Mind the spine and be creative: the golden rules of MLS squad-building

<span>Cucho Hernández, center, became the ball-dominant playmaker that Columbus needed last season to get them over the top for another MLS Cup title.</span><span>Photograph: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images</span>
Cucho Hernández, center, became the ball-dominant playmaker that Columbus needed last season to get them over the top for another MLS Cup title.Photograph: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

So you, dear reader, want to build a great MLS roster.

You want to catapult your team to the top of the league, winning Supporters’ Shields and MLS Cups along the way. Maybe you’ll even contend for a US Open Cup or two – if MLS will let you play in it, that is.

Related: Overpaid stars and transfer flops: Why each MLS team should worry in 2024

It’s a noble goal. But where do you start? What differentiates the bad rosters from the good ones or the bumbling organizations from the savvy ones in MLS?

As teams from around the league rush to add the final few pieces to their respective puzzles before the 2024 regular season kicks off next week, now is a good time to take a step back and examine how the best squads are formed.

Sure, with the league’s overly complex roster regulations, even some active MLS front office members don’t have a full grasp of all of the ins-and-outs and best practices when it comes to squad-building. But a look around the league can still help us identify a handful of the ‘golden rules’ of MLS roster construction.

Rule No 1: Use your DP spots wisely

In MLS, how you use your Designated Players spots has the potential to make or break your season. To lay the foundation, every team can sign up to three DPs. These are big-money players, either due to their transfer fees, their salaries, or some combination of the two, that can extend beyond the league’s basic salary cap structure. They’re the stars.

How do you make the most of your DP spots?

Well, using them all is a good place to start. Yes, CF Montreal, everyone is staring at you while your lone DP Victor Wanyama sniffles in the corner by himself. Signing three DPs gives you the best chance to have the most top-end talent on the field at any given time. You don’t absolutely have to have three DPs to be among the best in MLS – LAFC made it to the Concacaf Champions League (now Cup) final last year, finished third in the West, and made a run all the way to MLS Cup with just two DPs in their squad.

But after coming up short in both of those finals, you can bet manager Steve Cherundolo would’ve liked one more piece to put his team over the top.

Simply convincing three DPs to sign on the dotted line isn’t a ticket to trophies, though. For most teams, there’s not much sense in tying up one of those roster spots with a player in a lower-cost position. Defenders are important, there’s no denying that. But the best center backs, fullbacks, and goalkeepers don’t tend to fetch the same salaries or transfer fees as their more advanced teammates. In the back, you’re more likely to find bang for your buck, which is crucial in a salary-capped league.

So to build a strong MLS roster, use all three DP spots and skew them towards the opposing goal rather than your own. Shooting for players in their prime – like Atlanta United president and CEO Garth Lagerwey preaches – doesn’t hurt, either. A youngster with a high ceiling is fun right up until it becomes clear just how low his floor is.

Rule No 2: Find a ball-dominant playmaker

There’s no faster way to get into the playoff field in MLS than by building your team around a ball-dominant playmaker.

Even as No.10s have moved into the half-spaces or deeper into midfield in most of Europe’s top leagues, they still thrive in MLS. Because there’s not enough money in the cap to spread tons of it evenly around the field, there tends to be a noticeable gap in quality between one team’s best DP attacker and the other’s worst defender. Having a skilled playmaker who loves to get on the ball helps maximize that gap, punishing weaker opponents with 70 incisive touches every game.

In MLS, classic No 10s still get away with doing all the things that come with being a classic No 10 – they don’t have to give a ton of defensive effort and they’re allowed to roam to find the game in possession. Plus, they get paid. Thanks to the DP rule, MLS teams can pay their playmakers more than they’d make on comparable European teams.

In another reality, New England Revolution star Carles Gil might’ve stayed in England or Spain and evolved into an inverted winger. In this one, though, he’s a perennial MLS MVP candidate as an attacking midfielder and making more money than he would on the other side of the Atlantic.

