The transfer window. Silly season. The time of year when fans scour the web for rumors and reports of who their team may be bringing into the club. On Tuesday, the MLS primary transfer window closed, bringing a conclusion to five months of wheeling and dealing around the league.
From the perspective of the public, a transfer window comes together over the course of days, a few weeks, or — at the painstaking longest — a couple months. Rumors turn into reports which, if all goes well, blossom into announcements. Or they evaporate into nothing.
All the while, fans and journalists alike turn to whatever resources available — from Transfermarkt valuations and Soccerway profiles, to Football Manager ratings and YouTube highlights — to assess whether the players their clubs are linked to will make a splash or fall flat.
For the Portland Timbers’ technical staff, however, a transfer window comes together over the course of months or longer, and relies on the work of dozens of contributors, extensive travel, hours of video, and often-complex negotiations.
Based on conversations with members of the Timbers technical staff and information gathered over an extended period of time, Stumptown Footy has been able to assemble an in-depth look into how the Timbers go about identifying, scouting, and signing players.
Assembling Shadow Teams
The first step in any transfer window isn’t a step at all, but rather an ongoing process necessary to lay the groundwork for identifying, scouting, and acquiring players: The assembly of shadow teams.
The shadow teams are teams of players, often with multiple players per position, whom the Timbers flag as potential targets. The players that the Timbers identify as potential targets go on one of three shadow teams. One team is made up of international targets whom the Timbers may be interested in bringing to MLS. Another is made up of domestic players whom the Timbers think could be ready to step into the first team. The third is made up of youth or USL players whom Wilkinson, Grabavoy, and company think could be an asset to bring into the Timbers’ prospect pipeline.
Throughout the year, Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson and director of scouting and recruitment Ned Grabavoy are on the lookout for potential targets who could be a fit for the roster’s current and future needs, and who may be available in the foreseeable future. For Grabavoy, who is the most active participant in this project, that means looking for players who may be coming out of contract or who the Timbers believe could be available by other means such as a transfer, loan, or — within MLS — trade.
Although Grabavoy takes the lead on the scouting aspect, he is far from alone in an office dredging the internet for clues. Instead, Grabavoy and the rest of the Timbers technical staff tap into an international network that includes scouts under contract with the Timbers, a Rolodex of contacts from other clubs with whom the Timbers have formed a relationship over the years, and a collection of agents whom the Timbers trust to provide an honest analysis of players who may become available and their contract status in their respective corners of the globe. In addition, the Timbers utilize several scouting and analytics services including Wyscout, InStat, and Opta to gather data and video, set up a database of potential targets, and track the club’s various inputs throughout the entire scouting and assessment process.
The Timbers use these resources to identify players and, primarily utilizing scouting resources and assistant coaches, take an initial look at data and video. If a player rates well in this initial screening, he gets put into one of the Timbers’ shadow teams.
How deep the shadow team goes at any given position depends on the Timbers’ anticipated medium- and long-term needs. Some — though not all — of the players on the shadow teams will be put on the Timbers’ discovery list, a list of eight players outside MLS whom the Timbers lay claim to having the first opportunity among MLS teams to negotiate with and sign.
The goal is to have an ever-updating roster of players ready to be looked at with greater scrutiny if the club decides it needs to fill or upgrade a spot on the real team. And so begins a six-step process of planning, scouting, and acquiring players.
Step One — Identification
Broadly speaking, the Timbers’ roster-construction philosophy is guided by the desire to have players at each position who rate out in the top-third of MLS at their spot. The top-third benchmark is more aspirational than it is a hard-and-fast rule for when the Timbers will move a player. The assessment includes key performance indicators (or, in technical-staff parlance, “KPIs”) that include a variety of individual statistical metrics as well as the team’s points per game with the player in the lineup. The top-third benchmark, however, is also viewed in the context of the player’s potential future development and salary-cap hit. Simply put, a current player who falls short of the top-third benchmark on an objective basis may not necessarily be a target to be replaced if he has upside or provides salary-cap value relative to his production. If, however, a player’s cap hit outstrips his production or is at a stage in his career in which he is declining and he falls below the top-third benchmark, he will likely be a candidate for replacement.
