As we Houston Dynamo fans prepare to enter the stages of grief with a playoff scenario unlikely, but still possible, many fans are blaming anyone and everyone for the way the season has turned out. Most fingers, and other things people wave around to indicate blame for that matter, are being pointed at the bench. What I would like to do is really flesh out the arguments like "waste of a roster spot" and "our subs sucks" because it's a complicated issue if you like over thinking things the way I do.
How do these bench warmers get playing time anyways?
When we say things like "the bench sucks", what we really mean is that their production sucks or that they don't play as well with our regular group of starters as the player they replaced, which in one way or another hurts the team. Obviously this isn't a nuanced analysis because it's far too general. Some of our bench players are actually very good like Omar Cummings and Mark Sherrod. But even if we begin to find those players that get playing time that aren't very good, can we really blame them? We can criticize how players play and analyze every decision they make on pitch, but what gives that player time on the pitch at all comes from a variety of factors. How that player performs in other competitions, practice, and most importantly whether or not there is a need for that position on the bench or in a starting role. Injuries have hit this team harder than most and on top of that we've had to deal with call ups to international teams. It's been up to our 2nd and 3rd stringers to step into some big shoes. This league is getting more and more competitive and it's difficult for some of these players to instantly adjust from college, other leagues, or even practice. I know that this line of thinking actually works in favor of the "the bench sucks" mantra, but it at least addresses how these players got playing time and the heightened level of competition they face. Of course, the quality of the 2nd and 3rd string players is the real heart of the discussion and the best way to begin talking about why the quality of the bench dips significantly is because of:
I don't claim to know an awful lot about the cap or rules associated with it, but I do have a general idea about it which is all it takes to have a decent conversation about it. For those of you that don't know what the cap is, it's a financial spending limit on players that each team has to make things more balanced around the league. That way, the New Yorks and Los Angeleses don't completely outspend other teams (oops). Anyways, the cap is the real reason why we don't have the quality of depth we need. Players that are good cost more, and that sets up the tradeoff every team must make whenever they sign a player. Teams have to decide whether or not they can 1) afford a player, 2) if they can afford that player, does he fit within the remaining cap space, and 3) if yes to numbers 1 and 2 how does signing a player impact their ability to upgrade the roster needs elsewhere.
To me, the problem with cap space in this league is that players with high salaries, which aren't actually all that high, can have a huge impact on how the rest of the team looks. Take players like Giles Barnes, Omar Cummings, and Ricardo Clark, all of whom have salaries over $200,000. That really affects the way the Dynamo can continue to improve their roster elsewhere because even if the owners wanted to spend more on players, the closer they get to the cap, they have less room to make any moves in the future. For example, before the DaMarcus Beasley signing the team had roughly $200,000 in cap room - by my estimate given just the base salary, not guaranteed. That's more than enough to sign a quality player in this league, but they held onto it. Why? Maybe the owners didn't want to shell out any more money, maybe because they're waiting for the right player to come along (Luis Garrido?), or maybe because the cap in MLS is about $3.1 million which is not that much. The Houston Rockets just signed Kostas Papanikolaou and he makes $1.7 million more than an entire MLS team (not including designated players) and I barely know who he is.
Teams have to do a lot of work to make sure they field the best squad possible, which means bench players and players that don't even make the game day sheet are further down on the priority list. The Dynamo this season have had to go to their bench a lot more than anyone anticipated this season. So is the bench underperforming? I believe that the bench probably should be playing better if they're playing for increased time or better contracts, but really if one of the first players off our bench is making under $50 grand, what do you expect?
The whole point of this piece is to open the argument up and see why bench players might be struggling. Some players aren't ready for the highest echelon of US soccer and should be developing with our USL Pro affiliate, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Other players were forced into a starting lineup because of injuries and inconsistent lineups around them make it difficult to develop chemistry. Of course, if we could afford higher quality players then a number of these issues go away.
But, I'm also curious about your thoughts on this. Is it worth opening up and discussing why players might be struggling? Are they struggling at all? Let us know in the comments.