Your ball-dominant playmaker doesn’t absolutely have to be a pure No 10. LAFC rose to the top of the league with Carlos Vela filling that role on the right side of a 4-3-3. Last summer, the Columbus Crew transitioned from an attacking midfielder in Lucas Zelarayán pulling their strings to a versatile forward in Cucho Hernández and proceeded to lift MLS Cup.

Regardless of the specifics, finding a creative hub in the attack can take you from pretender to contender.

Rule No 3: Pay special attention to the spine

Remember the quality gap we talked about between the top DP attacker on one team and the weak defensive link on the other? That gap is real – but most of the true contenders in MLS try to close it by investing in their spine.

One or two strong center backs and No 6 can cover for a multitude of defensive errors.

The Seattle Sounders have been among the best in MLS for more than a decade by following this rule. In 2024, Yeimar Gómez Andrade, Jackson Reagan and João Paulo will form the base of one of the strongest spines in the league. Over in the East, Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott win everything in the back for the Philadelphia Union while José Martínez covers every blade of grass from his defensive midfield spot. With that trio starting regularly, the Union have finished on top of their conference in two of the last four years.

Moving back a line, a top goalkeeper can have an outsized positive impact on your season. The New England Revolution won the Supporters’ Shield in 2021, in large part due to the performance of Matt Turner in goal. The US men’s national team starter saved nearly six goals more than expected that season, according to FBref, before his big Premier League move to Arsenal in the summer of 2022. Last year, Roman Bürki was the best shot stopper in MLS based on goals saved above expected. The former Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper was the single biggest on-field factor behind St Louis City’s push to the top of the Western Conference.

In recent seasons, we’ve also seen teams pay extra attention to the spine by virtue of playing even less attention to the wings.

FC Cincinnati abandoned the idea of playing with wingers when Pat Noonan arrived as their new manager, shifting underperforming wide attacker Álvaro Barreal to a left wingback role in 2022. A cast of impressive goal scorers, No 10 Lucho Acosta, midfield ball-winner Obinna Nwobodo, and center back Matt Miazga all deserve credit for helping Cincy go from worst-to-first. But Noonan’s decision to turn a mediocre winger into an elite left wingback who now has a set of European suitors was a key part of their turnaround, too.

Tweaking Barreal’s role move repurposed an asset, freeing up more money for the spine.

Rule No 4: Look outside roster itself

The last ‘golden rule’ of MLS roster construction has very little to do with the roster itself.

In a league with detailed rules that govern a big chunk of the money you can spend on your roster, it’s crucial to look outside the roster to find competitive advantages. The Columbus Crew did just that ahead of last season, paying CF Montreal a transfer fee to get Wilfried Nancy out of his contract in Canada and down to Ohio. Fast forward a year and Columbus have another MLS Cup and Nancy’s players are tattooing his quotes on their bodies.

It’s safe to call that bit of creative thinking a success from Crew president Tim Bezbatchenko.

Spending money on a coach can help create an edge. The same goes for a premier front office executive – again, FC Cincinnati is a great example. After adding Noonan and Chris Albright as head coach and general manager, respectively, from the Philadelphia Union, they’ve skyrocketed up the Eastern Conference standings over the last two seasons.

Building a shiny new training facility like the Sounders just did is a great way to sell prospective signings on your club. If you talk to folks around the game in Europe or in other parts of the world, they’re quick to heap praise on the off-field amenities that many MLS teams provide for their players.

If you don’t want to have to go out and hunt for quality additions to the first team, why not develop a few of your own? A functional academy system can develop inexpensive MLS starters and generate revenue in the form of transfer fees. FC Dallas has led that charge for years and produced more than a few USMNT players in the process, though a handful of teams across the league are now really starting to push their own youth initiatives forward.

Even something as small as putting in the time (and a little bit of money) to expedite the green card process for foreign signings can be a difference-maker. Teams only get so many international roster spots in MLS, so quickly re-classifying foreign players as domestic ones creates flexibility to either use or trade international roster spots for other assets within the league.

While there’s no singular cheat code that will shoot your team to the top, these principles with a mixture of clever imitation and outside-the-box thinking will give you a better chance to get there.