Late last month, the MLS Players’ Association released its biannual listing of the salaries of every player in Major League Soccer. It’s a player-driven shred of transparency for a famously tight-lipped league, and the data helps show who’s spending, who’s not, and what the pathway to MLS success might be.
It should be noted that, when compared to other American pro sports, MLS salaries are pocket change. Bryce Harper’s new contract, whoever he signs with, will likely pay him more per year than the entire roster of any MLS team, and probably the same as the bottom four teams combined. Toronto, the biggest spender, has a payroll of nearly $27 million and is the only team above $17.5 million. Houston, at the bottom, clocks in at just under $6 million.
At first glance, it’s tempting to say that money doesn’t do much in MLS. The three biggest spenders — Toronto, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chicago — all missed the playoffs. The New York Red Bulls put together the best season in league history despite having the fourth-lowest payroll in the league.
Go deeper, though, and you’ll see that while spending big money doesn’t guarantee success, not spending money isn’t that much better. As an example, look at the past five expansion teams, which haven’t had time to build up extensive youth-development systems. Atlanta, New York City FC and Los Angeles FC are all in the top eight in the league in payroll, and all three made the playoffs this year (LAFC in its first year in the league). Orlando and Minnesota were both in the bottom 10, and neither came anywhere near a playoff spot.
The low-payroll success of such teams as the Red Bulls, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake speaks to another method of team-building — via extensive, successful youth systems. All three are famous for developing solid players and profiting, either by selling those players to teams from overseas or by filling out their lineups with those homegrown players.
Money can buy top-end talent and roster depth, but teams that can bring in young players to fill those roles save big on payroll. Top-notch young players such as Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams or Real Salt Lake defender Justen Glad didn’t have to be plucked from a South American league for a huge transfer fee. They were developed by their current clubs. Both are making less than $300,000 this year.
It stands to reason that the only way for a club to get better players is either to spend money or develop talent on its own. Either one can work. Doing neither, however, is a great way to end up at the bottom of the standings. Eight teams finished nine or more points out of a playoff spot this year. Chicago and Toronto spent big and still flopped, but the other six share a common thread: low payrolls and unsuccessful, or nearly nonexistent, youth academies.
If teams like the Red Bulls have proved anything, it’s that dominance doesn’t always go hand in hand with spending in MLS. But without spending, it requires diligent, decadeslong work to develop players. Overspending isn’t a panacea, but neither is it a risky move, especially given the low salaries in the league. The only thing that guarantees failure is doing nothing at all.
• In soccer electoral news, voters in Miami approved a plan that will allow city officials to negotiate a lease for a stadium site with future MLS expansion team Inter Miami. It’s a big win for the interminable Miami expansion process, although if anything’s certain in Miami politics, it’s a chance for 11th-hour problems. Meanwhile in San Diego, voters solidly rejected a plan that would have allowed a group to build a soccer stadium on a prime spot, instead voting to sell the land to San Diego State University. San Diego has long been thought to be a prime spot for an MLS franchise, but this means it won’t be happening soon.
• The U.S. women’s national team defeated Portugal 1-0 on Thursday, notching the program’s 500th victory. The United States has only 65 losses and 74 draws since the program began, nearly nine wins for every loss.
• The U.S. men’s national team, meanwhile, will play England next Thursday and Italy the ensuing Tuesday, with most of the team’s biggest names in the fold. Though the games are meaningless, it’s still a good chance to establish how far the newer generation of U.S. players can go.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich at Borussia Dortmund, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Bayern has run rampant for years in the Bundesliga, and until this season Dortmund — once Bayern’s only challenger — appeared to be going backward. Now, though, BVB leads Die Roten in the standings by four points. The Westfalenstadion, always one of Germany’s best atmospheres, should be electric.