Calculating My 2014 MLS MVP Vote

(Trigger warning for non-soccer friends: this is all soccer.)

The end of the season MLS award voting is a bit of a struggle. With rather nebulously defined categories, voters (of which I am afforded a ballot through my media role) is forced to scratch their heads a lot. We try to figure out what level of adversity justifies the “Comeback Player Of The Year” award. We read through team-supplied biographies of various charitable efforts to work out who deserves “MLS WORKS Humanitarian Of The Year”.

And “Most Valuable Player”? It’s hopeless. Player “value” is subjective to the individual person, and so what makes one player valuable to one voter may not matter at all to another. And it’s been particularly difficult in 2014, with no clear frontrunner across any of the 19 MLS teams. Yet it’s serious business: one Twitter user declared me a “fucking idiot” for not having their favorite player in my short list.

So inspired by the Grand Ginger Of Major League Soccer (who advocates for having a formula for deciding your MVP, despite Twellman’s objections), I decided to create my own algorithm this year to help me figure out my vote.

First, I had to select a player pool. Defensive metrics are nearly impossible to come by, so I limited the list to forward and midfield players, trying to get at least one per team (with a few exceptions: sorry Colorado / Montreal / San Jose!). The twenty names that ended up on the spreadsheet were:

Quincy Amarikwa (Chicago); Will Bruin (Houston); Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York); Erick “Cubo” Torres (Chivas USA); Jermain Defoe (Toronto); Clint Dempsey (Seattle); Landon Donovan (L.A.); Dom Dwyer (Kansas City); Fabian Espindola (D.C.); Ethan Finlay (Columbus); Thierry Henry (New York); Robbie Keane (L.A.); Sebastian Le Toux (Philadelphia); Obafemi Martins (Seattle); Lee Nguyen (New England); Pedro Morales (Vancouver); Joao Plata (Salt Lake); Luis Silva (D.C.); Diego Valeri (Portland); Gyasi Zardes (L.A.)

Independently from the players, I had to select what stats mattered to me, and how much each counted.

I started with the most critical thing you can do as a player: win games for your team. So game winning goals were given a weight of 4 points each, and game winning assists would earn 3 points each.

Next, I wanted to reward offensive production in general, so non-penalty goals earned 2 points (even if they were the same as the game winner). Non-game-winning assists were worth 1 point.

Then I wanted to consider what actions an offensive player could take that would damage their team’s ability to win. I could only think of two that were easily measured: missed penalties and red cards. Red cards being the more serious of the two, I subtracted two points for each red and removed a single point for a missed penalty kick.

This gave me a raw score for each player. How did it look? Here was the top ten:

  1. Robbie Keane (79 points)
  2. Lee Nguyen (71 points)
  3. Bradley Wright-Phillips (68 points)
  4. Tie, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins (61 points each)
  5. (see #4)
  6. Landon Donovan (59 points)
  7. Tie, Dom Dwyer and Gyasi Zardes (58 points each)
  8. (see #7)
  9. Thierry Henry (53 points)
  10. Diego Valeri (52 points)

For most pundits, this is a cut and dry confirmation of what many had been saying: Robbie Keane’s production was ridiculous, and he was an easy vote for MVP. (Grant Wahl offered his case for Keane winning MVP today, which partially lead to this post being written.)

I, unsurprisingly, am not most pundits.

I get very hung up on the word “valuable”, and after rolling it around in my head for a while, I couldn’t overlook one thing: the pay scale in MLS is quite notoriously out of whack. This is, after all, a league where a player on one side of the locker room may be making $6,000,000 as a base salary (like Toronto FC striker Jermain Defoe), while his teammate across the room may be on the league minimum of $36,500 (like Toronto FC midfielder Daniel Lovitz).

So I wanted to apply a “salary factor”, one that would adjust the player’s performance in light of their salary. This took a little while to figure out a reasonable system for, because with the range so great, it could very easily tilt the scale too far away from designated players.

The formula I came up with looks like this:

Factor = SQRT(SQRT([Player Base Salary] / [League Median Salary]))

The league median in 2014, per articles I dug up, was $80,000. Taking the fourth root stabilized the values into a range from 0.89 (for Ethan Finlay, making just $50,848) up to 2.94 (for Jermain Defoe). Dom Dwyer sits right at $80,000, so he was the only player to not have his raw score modified by the multiplier.

Is the factor uniformly fair? It’s debatable, but my general impression is yes. The Keanes and Defoes of the world should be better than the guys making a sliver of their salary. (Again, I’m obsessing over value, and I get that’s not for everyone.)

