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MLS Carryover Minutes: Why Your Team May Not Have Enough

MLS Carryover Minutes: Why Your Team May Not Have Enough

George Frey - Getty Images

Last year I looked into the concept of 'Carryover Minutes' and their relationship to success in Major League Soccer. I define carryover minutes as minutes that come from a player that was on a team the previous year. For example, the Chicago Fire received carryover minutes last night from Sean Johnson, Jalil Anibaba, Gonzalo Segares, Logan Pause, Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro, and Daniel Paladini. They did not get any carryover minutes from Arne Friedrich, Austin Berry, Alvaro Fernandez, Alex, Chris Rolfe, Guillermo Franco, or Sherjill MacDonald.

Kansas City on the other hand had carryover minutes from almost every player in Friday night's game. Jimmy Nielsen, Chance Myers, Matt Besler, Lawrence Olum, Seth Sinovic, Julio Cesar, Roger Espinoza, Graham Zsui, C.J. Sapong, and Kei Kamara all played for KC in 2011. Paolo Nagamura was the only newcomer in the starting lineup and KC head coach Peter Vermes did not use any substitutes last night.

Having a high percentage of carryover minutes over the course of a season appears to be a prerequisite in order to be a top team in MLS. I expanded on this theory in a post earlier this year and for those who want the short verison, take a look at the chart below. The numbers represent the percentage of each team's carryover minutes in the years between 2007-2011.

Team 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Chicago Fire 83 82 92 71 43
Chivas USA 68 65 62 63 49
Colorado Rapids 61 77 70 67* 82
Columbus Crew 61 77^* 83^ 95 59
D.C. United 72^ 51 56 45 44
FC Dallas 80 74 52 78 80
Houston Dynamo 79* 81 85 87 72
Los Angeles Galaxy 50 63 42 81^ 80^*
New England Revolution 74 77 70 58 60
New York Red Bulls 47 76 65 52 64
Philadelphia Union N/A N/A N/A N/A 61
Real Salt Lake 44 57 94* 91 96
San Jose Earthquakes N/A N/A 51 66 82
Seattle Sounders N/A N/A N/A 85 78
Sporting KC 72 65 81 60 63
Toronto FC N/A 52 51 51 35

bold = top 5 finish * = MLS Cup ^ = Supporters' Shield - Montreal, Portland & Vancouver have no data in this period and were thus excluded - A list of season by season in order of PPG is located at the link.

The winners of Supporters' Shields and MLS Cups is composed primarily of teams that have right around 80% in carryover minutes. The two exceptions are a 2009 Real Salt Lake MLS Cup victory that had an even higher mark at 92% and a low mark from the 2010 Colorado Rapids with 67%. Top 5 teams in the MLS Regular Season standings between 2007-2011 also tend to have percentages that are around 75%-80%. The extreme exceptions are the expansion 2009 Seattle Sounders, the 2009 Los Angeles Galaxy, and the 2010 New York Red Bulls. As highlighted in previous posts, all three of these squads enjoyed multiple designated players. This is a point I'll revisit.

For a condensed view with a larger data set, I have added up the average number of points between 2007-2011 and the average carryover minutes percentage. Teams with less than 5 season have been listed in their own following chart.

Team Avg Pts Avg CM%
Columbus Crew 48 75
Los Angeles Galaxy 48 63
Houston Dynamo 47 81
FC Dallas 44 73
Real Salt Lake 43 76
Chicago Fire 42 74
Colorado Rapids 42 71
Chivas USA 41 61
Sporting KC 41 68
New York Red Bulls 40 61
D.C. United 39 54
New England Revolution 39 68

Team Avg Pts Avg CM%
Seattle Sounders (2) 56 82
Philadelphia Union (1) 48 61
San Jose Earthquakes (3) 37 66
Toronto FC (4) 36 47

(#) = number of seasons included; expansion seasons thrown out as they posses 0% carryover minutes

There isn't a defined ratio between average points and average number of carryover minutes but there is a general order. The expansion teams without a full five years tend to follow this order as well. The one exception is the Union. As we'll see later, the odds might be evening out for them this year.

Theories & Relevance

Does this mean that Major League Soccer's end game should be keeping the same players on your squad year after year? Not exactly. In what I refer to as the 'Beer League' effect, you can't take just any 30 individuals from your local park district and expect to climb up the MLS table. Proper talent evaluation must be made. Teams have to work around MLS' salary cap. Front offices have to pick up the phone when foreign teams call for their best players and when those players want to leave for grander stages.

My main take away from these numbers is that your typical MLS player needs time to gel with their teammates and learn the league. It may sound dullingly commonsense but this is not how your typical player analysis takes place. Players are expected to have immediate impacts. Analysts often give more weight to individual talent than they do team cohesion. The fact of the matter is there's nothing like trial and error. Two teammates that have found they can't beat Opposing Player A with Move/Pass A won't waste possession trying to accomplish Move/Pass A. The same two teammates will try something else and have a better chance at succeeding. Over time, the two teammates discover what works for them in any kind of situation... as long as a coach lets a promising pairing blossom. At higher levels of soccer you have smarter, faster players with fewer flaws. Transitions are easier to make. In MLS, it takes more time to work around flaws and find winning combinations.

