,825 (HGP)
All three of these players are in limbo in some sense of the word. In 2016, Sebastian Lletget was one of the brightest up-and-comers for the U.S. Injuries cut his 2017 season short, and while 2018 was supposed to be the return of “Da Kid,” it hasn’t really panned out that way. His advanced metrics suggest he’s a similar level player, but he is by no means a lock-down starter for the LA Galaxy.
Part of that reason is Lletget’s high usage rate of 13 percent. To be effective, Lletget needs to see a lot of the ball. With so many other feet to feed on the Galaxy line up, Lletget might not fit well anymore. For a clever GM, he may be a trade target.
Carlos Gruezo has been one of the top young players in the league for a long time. You aren’t a member of Ecuador’s 2014 World Cup side at the age of 19 without having immense talent. Since coming into the league in 2016, he’s been very good. This year, though, has been relatively quiet and suddenly finds himself challenged for minutes in a crowded and talented midfielder — one where Acosta was moved because his form wasn’t up to par.
Per Transfermarkt, his contract is up at the end of 2018 and FC Dallas has a decision to make. Let Gruezo walk, and its another case of an MLS team letting a decent talent walk away for free. Sign him, and they will likely have to use TAM since he will lose his Young DP status when he turns 24 in April.
Jonathan Osorio is having easily his best year as a professional. He won the Golden Boot in Champions League and has been one of the only bright spots — with six goals and two assists — in Toronto’s dismal MLS campaign. His play has taken him from utility man to gathering interest from Europe and South America.
So why isn’t he higher on the list?
Like Gruezo, Osorio’s contract runs out at the end of the year. While Toronto has resigned players like goalkeeper Alex Bono and midfielder Victor Vazquez, Osorio hasn’t been resigned. Instead of handing Osorio a hefty raise, Toronto invested in players like Ager Aketxe. Now, the club finds itself in a scenario where it may have to sell Osorio on the cheap or even let him walk away for free – a nightmare scenario for a valuable home grown player.
PRODUCTIVE 30+ AMERICANS IN THE MIDDLE
89. Benny Feilhaber, Los Angeles FC – 33; CM; $625,000 (TAM-eligible)
88. Lee Nguyen, Los Angeles FC – 31; CM; $500,000 (TAM-eligible)
87. Dax McCarty, Chicago Fire – 30; CDM; $712,500 (TAM-eligible)
When LAFC traded for Lee Nguyen for nearly $700,000 in allocation money, it raised some eyebrows. Not that Nguyen isn’t a great MLS player, but because he’d be joining Benny Feilhaber in the midfield. Could these two midfielders on the wrong side of 30 play together, forcing Feilhaber to play deeper? The answer, surprisingly, has been yes.
Both Nguyen and Feilhaber have played deeper than they’re accustomed to. Nguyen’s xG+xA/96 dropped from 0.58 in 2017 to 0.26. Feilhaber’s drop has been even greater, from 0.52 to 0.19. But their roles are different on this team.
This can be seen in Benny’s xBuildup (expected goals coming from anything but shots or assists), which is has gone from 0.19 in 2017 to 0.45. Feilhaber is leaving the offensive duties to players like Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela. We can’t be sure how much longer it will last, but so far LAFC’s investment has been worth it.
Dax McCarty has had a relatively quiet year for an average to poor Chicago team. Still, his value in the league is evident by how quickly the Fire turned down Minnesota’s inquiries to get his services.
TRUST THE PROCESS – MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES EDITION
86. Brooks Lennon, Real Salt Lake – 20; RB; $237,583 (HGP)
85. Danilo Acosta, Real Salt Lake — 20; LB; $100,000 (HGP)
Potential is a hell of a drug. The prospects of what could be can be intoxicating and more romantic than what is. In basketball, the Philadelphia 76ers coined the term “trust the process,” meaning short-term pains are nothing compared to the promise of the future.