Here, then, are the rankings of all 20 players scaled by salary:

  1. Lee Nguyen (58.38 points)
  2. Dom Dwyer (58.00 points)
  3. Gyasi Zardes (51.88 points)
  4. Joao Plata (50.66 points)
  5. Bradley Wright-Phillips (47.71 points)
  6. Ethan Finlay (43.68 points)
  7. Luis Silva (37.88 points)
  8. Will Bruin (36.49 points)
  9. Fabian Espindola (35.89 points)
  10. Diego Valeri (32.89 points)
  11. Erick “Cubo” Torres (30.66 points)
  12. Robbie Keane (28.85 points)
  13. Obafemi Martins (28.76 points)
  14. Quincy Amarikwa (24.72 points)
  15. Sebastian Le Toux (24.07 points)
  16. Landon Donovan (21.85 points)
  17. Clint Dempsey (21.79 points)
  18. Thierry Henry (20.26 points)
  19. Pedro Morales (15.79 points)
  20. Jermain Defoe (12.91 points)

There’s a lot of interesting occurrences in here, particularly when it comes to LA’s attack. Donovan (4 GWG / 5 GWA) and Keane (5 GWG, 6 GWA) both produced big numbers, but when Gyasi Zardes is in the same ballpark (6 GWG / 0 GWA) for a fraction of the salary ($125,000 compared to Landon’s $4.25M and Robbie’s $4.5M), it’s hard to argue they’re not getting tremendous value out of their academy product.

But overall, the math confirmed what my gut had been feeling: that Lee Nguyen put up incredible numbers (no one was even close to his nine game winning goals) at what is almost a criminally low salary. (Never mind that he’s not an attacker and produced those numbers as a midfielder.)

So: my first choice vote (you get two choices on the ballot) for the 2014 MLS MVP for Lee Nguyen.

I have no doubt some will want to argue that my weights are wrong, that I’ve overlooked a key metric, or that I’m just dumb for using a spreadsheet to determine who to vote for. And that’s cool, but I’m not looking to argue – it was my vote, one of who knows how many in the media vote, which will only count for 33% of the total vote scoring.

For those that would prefer to argue about this, a request: write your own algorithm. The process is illuminating about what does and doesn’t matter to you when it comes to player performance. (And if you want to lobby people with the votes that count the most, aim for a club’s sporting director/coach/GM/communications director, as those 76 votes combined count as much as the entire media vote.)

As for my second choice? Well, I can’t follow a formula all the time.

June

It’s been over two months since my last post, which is terrible. I hope to write something a little more in depth soon, but here’s some general updates for the sake of not losing track of what’s happened in my life.

JC in Spring

The weather finally turned, ending my terrible hatred of the outside that developed over a brutal winter.

Enjoying a Bottled Negroni

We went to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic Gala for the first time. It will probably be the only time: it’s a fun event, but it’s also intensely packed. I enjoy nice cocktails, but I like not moving around as a herd to get them.

The American Dream (Which Might Be A Turkey Leg)

US Soccer came to town for a friendly against Turkey in their run-up to the World Cup. Many soccer things happened, including me making a joke about Landon Donovan that could’ve gone disastrously. Thankfully, it did not.

Gervais

I saw Ricky Gervais again at the Paley Center, this time talking about Derek. It was nearly 10 years ago when I last saw Gervais at what was then the Museum and Television and Radio, which had some special significance. It’s weird to see someone like that twice separated by a decade.

I turned 34. Somehow, I don’t have a picture of any of the weekend’s activities, but heartfelt gratitude to all the friends and folks who came out to my overly planned birthday festivities. Love you all.

Woy In The Jungle

The World Cup started. If we’re playing the “Dan denotes everything of his life in stages”, the 2014 World Cup marks the completion a four-year World Cup cycle since I got back into soccer, since it was the start of the 2010 World Cup that brought me back. I have been busy getting up at 6 every morning to write about the Copa Das Copas. It has been a fantastic tournament. I will be sad when it’s over.

First Goal In An Eternity

I played my first game of soccer in 16 years, as part of the first annual Media Game at Red Bull Arena. Being completely out of shape, I spent much of the match sucking wind or getting burned. I also took a bump on a challenge, fell on my arm, and have had lingering pain for the two weeks since. But I did score one goal, and managed to celebrate it like a complete nerd, as illustrated above.

Just After Midnight

After having made something like 20 podcast appearances, I finally made my first ever television appearance, doing a 10 minute spot on NY1’s “Sports on 1: The Last Word” with Budd Mishkin last Thursday. If there’s anything I miss about living in Astoria, it’s not getting NY1 anymore, so I have not yet seen my own appearance. But a friend from work took the above screen cap, I’m getting a copy of the show on Thursday, and the producer sent me some kind words this morning, so, I’ll take it.

Gaming wise: on PS4, enjoyed the hell out of the Destiny Alpha, had a blast with Sportsfriends during my birthday, and I’m really digging Valiant Hearts: The Great War. On Steam, Nuclear Throne, Full Bore, and Shovel Knight have been good distractions over the steady hum of Dota 2. iOS, nothing substantial – mostly just Disco Zoo and Two Dots.

That’s all for now, I suppose.