As any season wears on, the Timbers’ player-personnel needs and opportunities in this regard come into greater focus. As that happens, Wilkinson, Grabavoy, head coach Giovanni Savarese, and the assistant-coaching staff begin an identification process that has three primary pillars: (1) Assessing each position on the current roster and prioritizing areas of need for upgrade, reinforcement, or succession; (2) setting a budget for each spot to be filled in the transfer window according to the Timbers’ salary-cap situation and the level of priority assigned to each need; and (3) profiling the type of player that the Timbers’ braintrust wants to acquire for each spot.
With priorities identified and budgets set, the perspective then narrows from the roster as a whole to the specific types of players they want for each targeted spot. For every major move, the Timbers’ brass prepares a generic player profile with attributes for the player they want along with specific KPIs they want to see their targets meet.
The outcome of Step One is a clear directive to Grabavoy: Go find players that fit the profile and budget range, and scout them.
Step Two — Scouting
With his marching orders in hand, it’s up to Grabavoy and his network to take over.
If the Timbers’ medium- and long-term planning has gone well, some or all of the ultimate targets will have already been identified and placed on one of the shadow teams and/or discovery list even before the profile is created. Most often this happens without any public fanfare, but once in a while word of the Timbers’ scouting process leaks out, as it did with reports in the spring of 2017 that Portland was kicking the tires of Julio Cascante. The Timbers aren’t betrothed to their shadow team, though, and very often Grabavoy will return to his various resources to find additional targets that could fit the technical staff’s preferred profile.
This step, however, goes beyond having eyes on a player on the field, and includes the first foray into getting to know the potential target on an individual level. To do so, Grabavoy or another of the Timbers’ scouts will often conduct an initial interview with the player while also taking a dive into the target’s public presence through both social and traditional media. At this point, the Timbers also scrutinize their target’s injury and disciplinary history, as well as how the player performs before his home fans and in away environments.
The output here is a relatively broad list of targets that, after their first formal look, Grabavoy and his team believe may fit the leadership’s profile both from an on-field and a personal perspective.
Step Three — Recruitment
For those targets that pass scouting muster, Step Three initiates the first full-scale look at the player.
This includes a live visit — often by Grabavoy, who logs as many miles on the road as any member of the Timbers technical staff — to watch the player in training and in a game, to meet him in person, and to talk to those around the player including coaches, trainers, and family and friends. The goal of the visit is not only to see how the player performs in a game and training, but also to put together a meaningful personal profile.
The personal profile is something the Timbers have increasingly valued throughout their time in MLS. Through both successful and unsuccessful past signings, the Timbers technical staff has come to the conclusion that factors like whether a target speaks English (or at least demonstrates a willingness to learn English) or whether a player plans to bring his family with him to Portland have a significant impact on how well the player acclimates to the club, MLS, and the city.
The in-person visit also provides Grabavoy and company an opportunity to sell the target on the Timbers. This, of course, includes discussing with the player his anticipated role in the team, giving the target an idea of the makeup of the club and its style of play, and to talk to the player about MLS and Portland.
Meanwhile, back in the Rose City, the Timbers’ two-person data analytics department puts together a statistical and analytical profile of each of the targets. Although the data available on players varies widely among leagues and international competitions, the goal is to assemble a comprehensive statistical profile of each target and to project the type of player they can be in MLS in the short-, medium-, and, if applicable, long-term. To do this, the Timbers’ analytical team will often compare targets to two types of players: First, comparable players from the same league or similar leagues who have already come to MLS, and, therefore, can provide something close to a like-for-like statistical comparison; and, second, current MLS players who fit the profile of the player the Timbers are trying to acquire.
Step Four — Filtering
With much of the data collected, the personal profile assembled, and the first live visit complete, Grabavoy assesses the package that his team has assembled on each player and weeds out any targets that don’t fit the profile.
Grabavoy’s job in the fourth step, then, is to finalize the portfolio of information his team has assembled for each target before presenting it to the braintrust back in Portland. If Grabavoy identifies holes in the information the club has about a target, his team has to fill them. If Grabavoy wants to beef up or change the analytics profile, this is his chance to do that.
Because after Step Four, Grabavoy sends the portfolios to the assistant-coaching staff and, ultimately, to Savarese and Wilkinson.
Step Five — Targeting
With much of Grabavoy’s legwork done, the targets are passed to the Timbers assistant coaches for another video and profile review. Each week, the assistant coaches are expected to review video of potential and already-vetted targets, and, with respect to the latter, to provide their assessments of the player.