If the 76ers are representative of the positive, the Minnesota Timberwolves represent the flip side to this argument where potential is never realized. After many years of top draft picks, and collecting the league’s top young talent, they find themselves with still a mediocre if not bad team.
The question for Real Salt Lake is not about their potential — I have their academy as the second best in the league in producing professionals that get minutes — the question is if their process will be like the Timberwolves or like the 76ers.
Case in point, Danilo Acosta was seen as the left back of the future and after playing rather well, lost his spot inexplicably to 34-year old journeyman Demar Phillips. This was very Timberwolves-esque. Now, with Acosta back and Homegrowns getting minutes, the fate of Real Salt Lake will depend on if any of them can transcend into All-Star level.
Lennon has been good in his transformation into a right back, which has been noticed by the RSL faithful.
Pitch for Brooks Lennon to be included. He has turned into a solid RB, but also has the work rate, pace, delivery and finishing skills to be a threat in the attack. A bit under-the-radar of late, but his versatility is a huge value.
— Robert Buhler (@buhler08) July 20, 2018
Consistency of these players, as well as Real Salt Lake as a whole, is the key. RSL is above the playoff line as of July 22nd, but the club’s goal differential is more similar to a team that would be at the bottom of a table. If not careful, all that potential will never be realized.
LOTTERY TICKETS – SILVER TIER
84. Chris Goslin, Atlanta United – 18; CM; $84,000 (HGP)
83. Paxton Pomykal, FC Dallas – 18; CAM; $90,000 (HGP)
82. Wan Kuzain, Sporting Kansas City – 19; M; $67,500 (HGP)
81. Jaylin Lindsey, Sporting Kansas City – 18; WB; $67,504 (HGP)
The homegrown prospects in this second group have already started to break through to get minutes this year or have extremely high ceilings.
Chris Goslin, as Adam Beiz of Scuffed Podcast said in part one, is capable of dominating the center of the pitch, has more than 700 USL minutes and cracked through the first team lineup during the U.S. Open Cup.
Paxton Pomykal is supposedly the heir apparent to Mauro Diaz, but he hasn’t statistically impressed when given MLS minutes. In limited minutes, Pomykal has 0.24 expected assists compared to Diaz’s 0.42 xA. It’s not a fair comparison, but still shows the gap of production on the field — and could be one of the reasons why FC Dallas spent $1.25 million on Pablo Aránguiz, a 21 year old Chilean central midfielder. Two years ago, Pomykal was a slam dunk prospect, but that doesn’t seem so certain now.
Wan Kuzain and Jaylin Lindsey give SKC coach Peter Vermes spot-minute duty at the MLS level already. Kuzain is an excellent passer in the midfield. It’s a small sample size, but he has a 96 percent pass completion rate in the attacking third. That’s absurd and Darlington Nagbe-esque.
Jaylin Lindsey has versatility as a wingback, able to play on the left or right, and speed to boot. You could argue the height of his ceiling, but he’s proving to already be competent at the MLS level.
80. Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC – 28; ST; $5 million (DP)
79. Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers – 27; ST; $1.933 million (DP)
78. Jonathan Dos Santos, Los Angeles Galaxy – 28; CDM; $2 million (DP)
77. Nemanja Nikolić, Chicago Fire – 30; ST; $1.906 million (DP)
The best players in this league are designated players. This much is obvious. But for a DP to also be a player with trade value, they have to compensate for their salary, cap hit and for taking up one of the 69 spots available in the league. There are 28 designated players on this trade value list, and there are many productive DPs who didn’t make the cut. This is because the global market is seemingly endless of DP-level players, so to be a trade asset, you have to showcase being at least All-Star level in the league. These four have done that, but certain context keeps them at the bottom end of the list.
Perhaps one of the few players who’s escaped looking poorly this year with Toronto is Jozy Altidore. This is because he’s been mostly off the field with injury issues. Altidore’s raw numbers aren’t eye opening, his best year was in 2017 with 15 goals. But his hold-up play and partnership with Sebastian Giovinco is what made Toronto’s offense tick — as reflected by a xG Chain in 2017 equal to Seba’s. Despite his importance and quality, Altidore is injury prone and has an incredibly inflated salary at $5 million, making his transfer value globally minimal.
