Analytics: Examining NYCFC’s midfield problem

Lampard got hurt during Sunday's game against Dallas. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

The second season of the New York City FC experiment is about to begin, and it’s just as confusing to figure out.

The NYCFC project represents firsts in many categories in Major League Soccer, and therefore trying to predict the club’s general success is uncharted territory.

What we do know is that this is the first time an MLS team is going to try to, and probably have to, squeeze three designated players and world stars of considerable magnitude on the field simultaneously. To add to NYCFC’s dilemma, this is their new manager’s first coaching gig—and Patrick Vieira is another big, international name to fit into the intended scheme.

First year international DPs’ contribution to team’s end of year GF (goals for) tally in Goals + Assists. TG Influence = (player goals + player assists)/team total goals

These initial issues, although significant, are personality and role based. If you dig deeper, there are greater, functional concerns with the fit of these stars within a formation with specific responsibilities.

Will Andrea Pirlo contribute anything on the defensive side of the ball besides taking up space? What is Frank Lampard's identity in the team, and what does he concretely contribute? What does the inclusion of Pirlo and Lampard in the same midfield do to another handsomely paid, U.S. international in Mix Diskerud? If Kwadwo Poku is one of the rising cornerstones of the franchise, and he's plugged into a midfield shape with Pirlo and Lampard, who defends in that space? There are many steep climbs for Vieira this upcoming season and I'm not even sure there's a clear path to take.

In the “designated player era” there has not been an example of multiple, international DPs coming to the same MLS team in their first season and performing superbly together. Looking to past MLS seasons for a benchmark possible comparison bares little fruit. The New York Red Bulls took a stab at it in 2010 with the acquisitions of Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and later adding Tim Cahill to the mix.

The trio experienced moderate success in the regular season, leaping as high as fourth in the MLS league table, but never making it beyond the first round of the playoffs. In 2013 the Red Bulls were the best team in MLS, but the Marquez experiment was deemed a complete failure prior to the start of the season and he was cut loose.

Two different studies performed in 2012 arrived at complimentary conclusions when analyzing correlation between wages and production.

The first (Optimizing the First XI: Salary Allocation Strategies for Major League Soccer) was accepted to the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and looked at the effective player output in MLS in relation to the wages that were earned, both in the scopes of players and teams, among other topics.

One of the conclusions drawn was, “Considering higher-priced Designated Players (DPs), it should be noted that these players do not dominate the top percentiles of the observed player-seasons. There are certainly going to be ways these players add value that aren’t captured in the current model … however the data that we have been able to capture creates an argument that their production can be purchased at lower prices on the domestic player market.”

area vs base salary image

The context to the conclusion was included looking at the value of relatively expensive designated players versus recruiting talent from the college ranks through the MLS SuperDraft. Although the study was performed in 2012, and many successful DPs have been introduced to the league which possibly would alter the findings if performed in the current year, the fundamental argument is important.

The second study (Superstar Salaries and Soccer Success: The Impact of Designated Players in Major League Soccer), also published in 2012, analyzed wage inequality and team success within MLS teams with data leading up to that year. One of its conclusions was that designated players have had a negative impact to a team's points total and that their salary contributed to greater wage inequality within the same team. The caveat is that if the team's wage bill was increased entirely then that would obviously increase the productivity because, hopefully, better players were being signed.

The issue with the NYCFC problem seems to be recruiting expensive talent for the sake of recruiting expensive talent, or marketing a global brand. During the acquisition process to bring Pirlo to New York, then manager Jason Kreis was understood to have thought the the Italian wouldn't be an ideal fit for the team—and he was dead right.

Expensive designated players, a bad structural fit, a new coach and high expectations—it's going to be a bumpy ride for NYCFC this season.

Coleman Larned is soccer analytics writer based in Antwerp, Belgium. Follow him on Twitter