Rebuilding the San Jose Earthquakes using Data and Analytics
Can the San Jose Earthquakes go from dead last to the best team in the MLS? I think so. The inclusion of data and analytics within sports is growing rapidly. Data has an increasing impact on which players are bought and sold, and nowhere is this more apparent than soccer. The MLS is at the forefront of this new trend, with an influx of young South American players, fading stars from Europe, and homegrown US players joining the league.
With the MLS playoffs in full swing, I pondered upon the possibility of a team taking the “money ball” approach to winning a championship. I searched for this year’s overall worst performing team and found the San Jose Earthquakes.
The Earthquakes found success in the early 2000’s with MLS cup victories in 2001 and 2003, as well as winning the Supporters Shield (Most points in MLS) in 2005 and 2012. However, the last couple of years have been tough for the Bay Area team. Except for the anomaly of inching their way into the playoffs last year, and having a breakout season in 2012, the Earthquakes have been abysmal. Here’s how the last 10 years have been:
The Earthquakes haven’t finished higher than 6th place in the last ten years, except in 2012. Within the last ten years, they have finished in dead last four times. In fact, they haven’t accumulated over 50 points in a season since 2013, when they still missed the playoffs, and in 2012 when they won the Supporters Shield. Roughly 50 points gets you into the playoffs based on results the last few years.
To figure out how to rebuild the San Jose Earthquakes into a soccer power house, I’m going to rely on a few tools. The first is the Audi Player Index. According to MLS, “The Audi Player Index is an innovative player performance rating system in soccer that uses a data-based model to record nearly every performance relevant action on the field”. The next tool I will be using is the MLSPA Salary-Guide, a chart published by the league’s players association that contains salary information for all MLS players.
Another tool at my disposal is the MLS’s player database. With this data I can filter players by age, club, status (homegrown/international), and more.
I’m going to try to make this as accurate as possible using these resources, while keeping within the rules and regulations set for transfers by MLS.
As of December 6th, 2018, the state of the team is as follows: There are 3 players above age 30, making this teams average age 25 years. Last year, they brought in 4 players from college, 2 from their academy, and 3 from their USL affiliate, Reno 1868 FC. Great, lots of youth. When it comes down to positions, there are 3 keepers, 10 defenders, 9 midfielders, and 2 forwards.
Year 1 (2019) Moves
Goal: Out with the old and in with the new (and young). The very first thing the Earthquakes should do is offload old and unneeded talent for cap space and international roster spots. Let’s start with the 3 players over 30.
Chris Wondolowski is a 35 years old Designated Player and making $800,000 according to the MLSPA. Shea Salinas is 32 year old midfielder who makes $200,000. Guram Kashia takes up an International roster spot at the age of 31 and gets paid $549,999.96. These 3 players alone make up 22.37% of the San Jose Earthquakes total compensation towards players and are costing the organization $1,549,999.96.
My reasoning for offloading players aged over 30 is because they will not get any better. It’s similar to the old saying, your car depreciates in value the second you drive it off the lot. Well, once soccer players turn 30, they start to decrease in value, and I rather get the most bang for my buck while I can. Of course, there are always exceptions, such as Zlatan and David Beckham.
We are also going to sell keeper Matt Bersano, who costs us $68,254.20. He has allowed the most goals from outside the box (12) and the fifth most from inside the box this season. He maintained a goals against average of 2.07 and only saved 57.2% of the 153 shots he faced this season.
Factoring in these 4 players ages, recent stats, and transfer prices according to TransferMarkt, I’m confident we can sell them to another MLS team. For example, Chris Wondolowski has averaged 10+ goals and ~5 assists the past five seasons. Any MLS team in need of a goal scorer who grabs a hand full of assist will jump at the opportunity to grab the San Jose legend. Offloading Chris frees up a designated player spot (a rule that allows each MLS franchise to sign up a player that would be considered outside the team’s salary cap), and Guram Kashia (former player who was released as of 11/29/18) opens up an international roster spot.
Typically, the transfer money for selling a player is allocated to buying players. However, to keep this as realistic as possible with the data I have, I’m going to do the following. The $1,618,254.16 in total compensation from the 4 players leaving the club will become my budget. I will then assume/give the actual transfer profits from these 4 players to the organization to keep for other uses not including buying players.
The second thing we are going to do is loan out the youngsters and any players that are way down the pecking order. The players will be sent to San Jose’s USL affiliate, Reno 1868 FC, for the whole season. Because the players are on San Jose’s USL affiliate, the wages will remain with the Earthquakes. This will be: Jacob Akanyirige, Gilbert Fuentes, Paul Marie, and Eric Calvillo.
Let’s recap where we are right now. After selling 4 players and loaning out 4, we have 21 active players on our roster, 25 including the Reno players.
The last thing we are going to do in year 1 is build a core of talented youth players. The Earthquakes have already started this process and are off to a great start. We are switching formations to a 4–2–3–1 for more defensive support. Our goal this year is to stay competitive and not finish in last place. We are going to buy a GK, LB, and CDM. Our budget is $1,618,254.16.