Fanendo Adi was one of the league’s top strikers for Portland, but recently he rides the bench. This is because another striker came in with better production and a much lower salary. You can’t blame Portland for this. But in 2017, Adi had many foreign clubs after him and Portland could’ve cashed in with a large transfer fee. Portland said it wouldn’t sell him because the cost of replacing him would be higher than the profit in selling him.
Let’s call this the “Adi Theory,” that a player is too valuable to sell because the cost of replacing him would be too expensive. This theory is likely false in MLS. There’s not a single player in the league who couldn’t be replaced for the right price, and refusing to accept that reality hurts the club and player in the long run. Now Portland has lost some leverage with Adi’s contract up at the end of the year.
The reason why Adi’s value is still somewhat high, is because he’s a proven scorer in MLS. Other teams, such as Sporting Kansas City or Real Salt Lake, could use that this year to make a Cup push.
Jonathan Dos Santos hasn’t exactly lit MLS on fire, but he’s competent in the LA Galaxy lineup. His salary isn’t outrageous like his brother’s and he did just play in a World Cup for Mexico, albeit briefly. Unlike many other DPs in our league, he has a fair amount of value in the global market.
Nemanja Nikolic, while not at his Golden Boot pace, is still a very good finisher. At his salary and age, though, the difference between top goal scorer and very good goal scorer means quite a large drop in the rankings.
YOUNG PLAYERS SEEKING CONSISTENCY
76. Yamil Asad, DC United — 23; RM; $520,552 (TAM-eligible)
75. Paul Arriola, DC United — 23; RM; $639,000 (Young DP)
74. Jonathan Lewis, New York City FC – 21; RW; $125,500
73. Christian Ramirez, Minnesota United FC — 27; CF; $641,250 (TAM-eligible)
Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola haven’t had the year they thought they would with D.C. so far. Asad’s production is way down versus last year with Atlanta United. Arriola hasn’t locked down a consistent spot on the field all year. Still, there’s a lot to be optimistic about if you’re D.C. management.
Asad’s underlying ability to create chances hasn’t changed. His xG+xA rate this year is 0.33 versus 0.35 last year. The difference is the assist conversion rate has been lower since he’s not feeding Josef Martinez. This is also true for Arriola, whose xG+xA rate is 0.37 versus 0.38 last year.
With the addition of Wayne Rooney — who should take up a large amount of time on the ball, allowing Asad and Arriola to run — and a boat load of home games in a new stadium to close the year, expect Asad and Arriola’s stock to rise.
Jonathan Lewis didn’t get much playing time for NYCFC after the club traded nearly $250,000 in allocation money to draft him. That changed with the introduction of Domènec Torrent as manager — and Lewis has been on fire, posting a ridiculous 1.51 xG Chain per 96 minutes (for comparison, Mauro Diaz posted a 1.27). Expect his value to sky rocket in the future.
Finally, Christian Ramirez has had a topsy-turvy year. His productivity has dipped, and Minnesota United bought the rights to another striker, Angelo Rodriguez, as a designated player. But, Ramirez did score 14 goals last year as one of the top American strikers in the league. Despite his high salary, the same teams that could be after Fanendo Adi could also look into getting Ramirez. If not, Minnesota might regret turning down offers from Mexico that reportedly were in the low seven-figure range.
KEEPERS WITH TRADE VALUE
72. Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union – 27; GK; $500,000 (TAM-level)
71. Zack Steffen, Columbus Crew – 23; GK; $145,000
70. Matt Turner, New England Revolution – 24; GK; $67,500
I mentioned in my first iteration of the MLS Trade Value that “goalkeepers in MLS are like running backs in the NFL.” They’re hugely important to a team, but they are rather easily replaced, minimizing their trade value.
