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MLS Carryover Minutes: What does this mean and why does it matter?

Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy have a high number of MLS carryover minutes since 2010 and they have multiple trophies to show for it
Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy have a high number of MLS carryover minutes since 2010 and they have multiple trophies to show for it

Last year I examined how MLS teams have done based on the number of minutes a team gets from players that were on that same team the year before. For example, the Chicago Fire had Patrick Nyarko, Marco Pappa, Baggio Husidic, Logan Pause, Gonzalo Segares, Corben Bone, Sean Johnson, and Dasan Robinson in 2010 and all of those players provided the team with minutes in 2011. Their combined minutes in 2011 represented 43% of the total minutes the Fire had last season. If that seems low, well it is. 43% gives the 2011 Chicago Fire squad the third lowest carryover minutes figure of the 70 non-expansion squads that played between 2007-2011. Why that destined the team for almost certain doom and why a higher number of carryover minutes in 2012 should mean good things this year is after the break.

High Amount of Carryover Minutes Seems to be a Requirement for the MLS Cup or Supporters' Shield

Getting minutes from players that were on the team the year before is important. The past Supporters' Shield winners have had carryover minutes totals of 80%, 81%, 83%, 77%, and 72% going backwards from 2011 to 2007. The MLS Cup winners have been 80%, 67%, 92%, 77%, and 79% in that same time frame. 2nd place in MLS: 78%, 91%, 42%, 81%, and 68%. 3rd place in MLS: 93%, 52%, 85%, 82%, and 79%. 4th place: 80%, 78%, 0%, 77%, and 74%.

The three outliers in that group are the 2009 LA Galaxy (42%), the 2010 New York Red Bulls (52%), and the 2009 Seattle Sounders (0%). All three squads had multiple designated players (Landon Donovan/David Beckham for LA, Juan Pablo Angel/Thierry Henry/Rafael Marquez for NY, Freddie Ljungberg/Fredy Montero for SEA) and each team had a couple of players that were worthy of being paid like designated players. All three squads still came up short in the race for the Supporters' Shield and the MLS Cup. LA and Seattle only went to the top of the league when they had about 80% carryover minutes in 2010 and 2011. New York by contrast only had 66% carryover minutes in 2011 and just barely finished in the 10th position in the league and clawed into the final playoff spot.

Highs and Lows of Carryover Minutes

On this topic, I think it's easy to realize that a high amount of carryover minutes does not guarantee success. If you took 25 random guys off the street or even 25 random players from the MLS Combine and had them play together year after year, they would hit their ceiling at some point... and that ceiling may not be very high. Three examples of this are the 2009 Kansas City Wizards (1.10 pts per game and 81%), the 2010 Houston Dynamo (1.10 pts per game and 87%), and the 2011 San Jose Earthquakes (1.12 pts per game and 82%). It's curious to look at Kansas City and Houston because they were confident enough to put out their teams and keep their leadership in place despite the failure on the field. Both teams cut the part of their rosters that weren't working and seem to have replaced the parts that were 'broken'. It will be interesting to see if San Jose is able to do the same thing this year.

Another limit on the carryover minutes is how high a team with a low number of roster carryover minutes can go. I mentioned the top teams for trophies above. The 14 worst squads in MLS between 2007-2011 all had 65% carryover minutes or less. While MLS' salary cap and single entity status are designed to keep parity in the league, it's clear that rebuilding years do exist. It's almost impossible to import a third of your minutes and still hope to compete that year. If you are trying to import over half of your minutes, you are in even more trouble.

Why is This the Case?

I don't think there is one answer to this question. Someone's initial reaction to last year's post was along the lines of 'duh, good teams keep their good players'. That does make a lot of sense. It doesn't take a genius to keep a winning team on the field. People looking at the Chicago Fire for 2012 universally talked about the need to add a top striker but few talked about needing to remove any players.

I think the analysis of why teams with a lot of roster turnover suffer goes a little deeper though. Teams have to work inside the salary cap so they can't throw 'sure' things at every position. The budget just isn't there to make it happen. Almost every player is a gamble. As with all bets, sometimes you lose. The situation is made worse when a team has to make multiple gambles at the same position and other positions at the same time. You bring in two guys to play right back that are 50/50 bets and a defensive midfielder that is a 75% bet. Your team is hurt when both of the right backs work out and the defensive midfielder is a wash out. You can't sign a new defensive midfielder in the summer because you spent all your money or at least you can't get rid of the first defensive midfielder's salary and replace him with a player of equal pay.

This is also where simple incompetence comes into play. Look at D.C. United and Toronto FC since 2007. D.C. won the Supporters' Shield in 2007 (72% carryover minutes) but has failed to make the playoffs since with carryover minutes of 51%, 56%, 45%, and 44% as the years progressed. Seemingly every gamble D.C. has taken has failed. The organization appears to be clueless as to identifying quality MLS players. The U.S. capitol team's poor mark is rivaled only by Toronto FC: 0% for expansion in 2007, then 52%, 51%, 51%, and 35% in the years that followed. TFC fans will be quick to say it wasn't necessarily a lack of quality MLS talent evaluation as it was Mo 'Trader Mo' Johnston constantly trading players and not keeping the same squad together. That is quite possible and brings me to my final point.

I do think there is value in keeping a core group of players together especially when it comes to players of MLS caliber. MLS carryover minutes are not just an indication of other good things happening in the organization. An honest MLS fan would admit that every player in MLS has multiple flaws. If these players didn't have multiple flaws, they would be playing in a higher quality league. I think it takes time for players to adjust to the flaws of their teammates. A midfielder needs to get into a grove of when his teammates will make runs. Teammates need to learn by trial and error how much touch is too much for some, but not enough for others. Defenders learn when their fellow defenders will provide cover and when they will surely get burned. You maximize the positives that allow a player to compete at a professional level. You work around their flaws to minimize the negative impact.

Whatever you believe, it's hard to deny that MLS carryover minutes can be a helpful tool in analyzing a MLS team. For that reason, I'll be using MLS carryover minutes all season long to preview and recap the Chicago Fire's opponents. Up next, the vanquished Philadelphia Union and this weekend's opponent, the Colorado Rapids.