Climbing the Ladder: Playing percentages by nationality

As MLS continues to grow and mature as a league, the number of international players and their impact on the league has steadily increased. What percentage of the league’s minutes are being played by international versus domestic players, and how has that changed over the past few years?

A word on nationalities

First, it’s necessary to explain how these numbers were obtained. I gave every MLS player one nationality—the one that they’re considered to be for international soccer. While some players have citizenship with multiple countries, each only has one “soccer nationality.” So for example, New England’s Shalrie Joseph is Grenadian and Columbus’ Jeff Cunningham is American. And somehow, LA’s Josh Saunders, a native of Grant’s Pass, Ore., is Puerto Rican.

If a player hasn’t played for a national team, then I considered him under his birth nationality (i.e., where he was born), even if he has since gained another citizenship. That means a player like Philadelphia’s Stefani Miglioranzi is counted as Brazilian, even though he also holds American and Italian citizenship.

So because of the varying factors surrounding citizenship, the total number of minutes played by American citizens is actually higher than the following numbers will show. It should also be noted that many of the foreign players in MLS have come through the “American system,” via college or the lower leagues.

Still, there is value in considering the raw data.

Percentage of Minutes Played in MLS by Nationality (2006-2011)

  USA Canada Other
2006 69.97% 2.06% 27.97%
2007 64.16% 4.49% 31.34%
2008 60.93% 3.59% 35.48%
2009 60.16% 4.75% 35.09%
2010 55.15% 4.27% 40.58%
2011 53.89% 4.63% 41.47%

[inline_node:331408]As it turns out, the percentage of minutes played by Americans has decreased for four consecutive years. While the 2011 number is based on just the first two weeks of the season, it’s unlikely to end up back near the 60 percent mark of several years ago.

Why has this trend occurred? Well, increases in the salary cap and improved scouting operations have allowed teams to attract better foreign talent. There’s also the 2007 introduction of the Designated Player rule, now increased to three per team.

However, perhaps the single most impactful rule change occurred before the 2008 season. That’s when the separate categories of “senior internationals” (25+ years old) and “youth internationals” (24 and under) were eliminated, allowing each team eight international players of any age.

In addition, expansion has meant more players have been needed to fill the roster spots. In 2006, there were 12 teams and 336 roster spots. This year, there are 18 teams and 540 spots. The Home Grown signings have added plenty of promising American talent, and there are likely more Americans in the league than ever before.

As we all know, there is no easy way to raise the level of American and Canadian soccer players. Some argue that more domestic players in MLS is the best route to improvement. However, the opposite might actually be true. Better foreign imports—and more of them, up to a point—have obviously raised the overall quality of the league. This, in turn, provides a better environment for developing American and Canadian players.

There’s always been a call for more competition for spots, more intensity, and recent trends should help provide that. So while the percentage of playing time for Americans may be decreasing a bit, that shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. Unlike some of Europe’s prominent leagues, there are limits on foreign spots in MLS. The league is not about to repeat the mistakes of the NASL.

2011 Domestic Minutes Played ranking

    Domestic Foreign
1 San Jose 81.41% 18.59%
2 Portland 77.27% 22.73%
3 Houston 75.81% 24.19%
4 Colorado 72.63% 27.37%
5 New England 66.87% 33.13%
6 Chivas USA 63.84% 36.16%
7 Real Salt Lake 60.15% 39.85%
8 DC United 56.26% 43.74%
9 Columbus 55.00% 45.00%
10 Dallas 53.73% 46.27%
11 Philadelphia 47.83% 52.17%
12 Los Angeles 47.21% 52.79%
13 Kansas City 45.32% 54.68%
14 Chicago 44.14% 55.86%
15 Seattle 38.55% 61.45%
16 Toronto 27.41% 72.59%
17 New York 23.03% 76.97%
18 Vancouver 16.13% 83.87%

For this ranking and the chart below, “domestic” was counted as American for US teams and Canadian for Toronto and Vancouver, though the 2011 league rules now allow the Canadian teams to count Americans as domestic (only three Canadians are required on the roster). If both were counted as domestic for Toronto and Vancouver, their 2011 percentages would be 59.52% and 50.85 respectively.

The San Jose Earthquakes lead the pack, and this is no surprise; they also led this category in 2010. Head coach Frank Yallop’s influence regarding domestic players goes beyond his own roster, though. His former assistant Dominic Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo are in third, and Kinnear’s former assistant John Spencer is heading the Portland Timbers, who are second. The championship San Jose and Houston teams never seemed to use their full complement of international spots.

Meanwhile, New York are the lowest of the American teams. They’ve traded for several extra international spots, and are taking the opposite of the Yallop approach. The Red Bulls' first match—before losing several players to international call-ups in Week 2—included only two Americans in the lineup: Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream.

2006-2011 Domestic Minutes Played percentages by team

  2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Chicago 73.86% 68.87% 65.27% 65.29% 54.34% 44.14%
Chivas USA 70.85% 52.56% 63.29% 52.38% 47.27% 63.84%
Colorado 66.85% 65.60% 58.24% 72.74% 64.74% 72.63%
Columbus 66.65% 55.72% 67.35% 68.75% 63.16% 55.00%
Dallas 49.04% 51.96% 45.34% 52.82% 61.86% 53.73%
DC United 70.89% 63.67% 49.92% 49.07% 52.38% 56.26%
Houston 66.93% 77.25% 80.39% 73.03% 65.44% 75.81%
Kansas City 79.45% 84.01% 74.61% 79.22% 49.08% 45.32%
Los Angeles 78.51% 79.26% 76.92% 75.58% 67.25% 47.21%
New England 71.62% 71.50% 66.52% 64.93% 54.69% 66.87%
New York 78.14% 64.41% 57.40% 43.92% 33.29% 23.03%
Philadelphia xxx xxx xxx xxx 53.52% 47.83%
Portland xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx 77.27%
Real Salt Lake 66.82% 69.11% 56.99% 61.81% 54.72% 60.15%
San Jose xxx xxx 65.46% 68.44% 75.79% 81.41%
Seattle xxx xxx xxx 47.41% 48.55% 38.55%
Toronto xxx 32.24% 22.28% 36.22% 31.24% 27.41%
Vancouver xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx 16.13%

[inline_node:325660]Several things immediately stand out here:

Colorado Rapids head coach Gary Smith has relied much more on American players than his predecessor Fernando Clavijo, and he has an MLS Cup as a reward.

In his first full year of 2009, the percentage went up by 14 points. That’s the largest one-year increase on this table. Though their 2010 percentage was lower than 2006 and 2007, it ranked much higher in comparison to the rest of the league.

The largest one-year decrease was in Kansas City in 2010. Peter Vermes signed a large number of international players before last year, and many became important contributors. 2011 appears to be a similar situation at Sporting, though two of their regular foreign starters, Sierra Leonean striker Kei Kamara and Honduran midfielder Roger Espinoza, came up in the US system.

The second biggest drop pales in comparison; it’s Chivas USA in 2007, when Preki took over for Bob Bradley. Currently, the 2011 LA Galaxy are way off last year’s number, but it’s early and a healthy Omar Gonzalez could make up for some of the discrepancy.

New York have seen a decrease in each season, and it’s also interesting to see Seattle—the team with the Barcelona-inspired membership program—use more foreign talent in each year.

In general, the stats pertaining to playing time and nationality tell an interesting and continually shifting story about MLS. They can be read in many different ways. What’s obvious, though, is that there is a correlation between the rising level of MLS , the improving US and Canadian national teams, and the increased quality of the foreign players in the league.

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