That’s why, I believe, Tim Howard’s contract ($2.5 million for a below average, aging keeper) is the worst in the league, and that perhaps the league did Seattle a favor denying Stefan Frei as a TAM player (I’m also against the league doing this).
The three keepers on the list are because of their transfer value in the global market or because they extremely outperformed their salary.
Andre Blake had quite a few clubs after him at the end of 2017 given his performance with the Jamaican national team. This got the Philadelphia Union to re-sign him at a fairly high salary. He’s regressed a bit this year, but let’s hope the Union don’t fall for the “Adi Theory” and try to hold on to him for too long.
The same can be said for Zack Steffen, where Columbus just turned down nearly $4 million in a fee from an English club. Much like Blake, you have to think the offer came from Steffen’s excellent showing with the U.S. men’s national team, especially against world champion France.
Retweeted U.S. Soccer MNT (@ussoccer_mnt):
— firstname.lastname@example.org (@YULANDAJONES) July 21, 2018
Steffen has quality, but his advanced numbers in MLS this year haven’t been fantastic. He, like Blake, actually allowed more goals than his expected goals number. He’s also apt to make mistakes, which makes me believe he could also be an “Adi Theory” candidate.
This is not the case with Matt Turner, who’s the best goalkeeper in the league this year. He’s let in eight fewer goals than his expected goals, good for tops in the league. And with a very team-friendly salary, Turner would likely fetch the most assets.
GOALS COST MONEY
69. Cristian Penilla, New England Revolution – 27; LW; $550,000 (TAM-eligible)
68. Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew – 26; ST; $630,000 (TAM-eligible)
67. Ola Kamara, Los Angeles Galaxy – 28; ST; $925,000 (TAM-eligible)
66. Dom Dwyer, Orlando City – 28; ST; $1.383 million (DP)
65. Danny Hoesen, San Jose Earthquakes – 27; ST; $518,000 (TAM-eligible)
Dependable goal scorers cost a fair amount. This is true for any league, and especially in MLS, where much of the cap is dedicated to goal scorers. All of the players on this list are exactly that.
Cristian Penilla is arguably New England’s most dangerous player moving forward. He’s averaged 0.70 goals + direct assists per 96 minutes, which is near All-Star level. The thing to watch for is if this is sustainable given his xG+xA/96 is 0.42.
Dom Dwyer is likely the most consistent goal scorer with eight goals in a little over 1,000 minutes. His goals per 96 minutes (no PKs) is 0.67, which is 6th in the league. If he has chances, he’ll put them away at a decent rate . But given his designated player status and the amount it took for Orlando to get him, you have to wonder if even more is expected.
Danny Hoesen is San Jose’s lone bright spot in a miserable season. He’s scoring goals at 0.57 per 96 minutes and has been involved in other ways in the attack. His relatively young age and friendly contract makes him an asset in the league, regardless of what happens the rest of the season.
The most interesting names on this list are Gyasi Zardes and Ola Kamara. I’ve written about the trade here. While Columbus certainly got the better deal, I think Kamara is the better striker. Even while sharing the field with larger-than-life Zlatan Ibrahimović, Kamara’s xG+xA/96 is at 0.74 (the same as Ibrahimovic). Zardes comes in at 0.64.
Rating Zardes is difficult. He’s having a great year, but is following a throwaway year in which he tried to become a defensive back. We all know how good Columbus’s system is for strikers. It’s a bit like being a running back for the Denver Broncos in the late 1990s – you’re going to look good. But his trade value is based on how good he’d be in another system.
I asked Twitter and it was equally divided:
I'm working on a new trade value update and I need your help. If Berhalter were to put Gyasi Zardes on the market and you were the GM of your favorite team, how much would you offer in TAM for him?
Feel free to elaborate in the comments section.
— Tutul Rahman (@tutulismyname) May 15, 2018
The takeaway here is that for most players, the system is just as important as the talent level — and let’s all be glad that Zardes found a system that works for him.
Up next: Nos. 64 -30 on the MLS Most Valuable Trade Assets countdown. Stay tuned…