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Do MLS teams still rely upon older players?

How does NYCFC stack up against other MLS clubs in terms of age of players and minutes played?

MLS: FC Dallas at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With Wayne Rooney being linked to D.C. United, the moniker of MLS as a retirement league has surfaced again. Despite the influx of young and middle aged players from across the world to MLS, people still view MLS as a league for older players because European stars frequently come here after “finishing” their career in Europe. Alas, this theory that MLS is a “retirement league” is actually false because most teams don’t rely on heavy minutes from older players. There are very few players who fit this category (34 plus) active in MLS. Instead, they utilize various different aged brackets to create their rosters. From academy kids to older players, various MLS teams are successful because of the different age combonations they use. In this article, I will examine and analyze the different strategies the teams use when distributing minutes to various aged players.

For some time now, I have been wanting to examine teams’ age category and number of minutes played (this article was inspired by an SB Nation article from ‘We Ain’t Got No History’). Here, I divide a range of ages that correspond to what stage of their career the player is in:

Academy: 18 and under

College/Young Player: 19-22

Emerging/Early Prime: 23-25

Prime: 26-29

Post-Prime: 30-31

Veteran: 32-33

Old: 34+

While the ranges are not exactly even, they encapsulate and provide a generalization of the type of player you would find in that age bracket. These categories are also meant to be a generalization, as not everyone in those ranges fit those exact definitions and/or criteria. I also chose to examine the data from the beginning of the season to May 1 (the end of the primary transfer window). By this time, most teams have played about 25% of their games, which can offer us insights into how teams play their different age categories.

New York City FC

  • NYCFC hasn’t played any academy aged players :(
  • NYCFC currently has a lot of players in their prime and younger, but the issue will be how they will replace the Old category (David Villa)
  • All of NYCFC’s College/Young Players receiving minutes are not from the United States
  • NYCFC relies on a lot of international players and players who are on a green card to fill their starting line up

Eastern Conference

  • Atlanta United are an exciting team to watch as they have a lot of young talent. If they can hold onto these future stars, they will be a force to be reckoned with as long as they can replace some of their key older players. Right now, they also have a good balance between younger and older players. Is this indicative of a deep playoff run this season?
  • Orlando City is relying on a lot of players in their prime, while filling in rest of the minutes with a mix of young players and older players. Their older players are mostly midfielders and center backs; most of their young talent is in central midfield. Maybe trading Tommy Redding wasn’t the best idea after all. However, the Lions have gone on a tear following their slow start and have made due with what they have.
  • New York Red Bulls focus on youth but do rely on several older players to get the job done (Aurelien Collin, Luis Robles, and BWP). They have a lot of depth at center back, but not at the goalkeeper and forward positions. If their academy and USL B-team can continue to produce the way they have, they should develop some young stars to bolster those areas. As for now, it is exciting to watch all their younger players breaking through, even if it is across the Hudson River.
  • Columbus Crew are almost evenly distributed across all categories, with each age bracket playing about 2000 minutes (except Academy, Veteran, and Old) thus far. Gregg Berhalter is a big system guy, who develops a lot of talent both from abroad and within the league, so this makes sense. I mean, look what he has done with 26-year-old Gyasi Zardes so far this year. Not too shabby. Now he will just have to find a replacement for their aging center piece: Federico Higuain.
  • New England Revolution have relied on players in their prime as they usher in the Brad Friedel era. Only 14 players have played more than 90 minutes this season, so it will be interesting how they last down the stretch. Several of their players who haven’t appeared yet are on the younger side, so they will have to hope they are ready when called upon. If not, they will have to find some players who can be trusted. Improving their depth will be crucial to rising up the table
  • Montreal Impact have an interesting breakdown of minutes played. While they really only have two players who make up the veteran category — namely Evan Bush and Ignacio Piatti — it will be interesting to see how much longer these players can positively contribute. If new manager Remi Garde can develop the kids (Raheem Edwards, Anthony Jackson-Hamel), they could have a strong core to build on.
  • Chicago Fire’s age distribution might not look that bad, but the issue is that their two DPs are on the older side. They will need to work on filling those spots, especially in midfield where their other option, Dax McCarty, is also over 30. Trading Cam Lindley was probably a mistake, but they will have to use their mix of other homegrown and draft picks to soak up the available midfield minutes. Overall, this team is one in need of some players to get healthy and hope players can fill in.
  • The Philadelphia Union are relying on a lot of players in their prime or later9+ who just aren’t producing well. Luckily, they have some younger players coming up through the Academy and USL that can replace them. Still, the onus is on Jim Curtin to play them, and Earnie Stewart to sign players around them that can make an impact.
  • Toronto FC have been focusing on the CCL, so most of their minutes have been assigned to players who usually wouldn’t appear for their first team. This minutes distribution may be a positive for them, as they are able to develop younger players. Finally, they have some quality players that are on the older side — like Michael Bradley — that will need replacing in the future, but aren’t showing signs of slowing down right now.
  • D.C. United are relying on a lot of players around their prime, which isn’t uncommon for them because they have made a lot of trades over the years for players in their prime. But, it seems like their strategy isn’t working, so they will need to reshape their vision. They have some pieces to build around, but it will be a lot of work to accomplish.