Because we sold our starting keeper, we are in need of a new man between the sticks. I’m interested in Alex Bono from Toronto F.C. to take the reins. He has saved an average of 68.3% of the shots he faced over the last three years and only allows 1.29 goals on average. He will cost $164,000, not bad for a top five keeper. He saved the ninth most shots inside the box, despite Toronto and himself having a rough season after winning the MLS Cup last year. Our budget is now $1,454,254.16.
One player I am very excited about is Ilie Sanchez. He is a CDM that not only defends well, but controls the game with his passing. He has the second most passes in the opposition’s half, fourth most in the final third, tenth most in his own half, and tenth most successful long passes. He also has the eleventh most interceptions this season. He will cost a “hefty” $330,008.00, but compared to other players in his position, he is a steal. The total budget is now $1,124,246.16 and Ilie uses an International roster spot.
Now it’s time to beef up the LB spot. I’ve gone with Danilo Acosta who costs $100,000.00. He’s only 21 and qualifies as a homegrown player through Real Salt Lake, despite being born in Honduras. He’s a versatile player who can play multiple positions and likes to get forward. He has two assists in his last two seasons and is starting to get involved with the US national team. Our budget is now $1,024,246.16.
Finally, we have four picks in this year’s MLS SuperDraft. I’m looking to get a ST, RM/RW, CB, and LW/LM. We have the second overall pick, 26th, 50th, and 74th. For the first pick, I am selecting ST Andre Shinyashiki (assuming FC Cincinnati doesn’t). He has scored 28 goals in 21 games this season at Denver, 11 of them being match winning goals. He will cost us roughly $68,500.00 based off of other top rookies’ contracts, and the International spot from former player Guram Kashia.
To ensure this is as accurate as possible, I will not name the players of the next three picks. However, I would select a CB, LW/LM, and RM/RW, each of them costing around $54,500.04. More likely than not, these three will spend the full year on loan at Reno. Our remaining budget for year one is $792,491.84.
Year 1 Recap:To summarize this eventful year, we sent 4 players on loan to Reno 1868 FC, the Earthquakes USL affiliate, sold 4 players to other MLS teams, and purchased 3 players while drafting 4. The 3 players bought were GK Alex Bono from Toronto F.C, CDM Ilie Sanchez from Sporting K.C., and LB Danilo Acosta from Real Salt Lake. We drafted striker Andre Shinyashiki from Denver, while also selecting a CB, RM/RW, and LW/LM. The total amount spent on players was $826,008.12 in year one, with our remaining budget now $792,491.84.
Year 2 (2020) Moves
Goal: Continue the process. The goal is to make the playoffs with one of the last two seeds in the West. This season, I would like to bring in three players, a CAM, RM, and CB. As players continue to develop and team chemistry improves, I’m confident the team will make a solid run and get the necessary 50 points to qualify for the playoffs.
The 4 Reno players will now be back on the team, as their loan has expired. With a full season of development in the USL, we now have some depth across the board. However, we are going to send the two teenagers, Jacob Akanyirige and Gilbert Fuentes, back to Reno. This year they will feature on the first team from time to time. We will also send 2 of the unnamed draft picks back to Reno, keeping the second round choice, RW/RM. This season we will have 4 players on loan at Reno.
With everyone aging a year, we now have a player over 30 again. Florian Jungwirth has turned 30, and I would look to sell him for $566,671.07. Andrew Tarbell is our third string keeper and making $102,000.00, which is way too much for my liking. When we sell him we will be down to 2 rostered keepers. This is okay because in case of an emergency we can pull the keeper from Reno. The last player we are selling is Magnus Eriksson, who costs us $399,999.96. He will be mainly sold for his International Roster spot and age. The total for these 3 players is $1,068,671.03. Our budget from last year was, $792,491.84. Including that total plus this year’s sold players gives us a budget of $1,861,162.87 to work with for the year.
Our CB’s are a bit on the older side, with an average age of roughly 27. We drafted a CB last year, but I’m interested in bringing in another rock in the back. I have selected 22 year old Justen Glad, who is a starter at Real Salt Lake and has been in the league for four years already. He had the fourth most successful passes in his own half, the second most interceptions with 91, and eleventh most interceptions with 76. He will cost us $291,700.00, decreasing our budget to $1,569,462.87.
The next position I want to bolster is CAM. For this, I would like to bring in New England Revolution’s fan favorite, Diego Fagundez. He is only 24 years old, but has been playing on the senior team since 2011! This year he racked up the fifth most key passes in the league while assisting ten times and scoring nine. At only 24 years old, he’s in need of a change to bring his game to the next level. For the price of $190,000.00, I’m all about it. Our budget is now $1,379,462.87.
