Climbing the Ladder: Newcomers to MLS

Newcomers In MLS, 2005 - Present
Year Debuts Per Team
2005 120 10.0
2006 87 7.3
2007 113 8.7
2008 136 9.7
2009 114 7.6
2010 135 8.4
2011 179 9.9

Think of some of the MLS newcomers this season who have made headlines: Luke Rodgers, Mauro Rosales, C.J. Sapong, Jay DeMerit.

They're all part of a record influx of new players into the league this season that shows the value of MLS coaches looking at an increasing variety of ways to find and seal the deal on new talent.

In fact, there have been a total of 179 new players to see action during the 2011 season in all competitions,  the most new additions in any year since 1996, the league’s first. On a per-team basis, it’s third behind that year and 2005.

The table at right shows the breakdown of amount of newcomers since 2005, when 120 new players debuted in the league. This year's influx marks a noticeable uptick in the number of players entering MLS, but where exactly are they coming from?

The second table at right offers a breakdown of how these players came into the league over the past four seasons.

Methods of Arrival In MLS
Method 2011 2010 2009 2008
Drafted 46 44 30 62
Home Grown 15 13 2 0
Lottery 5 2 2 1
E. Loan 1 2 1 1
Domestic 30 10 22 22
Foreign 82 64 57 50

Drafts include the 2011 SuperDraft, 2011 Supplemental Draft and any players from previous drafts who may have waited to debut.

Lottery refers to the MLS tradition of a weighted lottery for draft-eligible or Generation Adidas players who sign after the SuperDraft has taken place. Five this season is the most so far for a single year (Sporting Kansas City rookie Soony Saad is perhaps the biggest name), but despite the amount of attention they get, the impact hasn’t usually matched the hype; the Crew’s Robbie Rogers the only participant to end up on a Best XI team.

Without the smaller rosters used a decade ago, emergency loans in MLS are nowadays almost entirely the realm of goalkeeper injury woes. This year, pool 'keeper Chris Konopka started a single game for New York when they needed someone to fill in.

What makes a signing domestic or foreign? The numbers here have been determined by the player’s last team before being signed. So an American or Canadian player can be counted as a foreign signing, like in the case of DeMerit or Benny Feilhaber coming from Europe. Likewise, domestic signings include those coming from teams in the American soccer pyramid regardless of nationality, as well as undrafted college players.

Playing Time for MLS Newcomers
Method Players Minutes Mins. Per Player
Drafted 24.8% 23.2% 825
Home Grown 7.0% 3.3% 423
Lottery 2.5% 0.2% 52
E. Loan 0.6% 0.1% 90
Domestic 15.9% 14.7% 815
Foreign 49.0% 58.6% 1,058

Looking at the breakdown, two interesting things stand out. The first is the rise in the Home Grown or academy players. In 2009, only LA’s Tristan Bowen and Chivas USA’s Cesar Zamora represented the category, and combined they played only 91 minutes in three games. With the loosening of Home Grown signing restrictions after last season, these numbers should only increase. 2009 was also the year the roster size was decreased, as well as the reserve division and Supplemental Draft being disbanded, accounting for the lower number of draft picks from 2008. After two years away, both returned for 2011.

But the most interesting note is the jump in domestic signings from last year, which can be attributed to two organizations making the transition from the second division to MLS. Between them, Portland and Vancouver count for nearly half (14 out of 30) of those players. Foreign players have increased their raw numbers as well, but as a percentage the last three years have been about the same.

Looking past the total player numbers, how much playing time is each category responsible for in 2011? The chart at right uses players who have played in the regular season, which are 157 of the 179 newcomers.

Foreign signings have gotten more playing time, which is expected since they are older and more expensive. That is, they’re more likely to be brought in to have an immediate impact. The opposite is true for younger players, especially the Home Growns who are mostly brought along slowly.

2. Which teams are the youngest and oldest this season?

Average Ages In MLS
Team Average Age
New York 29.04
Seattle 28.37
Colorado 28.24
Real Salt Lake 27.86
Chivas USA 27.77
San Jose 27.77
LA 27.75
Dallas 27.63
Philadelphia 27.00
Columbus 26.90
Kansas City 26.74
New England 26.54
Houston 26.44
Vancouver 26.34
Chicago 26.20
Portland 25.87
Toronto 25.43
D.C. United 25.22

With the regular season less than a week away from completion, it’s time to revisit the average age of each MLS team. The number is determined by taking the exact age for each player on July 1 (e.g. 23.71), then multiplying that number by minutes played. By doing that for each player and then dividing by the team’s total number of minutes played, an average age can be found for each team.

The New York Red Bulls have been by far the league’s oldest team, and one of the oldest in league history. They’re going to be the fifth team to finish over 29, following 2009 LA Galaxy (29.04), 1999 Chicago (29.25), 2001 Miami (29.48) and 2002 Colorado (29.56).

Meanwhile, D.C. United will be the league’s youngest team for the second consecutive season. This is actually the sixth time in 16 years that United have had the youngest team, and only 2004 New York (24.71) have ever been younger. Toronto FC will also finish among the top 10 youngest.

The two expansion teams will end up in the younger half of the table, a trend only bucked previously by Chicago in 1998, Real Salt Lake in 2005 and San Jose in 2008.

The MLS league-wide average age for 2011 is 27.07, a second straight decline and the lowest since 2006. As a whole, 3.82 percent of minutes have been played by teenagers. That should eclipse 2004’s total of 3.76 percent for most ever.