Cahill signing a wake-up call for MLS

Cahill signing a wake-up call for MLS

Published Jul. 27, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

At a time when European soccer is faced with the harsh reality that clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Chelsea are going to keep spending outlandish amounts in the transfer market, Major League Soccer is facing a similar situation, albeit on a considerably smaller scale.

MLS has a salary budget that all 19 teams must work with. Yet, when the league increased the number of Designated Player slots per team from one to three, the door opened for teams to spend big money to add as many as three high-priced players.

A Designated Player slot is what MLS teams use to sign a player to a contract larger than the regular maximum salary of $400,000 with only a set amount (from $150K to $350K) of their salary counting toward a team's salary cap. Theoretically, a team can pay three players $10million a season, but only a fraction of that will count towards a team's salary cap.

The initial concerns about the change were that big-market teams would begin to gain an edge on smaller-market teams due to their superior spending power. If that fear wasn’t justified after the Los Angeles Galaxy’s capture of the 2011 MLS Cup title behind David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, it certainly is now after the New York Red Bulls signed Australia star and long-time versatile Everton player Tim Cahill.


New York adding another big name wasn’t all that much of a surprise. When sources told FOX Soccer that the Red Bulls were paying Cahill $3.5 million a year in a three-and-half-year deal, it became clear just what sort of financial muscle the Red Bulls were flexing.

Also, for those keeping score at home, Cahill’s deal makes him the fourth-highest paid player in MLS, but just the third-highest paid player in the Red Bulls (behind Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez).

And last but not least, Cahill’s arrival gives the Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy the five highest-paid players in MLS, with a million-dollar gap between the top five and the sixth-highest paid player in MLS (Toronto FC’s Torsten Frings).

You won’t hear many teams criticize the big-spending clubs out in the open. MLS owners agreed to this shift in spending philosophy two years ago.

There were obviously some teams that weren’t as crazy about the idea as others were, but the league tried appeasing the teams not interested in doling out million-dollar contracts by issuing what amounts to a luxury tax on teams that sign three Designated Players, and dividing that tax among the rest of the teams in the league.

"Everyone has the chance to spend, so it’s not like other teams aren’t allowed to spend," said Landon Donovan, now the seventh-highest paid player in MLS. "I say more power to them. If they want to enhance their team that way then that’s great.

"I think it’s really important, and I think it needs to be continued steps to reward the American guys who are performing, like Chris (Wondolowski)," Donovan said. "And then also bring in players who you think can help your team, even if they’re high-profile and costly."

As for criticism about the Galaxy and Red Bulls spending far more than the rest of the league?

"LA and the people with the Red Bulls are willing to take chances that other teams aren’t," Donovan said. "It’s paid off for us so far and it may pay off for them too."

Donovan touches on a point that’s ignored far too often. A majority of the teams in MLS have owners with the financial clout to spend big money if they wanted to, but not every owner in the league can honestly say they spare no expense when it comes to building their MLS team.

The big spending by New York and LA doesn’t mean every team in MLS has to spend to compete either. Right now the San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City are all enjoying great campaigns without any seven-figure earners on their rosters. All three teams have built strong rosters via shrewd signings, trades and drafting. It isn't exactly easy to do, but it can be done.

It should also be noted that the Red Bulls aren’t a title contender simply because they decided to open their wallets. The club sold Tim Ream in the winter and traded away young phenom Juan Agudelo; two big moves that helped the Red Bulls construct a deep and talented roster before Cahill ever signed his deal.

What the Red Bulls’ deep pockets, and the allure of New York, can do is attract a caliber of player who might not normally be within the grasp of some other MLS teams. That alone won’t win titles, which we saw for years before the Galaxy became the first team with a Designated Player on its roster to win an MLS Cup.

What other teams can worry about is the fact that the Galaxy and Red Bulls are combining deep pockets with smart roster building, a combination that could prove too much for even the smartest front offices to overcome.

Now the Red Bulls stand as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, and could potentially meet the Galaxy in the MLS Cup Final, which could be called the “Deep Pockets Cup.”

Some might see that scenario as bad for the league, but having strong teams in high-profile markets has never really been a bad thing in American pro sports. MLS will not be the exception; especially if it forces the league’s other teams to start spending more money, and spending smart money, on top players.