The last position I would like for this year is a RW/RM. I particularly enjoy when the front three (LW/ST/RW) can play interchangeably. This describes 23 year old Alberth Elis, from Houston Dynamo. For $650,340.00 he is a big time player and shows our intent for the coming years. He has the seventh most take on wins, the most shots on goal from inside the box (31), and tenth most corners won (42). This season, he has scored 11 goals and assisted 10 times. He is going to take the DP slot left from Chris Wondowlowski and requires an International Player spot which was left from Magnus Eriksson. Our final budget for the year is $729,122.87.
This year’s draft will not be included. It is yet to be determined the number of draft picks and the order of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. It will also not be included next year, but we would assume the players would spend majority of their time at Reno.
Year 3 (2021) Moves
Goal: Win the MLS cup. After reaching the postseason last year, we are looking to build upon this success. The team is pretty much ready, and this is the season where it all comes together. We have brought in 8 players over the last 2 years.
Once again, this year we will be sending out a few players on loan at Reno. These players will be Gilbert Fuentes, Jacob Akanyirige, and both draft pick number 3 and 4 from the first year. The difference this season is that they will all spend more time with the Earthquakes. They have developed with Reno over the past two seasons and can now make bigger strides in the MLS.
For depth reason, I will be selling both Kevin Partida ($54,500.04) and Joel Qwiberg ($167,999.96). There is no reason to have 3 wing backs each. Anibal Godoy will also be sold this season. He is now 30 and has one of our heftier contracts with $473,125.04.
Ilie Sanchez is now 30, but we brought him in the first year. At this stage of the process, it’s good to have more experienced players, despite their age. I start to overlook my “age 30 and you’re out rule” as the team becomes serious title contenders. Ilie Sanchez has the experience to help with the youngsters and lead us to the playoffs.
The squad is looking sharp, and I’m only interested in bringing in two players. I’m looking for a center mid that is a box-to-box type player and can be the difference maker. I would also like to add another sharp center back, as we have three center backs that are approaching 30. These are going to be players who costs a bit more, have experience in the MLS, and have prior playoff experience. This is the final piece to the puzzle. Our budget this year from selling 3 players and last years remaining budget is $1,424,747.91.
For a CM, I would bring in Albert Rusnak from Real Salt Lake. He will cost a hefty $925,820.50, the second most on the team and most we’ve spent on a player. His quality on the ball and picking out teammates will propel our offense and strengthen the midfield. In his first two seasons in MLS, he has scored 17 goals and has 21 assists. Last season he had the seventh most successful crosses, eleventh most goals outside the box, and ninth most key passes. He will take the international roster spot from Joel Qwiberg. Our budget is now $498,927.41.
And lastly, the CB, and final signing, will be Walker Zimmerman from LAFC. He had the fifth most aerial battles won and the eighth most goals after corners (4). He’s a large, mobile center back that has an eye for goal and will complete our defense. The 27 year old will cost us $235,000.00. So, our remaining budget is $265,927.45.
This is a Replicable Model
In 3–4 years (depending on where the club currently stands), every club should be able to propel themselves to a championship.
The first year is about committing to the rebuild. One necessary action every club should take is to offload older players and stars (who are at their prime) in order to free up cash and acquire assets, like drafts picks or international roster spots. The goal is to not finish in last place, while building around some key players you currently have (Ex: Valko).
The second season is where you acquire assets that build around your key player(s) and continue to offload any players you weren’t able to last year. The goal is to become competitive and build a young, strong core that has a clear identity. We did this by drafting Andre Shinyashiki (ST), and buying Ilie Sanchez (CDM) and Danilo Acosta (LB) in year one. We then added to this by purchasing Justen Glad (CB) and Diego Fagundez (CAM) in year 2. In our scenario, we merged the first 2 seasons because the Earthquakes already started with year one.
Year 3 is about making the playoffs. The team should have a strong nucleus that is ready to make significant strides. We will add to this nucleus (our year 2) and fill in any remaining gaps on the team. Year 4 is about one thing and one thing only. Winning the championship. This is where the vets come to play, as you rely on experience mixed with talented youth and depth. You add the missing star or two and compete for the championship.
Moving forward, data and analytics will impact the game in significant ways. Every tackle, goal, interceptions, and much more will have a statistical weigh to it. Everything a player does will be put into a database for coaches and scout to scour over. Players will be scouted based on their in-game outputs and rated upon how efficient they were compared to others. Data will be available to all to see and observe. This is the future of sports.
It was a long process, but at the end I built a team based around real data and analytics. This is the future, and more and more clubs will be prioritizing this method of thinking and scouting. I hope you enjoyed this article and if you want more of this kind please let me know!
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- The Earthquakes started the rebuild process already. Typically, this model would be a 4-year process, with the first year cleaning house and stocking up on picks, international roster sports, and cap space. Since they started this, I was slightly ahead of schedule and combined year 1 and 2.
- Andre Shinyashiki cost can double if he signs a Generation Adidas contract. I’m also assuming he will require an international roster spot, since he was born in Brazil and has only been in the US a handful of years. I couldn’t find his age either.
- New draftees names aren’t mentioned, therefore nor are their ages.