Thursday, September 19, 2013

MLS 24 Under 24 : The Hopelessly Futile Challenge

I also wrote a lot of words about my methodology and criticism of the process below.

The Challenge

I have been a little critical of the "MLS 24 Under 24." It is still so early in the player's careers and so much can change.  For evidence, look no further than last year's winner Darren Mattocks, who has fallen completely out of favor with Vancouver.  Naturally, as one does, I voiced my skepticism over Twitter:

"24 under 24 is like looking at a "power ranking" 5 games into the year. Fun, but hopelessly futile."

 Andrew Wiebe of responded and offered to send me a ballot. "Hopelessly futile" challenge accepted.

I am a little familiar with the ballot after seeing Matt Tomaszewicz aka "The Shin Guardian" post his ballot on his website. Finding a consistent approach to grading players is the hardest thing.  Contrary to its intention, I actually think the rubric makes the process harder rather than easier (see Criticism).  There are five categories you must grade each player on from 1-20 (why 1-20?): Technical, Tactical, Physical, Personality, Potential.  Not wanting to get bogged down with this process just yet, I instead "force ranked" my top 24 and, only after doing this, assigned point totals.  I assume the majority of media members who filled this out did the same.


In my opinion, the two questions that really matter in this exercise are "how good is this player now?" and "how good could this player become?" I am a stats guy so, to answer the question of how good each player is now, I started with each player's statistical profile, courtesy of and  Context is key when looking at statistics, so every player's profile is compared against: other players at their position around the league, other players at their position in 24 Under 24, other players at their position on their own team.

Figuring out the potential of each player is obviously a much more subjective process.  Most players on the list I have only seen play 5-15 times,  limiting my ability to pass any sort of conclusive judgement.  Large factors in determining potential are a player's physical capability and their age/how much time they have spent in MLS.

Once force-ranked, coming up with the point total for each player is fairly difficult.  The Personality category immediately jumps out as problematic: who cares if you're a nice guy or a jerk, as long as you play well and make your team better? Further, while I have biases and might be able to guess what type of personality a player has, I really do not know them well enough to have an informed opinion.  I am sure this goes for most media members as well.  I basically punted and gave everyone a "10".

To further simplify matters, I took Technical and Tactical to represent how good the player is now and Physical and Potential to represent how good this player could become.  As such, a player's score was the same across each set of categories.


The grading rubric is unnecessarily complex and, in my opinion, distorts the voting process.  A player's personality counts just as much as their technical ability or potential?  It does not make sense.  But the real problem is the variance in point totals.  The range in my point total was 14 (between 74 and 60) across 24 players, less than a point difference between each ranking.  Looking at the only other public ballot (that I could find), Matt Tomaszewicz had the exact same range of 14 (between 72 and 58), though he somehow scored 25 players (?).

The problem is best exemplified by a player like Shane O'Neill, who was ranked #3 by Matt and just outside the 24 by me.  Under the current methodology, combining our two ballots, O'Neill would actually slide all the way to #20.  Harsh.  The problem with the current methodology is that instead of measuring variance of opinion, it ends up measuring variance of methodology.  The easy solution is to do a more traditional (i.e. Heisman, MVP, etc.) style where #1 gets 24 points, #2 gets 23 points, #3 gets 22 points.... #24 gets 1 point.


  1. Your point about the error of measuring methodology rather than measuring variance of opinion is well taken and it's given me a grain of salt with which to take MLSS' 24 under 24.

    And still I quibble: did you really rate Perry Kitchen more technical than Joao Plata? I'm a DC fan and I just find that hard to swing. Upside, tactical and potential I have no quibble with, but I've seen Plata do things with the ball that Kitchen would have to study.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that Plata is more technically proficient than Kitchen, but if you notice tactical and technical grades are the same for every player. This is because I have grouped them together to represent my score for "how good is this player now." In Kitchen's case I just feel he is a better player than Plata, overall, at this point. Despite playing on a pretty poor team (as you well know), Kitchen has been a consistent bright spot for them. Plata has been terrific, but some of his stats are a bit inflated playing for a stacked RSL team.

    2. Ahhhhhh, understood. I would also rank Kitchen above Plata at the moment, taking both on the whole. So would Ives. Any thoughts about his 22 under 22?

    3. Honestly, his list is pretty good. A couple qualms, but overall can't disagree. In the future, the 22 under 22 idea would work just as well, if not better at identifying/discussing actual young players.