If you’re looking for a book to read at the beach or during extended couch-time this weekend, Soccernomics and The Beckham Experiment offer two perspectives on systemic soccer issues facing the Union and other MLS teams.
Soccernomics (Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski, 2009) presents a macro view of statistics involved in soccer, from franchise values to penalty kicks to racial discrimination. The Beckham Experiment (Grant Wahl, 2010) is a lighter – though no less intelligent – book that illustrates the big-picture issues presented in Soccernomics with intimate stories among a cast of LA Galaxy management, coaches, players, and peripheral agents. These books include many analyses, stories, and conclusions, but here are three particularly worth considering and debating with a fellow soccer academic over beach beers:
1) Soccer clubs are museums
Kuper and Szymanski conclude that soccer is not only a terrible business, but the “worst business in the world,” in which only only a few exceptional teams can hope to make money. Owners will have difficulty saving and raising money because winning is strongly correlated to spending money, but it is not correlated to making money. Chapter 4 explains these analyses, but their suggestion for understanding a soccer franchise is more interesting: “[soccer clubs] are like museums: public-spirited organizations that aim to serve the community while remaining reasonably solvent.”
Experiment examines such a “museum,” LA Galaxy, which demonstrates both the business-like approach taken by its owners AEG and the entertaining styles of the club curator, general manager Alexi Lalas. While making outrageous or inflammatory statements to the media, and advocating for entertaining soccer, Lalas tells his players not to believe statements he makes to the media. Lalas’s purported willingness to play lightening rod for US soccer creates buzz, but his performances as general manager and a TV commentator create significant credibility issues noted in the book by Wahl and Landon Donovan.
Experiment also colors the Soccernomics argument that winning is correlated to spending money. In spite of sprees for David Beckham, Donovan, Abel Xavier, and coach Ruud Gullit, LA still struggled to win. After Gullit grew frustrated with players, perceived slights, and mounting losses, he explained that in MLS “you just can’t buy players.” This is exactly the fix that Kuper and Szymanski would suggest, but annoys some people about Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Chelsea. Experiment might lead fans of a league where players and managers compete on their merit with equal resources to greater appreciate the MLS spending limits. But Donovan questions that policy, “Don’t you want to have a competitive advantage in everything that you do?”
2) Aging players are overvalued
Chapter 3 in Soccernomics, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blonds,’ explains the keys to player transfers. There is a checklist for the truly lazy reader (pp. 73), but I will start with one, “older players are overvalued,” which sounds like the premise for major talent acquisitions in MLS.
Experiment could simply have provided anecdotal evidence of the overvaluation of older players. In addition to LA’s acquisition of Beckham, Wahl also shows that, out of loyalty, Lalas passed on trading his friend, veteran Pete Vagenas for a younger Kyle Beckerman, who is now a US National Team midfielder. While loyalty and experience are valuable to any team, the Soccernomics-indicated trade almost certainly would have improved LA for many years to come.
However, the issue is not so clear in Experiment or around US soccer. In Experiment, Alan Gordon, the LA striker who is known derisively by LA fans as ‘Flash’ for his lack of pace and told a stewardess that his first-class airplane seat was nicer than his apartment, notes that he misses the leadership of “dickhead veterans” who pushed him to the back of airport lines and forced him to carry equipment. Something resonates when someone that honest says something so adverse to his own interests.
MLS has pursued players after their prime, because it does not have the funds or the competition to attract those players during their prime. Developing domestic talent is obviously important, but there is also different, significant value in a player, like Beckham, Marco Etcheverry, or Carlos Valderrama, toward the end of his career. The team will not benefit from youthful energy or ambition, but it will gain an international, top-level perspective that does not exist in this country or during any player’s youth. The young, talented Union – especially Michael Farfan, Freddy Adu, and strikers in need of service – could benefit from the structure and experience that a veteran midfielder like Juan Veron or Juan Riquelme could provide to its vacuous midfield.
3) Soccer players are people
The most basic issue raised in Soccernomics could also be the defining issue in Experiment: the importance of players’ quality of life. Kuper and Szymanski ask why not pay $25,000 to help find a house and schools for a player, who doesn’t know the culture, the language, the people, or the area, and for whom the team is paying tens of millions of Euros?
MLS teams don’t have this precise issue. Experiment illustrates the occasionally awkward interactions among players who were paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, and those who were paid less than $20,000 and had to make serious decisions about marginal income. Galaxy players used to MLS-mandated hotels were embarrassed when Beckham saw the hotel’s pre-game meal of fried chicken. Jokes about well-compensated John Kruk mowing lawns in the off-season were funny, but Gordon rushing through LA traffic to make rent by borrowing from his girlfriend and coaching a girls soccer team during the MLS season fall closer to pitiable. We would all like to play soccer for money, but we usually have a different off-field scenario in mind than living with teammates or in the coach’s basement. These issues go beyond inconvenience or discomfort, they have can significant effects on performance.
On a systemic level, this raises substantive reasons for MLS to pay for better accommodations and services. On a human level, Experiment might engender greater patience for New York players next to Thierry Henry ($5.6 million) and Rafael Marquez ($4.6 million), DC players next to Dwayne DeRosario ($663,000) and Hamdi Salihi ($487,000), and Philly players next to Freddy Adu ($519,000), Gabriel Gomez ($294,000), Bakary Soumare ($280,000), and Carlos Valdes ($268,000). Although DC and Philly, without any salaries nearing $1 million, lack the degree of polarization in New York, Raymon Gaddis ($33,000), Antoine Hoppenot ($44,000), Chase Harrison ($44,000), Jonathan Borrajo ($44,000), Chris Korb ($44,000), Connor Lade ($33,000), Ryan Meara ($33,000), and Ryan Maduro ($44,000) are not living the full-fledged dream.
It doesn’t just happen
Soccernomics presents compelling statistical arguments, and Experiment provides the details about media, organizational, and interpersonal challenges that might slip between the cracks of a regression analysis. As Donovan reflects in the book, “It doesn’t just happen.”
If you’re interested, need some more numbers in your soccer life, or just want to read Grant Wahl’s writing, but only have time to peruse these books over the weekend, I would recommend Experiment Chapter 13 ‘Good Teammate, Bad Captain’ and Soccernomics Chapter 8 ‘Football versus Football.’