The purpose is straightforward: The Timbers want to have multiple pairs of eyes assessing every player whom they have any realistic chance of signing. Involving the assistant coaches not only provides those additional sets of eyes, but also integrates the coaching and technical staffs into the overall decision-making process. In order to effectively integrate the coaching staff with the technical staff, the Timbers need Savarese’s assistants involved not just in the everyday work of preparing for training and games, but also in the process of scouting and signing players.
Thus, after reviewing each target’s profile and substantial video, the assistant coaches are able to add their comments and recommendations about a player to those of Grabavoy and his team before final decisions are made by the principals.
Step Six — Acquisition
The result after the first five steps is a complete portfolio for, ideally, multiple targets that fit the profile that Savarese, Wilkinson, and Grabavoy put together in Step One. Within that portfolio, the principals will have assessments from both Grabavoy’s team and the assistant coaches.
The work, however, is far from done.
For any major signing, Savarese and Wilkinson do their own review, including video analysis, a live visit, and conversations with those in the Timbers’ extended network who have a perspective on the player. After all that, Savarese and Wilkinson prioritize their targets and Wilkinson refines the budget for each player. The budgeting for each player is done in the framework of Wilkinson’s budget assessments, which always extend at least two years into the future and takes into account the opportunities and limitations presented by MLS’s various acquisition and salary-cap mechanisms.
The acquisition stage also serves another important function for the technical staff: as an off-ramp. At this step, Wilkinson and Savarese assess not only the player, but also the club’s initial priorities and the scouting and recruitment process. If any of the three is lacking, Wilkinson and Savarese can either pull the plug on the signing as a whole or send it back to the broader technical staff to either beef up the profile or look into other targets. Although both Savarese and Wilkinson are involved in the process of making the ultimate decision on any signing, Wilkinson has publicly stressed that no player has ever been signed or ever will be signed to the first team without the head coach’s approval.
Even if Savarese and Wilkinson agree to pursue a player, the deal still needs to get done. For a multitude of reasons, matching up the Timbers’ budget constraints with a player’s salary demands and a selling club’s transfer price is rarely easy. That task primarily falls to Wilkinson.
In the primary transfer window, the Timbers acquired four players using targeted allocation money. Although TAM permits a team to exceed the maximum budget hit for a player, teams may not exceed a total $1.5 million annual salary-cap hit — including total player compensation and the acquisition cost distributed over the term of the player’s guaranteed contract — for any TAM player.
These limitations only get more complex when you add in factors from the player’s and selling-club’s sides. Although a player’s salary can be relatively straightforward to calculate, his salary-cap hit also includes agent fees, in some instances marketing fees, and some (but not all) types of performance bonuses. Similarly, if a selling club demands a net transfer fee of, for example, $1.5 million, the actual transfer fee can often balloon to $2 million or more as domestic federation taxes, previous sell-on rights, or co-ownership shares cut into the selling club’s profit.
Therefore, a big part of Wilkinson’s job during a transfer window is to use every tool at his disposal to find ways to fit players within the Timbers’ budget numbers while meeting the financial demands of players and selling clubs. Through the years, the Timbers have found a multitude of ways to do this: Contracts can be loaded with the types of performance bonuses that don’t hit the cap, deals can be structured as loans with an option to purchase in order to minimize the portion of the selling club’s cut that will be subject to federation taxes, or player salaries can be front- or back-loaded to hit the cap harder in seasons in which the Timbers are expected to have greater financial flexibility.
Wilkinson got particularly creative in order to acquire Andy Polo from Monarcas Morelia this offseason. As Sam Stejskal of MLSSoccer.com reported, the Timbers and Morelia structured their deal as a loan with an easily vesting option to purchase so Morelia could wind up with a larger share of payments from FIFA in the event that Polo is called up to play with Peru in the World Cup. This allowed the Timbers to minimize their salary-cap burden while maximizing Morelia’s take-home.
Even when a deal is in place, though, there is still the challenge of getting the player to Portland and cleared to begin work with the team — a process that can vary widely depending on where the player is coming from, his country of origin, and where the player physically is located when the deal is completed. After the process of player-identification, scouting, evaluation, and negotiation, Wilkinson and his team still need to be sufficiently familiar with immigration regulations to actually get their targets to Portland and eligible to play in a timely manner. And once the player gets to Portland and is signed by the club, the Timbers have several staff members assigned to helping ease the transition and get the team’s new player settled into the city and the club.
Only then — after a months-long, multi-step process — do fans get to see the Timbers’ new player on the field. And before the ink is dry on the contracts signed in that transfer window, the process has already begun anew for the next.