Tip Sheet: MLS salaries highlight the complicated road ahead for developing league

Toronto FC duo Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe are expected to make a combined $12 million in base salary this season, according to a list released by the MLS Players Union on Thursday.

Nathan Denette/AP

Numbers have a rather frank way of stripping away perceptions and underscoring the differences between parties. No process in MLS fits the maxim quite like the ritualistic unveiling of player salaries by the MLS Players Union.

MLSPU compiles wage data from every player in the league and shares its findings publicly three times a year. The nature of the league itself – cloaked by byzantine regulations and complex contractual structures – ensures the included figures serve as more of a rough guide than a fundamental truth. They nevertheless spark discussions in the changing rooms and in the stands, as evidenced by the reaction from current and former players when the latest list dropped on Thursday.

Most of the chatter revolves around the disparity between the small cadre of top earners (12 players make more than $1 million in base salary, according to the list) and the rather more expansive group of players making under $100,000. The restrictive salary budget system – a soft-cap system with a $3.1 million ceiling augmented by allocation money caches and Designated Player spots – encourages spending at the top end and scrimping everywhere else.

TOP EARNERS IN MLS

RANK PLAYER CLUB BASE SALARY (PER MLSPU)
T-1.  Michael Bradley Toronto FC $6,000,000
T-1. Jermain Defoe Toronto FC $6,000,000
3. Clint Dempsey Seattle $4,913,004
4.  Robbie Keane LA Galaxy $4,500,000
5. Landon Donovan LA Galaxy $4,250,000

The numbers reflect the effectiveness of those controls for a league still searching for profitability across the board. Domestic standouts – players with established track records in the league and vital roles for their clubs – usually top out in the mid-six figures. Most regular starters settle for smaller figures designed to reward their success. Everyone else waits for the day when their contractual situations and their performances dictate a bump from the modest initial contract ($48,000 minimum salary for on-budget players, $36,500 minimum salary for off-budget players, per MLS regulations) to a more comfortable level of compensation.

Salary disparity creates room for discontent. Star players must find a way to bridge the gap between themselves and their modestly compensated teammates and shoulder the inevitable resentment when their form dips. Veterans must summon the strength to cope with comparatively lucrative deals occasionally offered to promising rookies and declining salaries in their waning years. Rookies must monitor their spending habits carefully.

Those realities comprise one component to the list, but the overall level of spending perhaps supplies the most important point in the wider context. MLS operates with a level of efficiency far in excess of comparably situated competitions. The league and its clubs continue to improve year after year without succumbing to the seductive allure of wantonly splashing cash across the board. It is a testament to the ability of teams to identify capable players available for modest sums and the effectiveness of the operating structure as a means of limiting expenditures.

MLSPU and its members will spend much of this year trying to expand and liberalize those strictures during the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. They will undoubtedly argue for a higher salary budget, the implementation of free agency and other measures designed to increase spending across the board.

As a league, MLS must continue to balance the bottom line with the continued pursuit of improvement on the field with more expansion right around the corner. The recent findings by noted Swiss financial blogger The Swiss Ramble about the level of spending in the Championship reflects the difficulty of adhering to those principles in the upper echelons of the global marketplace.

MLS won’t trod down the same path as the Championship, a league with several clubs mired in financial difficulty due to lavish expenditures without the corresponding revenues. The balance sheet matters far too much here. But those numbers reflect the likelihood that MLS must increase its compensation levels in the coming years to continue its upward trajectory. Efficiency alone cannot close the spending gap with top leagues and draw MLS closer to Liga MX and other competitors.

Additional investment cannot come soon enough for the players. This list may not reflect absolute reality, but it does show the players’ claims about compensation are justified in many respects. And that takeaway point offers a compelling reason to continue the process of releasing the data every so often, even if it makes a few people uncomfortable along the way.

Five Points – Week 6

1. Will LA Galaxy persist with Donovan and Keane up front?: Galaxy boss Bruce Arena reunited his devastating duo for the perfunctory 3-0 victory over Chivas USA. The tandem ran riot behind the static Red-and-White rearguard, but the Whitecaps’ reliance on possession (and the problems it could pose for the diamond midfield deployed last weekend) and savvy defensive approach may prompt a tactical reassessment before the first of two matches between the sides over the next week.

2. How will Montréal use Jack McInerney?: McInerney is poised to make his Impact debut, though his exact deployment against Chicago remains uncertain. Montreal constitutes a good fit for his skills: the midfielders look to play Marco Di Vaio in behind the line anyways and understand how to supply a poacher in the penalty area. If McInerney can find his footing quickly, then the Impact should benefit in a match unlikely to see either team spend much time dithering in the middle third.

3. Is this the weekend for Portland and New York to taste victory?: Portland certainly faces the more simplistic task when Chivas USA visits Providence Park on Saturday. Wilmer Cabrera’s side should improve substantially from a week ago, but the Timbers could still present a threat if Darlington Nagbe encourages proper spacing in midfield by staying out on the left. New York visits D.C. United in a rather awkward affair. United claimed its first league victory in 16 attempts with the 2-0 triumph over New England on Saturday. Mike Petke’s group can cope with United’s work on the ball, but the Red Bulls must increase their attentiveness and their sharpness in order to collect maximum points.

4. Should Jürgen Klinsmann start to worry about Brad Evans?: Klinsmann’s preferred right back option may not return to the lineup for Seattle’s visit to FC Dallas on Saturday, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid told local reporters. Evans has not featured in the past three matches after sustaining a calf injury in the 2-1 defeat to Toronto FC last month.

5. How will the contrasting styles blend at Buck Shaw?: Columbus will take its possession-oriented show on the road to San Jose on Sunday. Can the Crew mitigate the Earthquakes’ combative, direct approach enough to settle the game down? Or will the rested home side disrupt any attempts to establish a cadence and reap the likely benefits from its defiance?