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How to tell if MLS is signing the next Villa versus the next Gerrard

David Villa (left) celebrates his 400th career goal. He continues a storied career with NYCFC in MLS, where he was the 2016 league MVP (Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports). Steven Gerrard (right) did not have a successful MLS career, playing just one season for the LA Galaxy after leaving Liverpool. (Photo: Jennifer Buchanan/USA TODAY Sports)

The first Major League Soccer transfer window just ended, but the rumor mill for the next window is already in full swing. The names being thrown around this time might feel antiquated, if not disappointing, after MLS clubs spent seven or eight figures to get young South American talent such as Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta), Jesús Medina (NYCFC), Diego Rossi (LAFC) and Kaku (NY Red Bulls).

The seemingly inevitability of Wayne Rooney, 32, coming stateside or the rumors of Fernando Torres, 34, have some concerned about a return to the MLS of old. Most expect to see more 20-somethings, less 30-somethings these days. This shift was cemented by the recent failings of Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard. However, reigning MLS MVP David Villa was a 30-something European import past his prime. So was 2014 MVP, Robbie Keane. And former New York Red Bulls talisman Thierry Henry.

So how do we figure out if Wayne Rooney is likely to be the next Villa or the next Gerrard?

Looking at MLS imports from top European leagues and their final year in Europe may give us a hint. Below is a select group of attack-focused imports and their statistical performances the year before coming to MLS. Listed are goals and direct assists per 90 minutes (stats from as of May 10, 2018) for each player’s last year in Europe and first full year in MLS. Only players with a minimum of 1,000 MLS minutes were considered for evaluation.

(*Note: I’ve also added in Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who do not fit this description, as data points given the high-profile nature of the signings).

  Last year in Europe (G+A/90) First full year in MLS (G+A)/90; (min 1,000 minutes)
Keane 0.59 0.82
Giovinco 0.48 1.13
Villa 0.63 0.86
Beckham 0.59 0.52
Henry 0.51 0.64
Vela* 0.39 0.88
Dos Santos 0.26 0.65
Kaka 0.17 0.57
Zlatan* 0.81 0.91
Lampard 0.73 0.98
Gerrard 0.42 0.46
Drogba 0.53 0.76
Defoe 0.56 0.77
Dempsey 0.50 0.93
Altidore 0.20 0.67
Martinez 0.39 1.18


The first thing to note is that performance in MLS is almost always better than the last year in Europe. There could be many reasons for this, chief among them being that Europe is a a tougher standard of play. Also, many of these players leave Europe as the third- or fourth-attacking option to becoming the primary focus in MLS.

When putting this data into a scatterplot below, a clear correlation emerges between performance in the last year of Europe and the immediate first full year in MLS.

There have been some overachievers against the correlation — both Sebastian Giovinco and Josef Martínez lit the league on fire upon joining it. But both joined in relatively their prime years. The main underachievers arrived when they were older, coming off relatively low production years overseas. This trend is led by Steven Gerrard but also joined by Kaká, David Beckham and Thierry Henry. The difference between Gerrard and the latter three is that they showed commitment to MLS and their clubs and vastly improved in the following years.

This leads to the question about Wayne Rooney (or Fernando Torres or Mario Balotelli, for that matter).  Here’s how each three have fared in their most recent European seasons and how they compare to our existing data set.

  Latest Year in Europe (G+A/90)
Rooney 0.47
Torres 0.32
Balotelli 0.69

With Rooney’s age and recent performance, our correlation projects he’d perform at around 0.6-0.7 Goals+Assists per 90 minutes, which is fairly decent Designated Player production but not quite Best XI.

That assumes MLS gets 2017 Rooney and not the scoreless Rooney of the last five months. Combine that projected production with making D.C. United relevant by adding some level of general-population name recognition amid a new stadium opening, and you can see why the brass in Washington is willing to make this expensive bet.

Fernando Torres on the other hand seems far less likely a success story, especially coming at 34 years old. His comparisons statistically would be Toronto’s Jozy Altidore or the LA Galaxy’s Giovani Dos Santos, but both of them became MLS successes after making the move in their prime playing years and still are in their 20s at 28 and 29, respectively.

The one most likely to succeed is Mario Balotelli, 27, who would be coming in at a good age after very productive seasons at Nice. He would be the transfer of the season for any team lucky enough to grab him.

MLS fans may be quick to dismiss signing older European names in order to shed the reputation of being a retirement league. But the numbers show that when choosing the right athlete, an older signing can still be very effective.




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