Diamonds in MLS Rough: Michael Ballack is Just Fool’s Gold

By Kevin Koczwara

Drew Carey, a part owner of the Seattle Sounders as well as a comedian and former television star, took part in a panel discussion about soccer analytics at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday, March 3. He represented Major League Soccer on the panel that included mostly technical directors from European clubs. And yet, Carey, not a career soccer person or scout, unveiled the most wisdom on how teams are tying to use analytics, especially his team in a global market flushed with teams and money.

The most poignant piece of wisdom to come from Carey was, “we’re trying to find a diamond in the rough.” While MLS has grown, it’s still a league with a salary cap and relatively limited resources. Those limited resources and the salary cap force teams in MLS to be creative when they’re looking to sign players, and forces teams to think long and hard about the price a player will demand or what type of contract a player will get (semi-guaranteed or guaranteed) and how a player will fit into the franchises’ big picture.

Last season the Sounders found that diamond in the rough. His name: Mauro Rosales.

Rosales grew through the Newell’s Old Boys system in Argentina, his home country, before moving to Europe to play for dutch side Ajax, where he played for two years in 68 matches and won two Dutch Cups. Rosales moved back home in 2007 to play for one of Argentina’s most famous clubs, River Plate, for three years.

Rosales faced a decision in 2010. River Plate was facing an economic crisis after José María Aguilar left the presidency after accumulating $75million of debt. The team would finish in last in Argentina’s top-division for the first time in its history that year, but Rosales found his way to Seattle before the club was relegated the second-division for the first time in the club’s 103-year history. The move paid off not only for the player, but also for the club.

Rosales had a pedigree of playing in top leagues around the world. He worked his way through a good academy at Newell’s and played twice in the Argentina top-division, which isn’t for the faint of heart or weak ankles. He then spent time in a technically proficiency league, the Eredivise, with Ajax, a team known for its positive play, technical ability, and development of players. Rosales wasn’t much of a risk to bring in for a trial for Seattle when looking back at it. But it was the team’s initiative to capture the player before anyone else got wind that he was available and willing to play in the U.S.

He was named MLS’s Newcomer of the Year in 2011 and stamped his creative prowess all over the side, making them one of the most entertaining teams to watch every week. With the performances, Rosales found himself the lucky recipient of a multi-year deal that made him the team’s third Designated Player.

Every other team in MLS is looking for its own Rosales, in one way or another. It’s not easy, but finding players like Rosales is what separates the good teams from the bad teams in a league with a salary cap. It’s what makes Seattle a contender and a team like Chivas a dreary mess.

This leads me to Michael Ballack. The German international is out of contract at the end of the Bundesliga season. Ballack, Germany’s captain in the 2006 World Cup, has found life at Bayer Leverkusen more difficult than he expected after signing with the club in 2010 when Chelsea decided not extend his contract.

Ballack’s agent told Goal.com that the former Chelsea midfielder wants to try to play in MLS. His agent thinks the former German international can play in MLS as a designated player. But is he worth the money? Is the 35-year-old a diamond in the rough? Or is he fake gold that will cost a team too much?

Ballack looks more like fools gold. His agent obviously hasn’t watched enough of MLS to understand the style of play and the quality in the league — argue all you want, but MLS has become a deeper and stronger league every year and is better than people give it credit for. Two years ago, Chelsea didn’t think Ballack could keep up with the pace of the Premier League, and neither did any other top club, so he went back to Germany. And Ballack hasn’t found it any easier there. Leverkusen wants no part of the spoiled player, and won’t give him another shot when his contract expires in the summer. Ballack will be shocked at the speed and quality of play in MLS if and when he does sign during the July transfer period.

It will be interesting to see what team, if any, deem him worthy of a guaranteed Designated Player deal because there are other Rosales out there — there have to be — and it would serve a team better to search for a cheaper alternative to a Ballack if it can.

Kevin Koczwara can be reached at kkoczwar@gmail.com.

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