Western Conference

  • Sporting Kansas City’s core is built around players who are mostly in their post-prime phase. They are reaching the end of their dynasty, but coach Peter Vermes has recently has his contract extended, so it will be interesting to see how he moves on. Losing Erik Palmer-Brown will hurt, but developing Jaylin Lindsey will help ease the transition at right back.
  • For an expansion team, Los Angeles FC have done a good job of creating a balanced roster. Expansion teams often rely on a lot of older players, but the Black-and-Gold haven’t. LAFC have accumulated some solid, younger players. The key will be developing younger players who are currently backups — like Tristan Blackmon — with the idea in mind that they will take over in the future.
  • Vancouver Whitecaps has spread out their minutes across a diverse demographic of players. Most of their players are around the prime age, except Alphonso Davies. Luckily for them, they have an open DP slot, so they could fill it with a younger player.
  • FC Dallas have been known for playing their kids and so far this season, they have been playing mostly players in their prime or younger. In 2018, they have also been without Kellyn Acosta, who is one of their brightest young talents. The question for FC Dallas is how they will make way for the next generation of talent. Will they start selling their prime-aged players?
  • Minnesota United were rushed into MLS last year, but their current roster has a lot of players in their prime. While not all of those players have worked out, they have some talented players like Miguel Ibarra, Kevin Molino, and Ethan Finlay. Even though two of those aforementioned players are currently injured, they both should have at least a couple of really good seasons left in them. Right now, the issue for the Loons is repairing a leaky defense that relies upon several older players to get the job done. If they integrate some of their younger players into the team, they could be on the right track
  • Houston Dynamo have a pretty even distribution, but it is worrying that a lot of their defense is on the older side. They will definitely need to bring in some new defenders ASAP. On the plus side, they have several young, exciting attackers who will thrive under Wilmer Cabrera.
  • Portland Timbers are relying on a lot of veterans because they don’t exactly have younger, ready-to-go backups at the necessary positions. New coach Gio Savarese has accumulated some younger talent, but the onus will be on him to develop those players. Overall, this roster is evolving, but has some promise for the future.
  • LA Galaxy play people in their prime and not many other categories. They are actually pretty well balanced age wise, but the issue is that they can’t fit all of their players together. Once some of their older players retire or move on, they will be better off.
  • Real Salt Lake have also been known for playing their kids and that moniker is certainly sticking. Despite not playing Danny Acosta very much, they have played a signigigant amount of players in their prime and younger. What is a little worrying is that they are relying on two old players without clear successors, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando. Other than that issue, RSL are probably the best at #PlayYourKids.
  • Colorado Rapids brought in a lot of players around their prime in the offseason and that strategy is evident in their distribution chart. As their oldest player, Tim Howard, has a capable back up, this team looks like it could be poised to improve, as long as they bolster their attack. If they better utilized their DP slots, they would be in a great position to win silverware.
  • Seattle Sounders have been devastated by injuries but are relying on several older players, especially at center back to keep them going. In this time, they have been able to play some younger players, but it isn’t good that they still haven’t addressed some of their deficiencies.
  • San Jose Earthquakes mostly feature players in their prime or younger, but are struggling to put together results. A lot of their players just aren’t cutting it, but they do have some young talent that could be utilized. It will be interesting to see whether they start tanking, or keep playing some veteran players who are on their way out soon.

Final Thoughts

A common trend across several teams is that there is a steady balance of players across all age brackets. And while there are some that are relying upon older players to bolster the squads, these teams will eventually replace those players. What will be interesting to see is when and how they do that. MLS’s player acquisition strategy is evolving as teams scour the globe to acquire players via draft picks, homegrown signings, or landmark foreign signings. It will be interesting to watch how these new players affect the age categories and minutes played moving forward.