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The business of soccer: How do teams get players?

MLS isn’t the same as the Premier League, but the process is probably close.

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Arsenal are staring a pretty major rebuild right in the face this summer - starting at the top, and if reports are believed, encompassing the entire back line and potentially more. And Arsenal, like every major sports team in every major league, are always looking to add players so they can improve.

What is not well known, however, is how teams go about adding players, both now and in future windows. One of the epithets thrown around in any heated transfer target debate is “it’s not like playing FIFA!”, and it’s absolutely not. There’s a lot of moving pieces to adding a player to a roster, including

- the player’s skills and abilities
- the player’s fit with the existing team, both system- and personality-wise
- the player’s cost
- the player’s willingness to relocate
- the player’s agent’s skills and abilities, which shape at least three of the above items

In short, yeah, it’s a complex process. And while a club like Arsenal will never be transparent about how they execute that process - nor should they - it is sometimes possible to get a glimpse behind the curtain and see how other teams do things, and from there it’s pretty easy to overlay the general process onto Arsenal and get a better idea of just how much goes in to acquiring a player.

Just such a glimpse was given today, into the inner workings of the Portland Timbers’ roster construction and transfer process. While there are some very significant differences between MLS roster construction and the Premier League, namely the existence in MLS of a salary cap (or “salary budget”, so named for a lot of reasons that aren’t really germane to this discussion), it’s reasonable to conclude the majority of the process described in this piece is at least roughly analogous to how teams find, scout, recruit, and sign players.

In order to find players, the Timbers basically set up “shadow teams” of potential targets, grouped into three broad categories (current MLS/domestic players, international, youth), each with several targets at every position. Once those players have been identified, the scouting process starts, and that scouting is shaped by both the players on the shadow teams and the performance of the first team - there’s a bit of moving-targetness about this, as the team’s needs fluctuate over the short term.

After the scouting has started to happen, and the favorites sort themselves to the top, the actual recruitment starts. This involves in-person discussions with the player and his agent, which is as much of a sales visit as anything. This is where the team gets to sell the awesomeness of playing in Portland, from both a footballing and a lifestyle perspective, and it’s the team’s first chance to make a good impression.

Once all this happens, it’s time to filter out the serious candidates and pass them on to the coaching staff for a more detailed level of scouting - breaking down tape, in-depth exploration of skills, all that stuff.

Only after alllllll that takes place - a process which could take months, or even a season or two - does any thought of acquisition take place. This is another time-consuming step, because once the coach and GM agree that the player who filtered to them is worth getting, the business part starts. The conversation with agents and club representatives are rarely straightforward and often extremely challenging, and can in themselves add several months to the process of getting that picture of the targeted player holding up a scarf like he’s cared about the club all his life.

And while, as mentioned, MLS and the Premier League are different in the way that their players get paid, I would think that the process by which those players are identified and signed is probably something along these lines. In the Premier League, the stakes are so high that teams will leave as little to chance as possible, and a process like this is a good way of eliminating as much risk as possible, even though there’s always the risk that the decision-makers make a mistake because they are human.

All told, this process can take two or even three windows’ worth of time - so while it’s a bit of an unfair oversimplification to say “this isn’t FIFA” when talking about why transfers take a long time, reading all the details about how transfers actually get done in one of the world’s major professional soccer leagues should give you a new perspective on why these things can take a long time, how it’s not a simple or straightforward process, and why being patient can be a virtue when thinking about the business of transfers.