Related: What's in a Name: Chicago Fire - Follow Hot Time In Old Town on Twitter

Elite Talent

Here is where I believe the super elite players in MLS come into play. Super elite players tend to be designated players but that's not always the case. Conversely designated players are not necessarily elite players. With that said, let's go back to the three outliers to the MLS Carryover Minutes theory: 2009 Los Angeles Galaxy, 2009 Seattle Sounders, and the 2010 New York Red Bulls. The Galaxy had David Beckham and Landon Donovan. The Sounders had Fredy Montero and Freddie Ljungberg. The 2010 New York Red Bulls had Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry, and Rafael Marquez. I believe these teams over performed the general MLS Carryover Minutes order because they had these elite players. Elite players provide several advantages. For one, there's a permanent spot in the lineup. Few MLS players that aren't at 100% can't be equally replaced by another squad player that is completely healthy. That's not true for a guy like Henry. A team isn't just deeper, the competition for starting spots is much harder when one is completely off the board. You also have the obvious effect of an elite player's execution. New York's mid-day game against Chicago earlier this year is the perfect example. Without Henry's skill, that's a 0-0 draw instead of a 1-0 New York win.

However, these players can only take you so far. It's true that those three teams outperformed the numbers but it's also true LA and Seattle went on to greater continued success as more of their squad came back the following years. New York's carryover minutes percentage was 64% in 2011 and they just barely scratched in the playoffs. All three teams fell short of bringing home the MLS Cup or the Supporters' Shield in their respective year of outperforming.

2012 Regular Season

Now let's take a took at how the teams are doing this season. The first table is sorted by current points and the second table is sorted by carryover minutes percentage.

Team Pts CM %
San Jose Earthquakes 60 81
Sporting Kansas City 58 87
Chicago Fire 53 71
D.C. United 50 67
New York Red Bulls 50 47
LA Galaxy 49 80
Real Salt Lake 49 90
Seattle Sounders 48 64
Houston Dynamo 46 85
Columbus Crew 45 59
Vancouver Whitecaps 38 46
FC Dallas 36 70
Colorado Rapids 30 60
Philadelphia Union
30 70
New England Revolution 29 60
Portland Timbers
29 62
Chivas USA
28 47
Toronto FC 22 67

Team Pts %
Real Salt Lake 49 90
Sporting Kansas City 58 87
Houston Dynamo 46 85
San Jose Earthquakes 60 81
LA Galaxy 49 80
Chicago Fire 53 71
FC Dallas 36 70
Philadelphia Union 30 70
D.C. United 50 67
Toronto FC 22 67
Seattle Sounders 48 64
Portland Timbers 29 62
Colorado Rapids 30 60
New England Revolution
29 60
Columbus Crew 45 59
New York Red Bulls 50 47
Chivas USA 28 47
Vancouver Whitecaps 38 46

The top of the 2012 MLS Regular Season numbers are lining up just about identically to previous years. Teams with at least 80% carryover minutes are enjoying great seasons. San Jose and Kansas City are fighting for the Supporters' Shield. Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy are fighting for 2nd place in the West. Houston only has 46 points but 3 of their 4 remaining games are at home and their remaining opponents have PPG of 0.97, 1.29, 1.07, and 1.00.

Chicago, D.C., Seattle, Dallas, and Columbus are on the edge of outperforming. New York is drastically outperforming. In a similar matter to the 2010 squad, the Red Bulls are stacked with Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Rafael Marquez as DPs. Seattle and Chicago have multiple DPs too (Christian Tiffert, Fredy Montero, and Mauro Rosales for Seattle; Alvaro Fernandez and Sherjill MacDonald for Chicago). Columbus' rise in the standings corresponded with the signing of DP Federico Higuain. D.C. only has Hamdi Salihi on the books as DP right now but teammates Dwayne De Rosario and Branko Boskovic have been DPs in the past.

Playoff Barometer & Hope for the Bottom of the League

As the 2012 MLS Regular Season comes to a close, history suggests Real Salt Lake, Sporting KC, Houston Dynamo, San Jose Earthquakes or LA Galaxy will win the MLS Cup. The 2010 Colorado Rapids give some hope to the teams on the outside like Chicago, D.C., Seattle, Columbus, New York, and Dallas but it seems to be a puncher's chance. There does seem to be a major advantage for 'teams' that are in fact teams. Low carryover minutes clubs should be proud of what they do this year but it probably isn't your year this time around.

Fans of teams on the bottom who like their team and want to see a good portion of the core play next year can take comfort in something I wrote back in March:

[Teams] 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% carryover minutes), the 2010 Houston Dynamo (1.10 pts per game and 87% carryover minutes), and the 2011 San Jose Earthquakes (1.12 pts per game and 82% carryover minutes). 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.

I'd say San Jose has made it a quite interesting year for their fans. Perhaps your team is down right now but the right parts are in place for a rise to the top in 2013.

Final Thoughts

MLS carryover minutes continue to show that building a powerhouse in the league takes at least two seasons. The instruments of single-entity parity and splashy DPs can only boost a team up so much. The long trek up to the top of the table and to consistent competitiveness requires a steady hand in the front office that can not only identify talent but identify talent that will stick around. If you've got a good coach and at least eight or nine players returning, you could have a great season ahead. If you've got a major turnover taking place, buckle in for a bumpy season. There's no such thing as a quick fix for elite play in Major League Soccer.