Major League Soccer has always been a league praised for its parity and what it has lacked in overall talent it more than makes up for in excitement. However, teams like Los Angeles Football Club and Atlanta United are beginning to change that narrative and not just in the fact that they aren't afraid to spend large amounts of money on high profile players, that’s been done before, but rather in the fact that no one spends quite as smart as they do. Well, almost no one.
It’s no secret that the Colorado Rapids are one of the least valuable franchises in Major League Soccer. Denver is typically seen as a medium sized sports market, so when calculated into MLS terms, it’s expected that the product will be a smaller market team. So small in fact, a Forbes article published in late 2019, had the club ranked 24th on a list of 24 teams, with a valuation of roughly $190 million compared to a league average of $313 million. Despite this valuation, during the latter half of the 2019 season, the Colorado Rapids surged up the Western Conference standings and came close to making the playoffs. So, how did a team whose highest paid player was a 40 year old goalkeeper start competing with the wealthiest clubs in the league? The answer is a management style known as moneyball that was made popular by the Major League Baseball organization, the Oakland Athletics, during the early 2000’s.
The idea of moneyball is to recruit players based on various, overlooked, in-game statistics. So instead of signing the most talented players for each position, you sign players whose statistics complement one another. These players tend to be undervalued and are therefore perfect for small market teams. However, it's not as easy as simply implementing the idea into soccer. Moneyball was designed for baseball, and would probably go through tremendous trial and error if it were to ever be converted for another sport, but I believe it already has gone through the testing period and the Colorado Rapids have actually figured out how to successfully implement the idea, turning them into a serious contender for the 2020 season. In baseball, moneyball focuses on overlooked stats such as on-base percentage, but in soccer, a much more dynamic sport, it’s more straightforward when it comes to statistics. So, Colorado looked at the static portions of the game, most notably dead ball situations where set-pieces are awarded. Set-pieces like corner kicks, free kicks and throw-ins are some of the most overlooked parts of a soccer match, unless you’re the Colorado Rapids, then it becomes your team's identity. Colorado has constructed their roster in such a way that they completely dominate on set-pieces, and more importantly they did it inexpensively. Let's do a breakdown of some of the most crucial players on the current Rapids roster and see in what ways they fit the mold of a moneyball team.
Kei Kamara (Forward, 35): Kamara is easily the greatest aerial threat in the league, in part due to his athletic ability and height (6’3") and at his age he is still able to put up impressive numbers, such as 14 goals in the 2019 campaign. He was left unprotected in the 2019 expansion draft, where he was then picked by Cincinnati, and promptly traded to Colorado in exchange for an international roster spot. In other words, considering his talent and experience, he could be a designated player, but the Rapids got him at a more than reasonable price.
Jack Price (Midfielder, 27): Price is the most skilled free kick taker in Major League Soccer. He is coming off a record breaking 10 set-piece assist season and already has 2 assists in 2 games for the 2020 season. He along with Kei Kamara are the most important parts of the Colorado set-piece machine. Like Kamara, Price could easily be a designated player.
Younes Namli (Midfielder, 26): Namli is the Rapid’s only designated player on the roster and granted there have only been 2 games this season, he has looked the part of a decent playmaker and already has a goal to his name.
Drew Moor (Defender, 36): Moor is a veteran center back who provides leadership to a talented but young back line. He is also notably dangerous on set-pieces. Colorado signed him as a free agent for the 2020 season and he has already produced a set-piece goal.
Diego Rubio (Forward, 27): I believe Rubio to be one of the best utility players in MLS as we’ve seen him perform comfortably in a number of attacking roles. However, I think the way in which he is most crucial is his ability to draw fouls, because if you can draw fouls, then you can create set-pieces and in the 2019 season, Rubio was a top ten player when it came to drawing fouls (around 3 per game).
Sam Vines (Defender, 21): Vines is a solid prospect who plays left back, a position that most MLS clubs seem to be in constant need of, but more importantly he’s a homegrown player. Homegrown players will be an integral part of any soccer club utilizing moneyball. Unlike MLS, MLB is not a league where you can fill out your remaining roster with cheap young players and expect them to perform well throughout the season.
Andre Shinyashiki (Forward, 23): Shinyashiki is the perfect example of how clubs on a budget are supposed to take advantage of their league’s respective draft. The Rapids traded for a higher pick in the 2019 draft and they selected Shinyashiki who would go on to have an impactful season resulting in Andre winning Rookie of the Year.
Keegan Rosenberry (Defender, 26): Quality fullbacks are somewhat of a rare breed in Major League Soccer, so when the Rapids had a chance to spend a fair amount of money to acquire Rosenberry, they were more than happy to do so. One of the best right backs in the league, Rosenberry proved to be a great fit with the club’s style of play and has cemented himself in the Rapids starting lineup.
Lalas Abubakar (Defender, 25): Abubakar proved to be the most crucial piece of the Rapids back line in the 2019 season when he was brought in on loan from the Columbus Crew. His stellar performances throughout the season garnered high praise from pundits and it was no surprise to learn that the Rapids had traded for the Ghanaian center back.
According to WhoScored.com, in 2019 the Colorado Rapids led the league in set-piece goals with an outstanding 19. And I have no reason to doubt that the number will increase come the next full season, whether that be 2020 or next year. In any case, if the team performs well, perhaps it can make other clubs, who perpetually struggle in top European leagues, feel like there is a solution to bridging the wealth gap and change the way we value players on a global scale.