Both agents and MLS club executives always know what day the Players Association releases salary data. It is one time when these two groups can come together in complete agreement. It’s a day they both dread.

In discussions with agents and technical staff this week, the main joke was that they should be mentally prepared for 2:00 PM ET on Thursday, when the numbers are released. Multiple jokingly called it the worst day of the year.

Players, agents and coaching staff crunch the numbers, just like us. They argue about numbers, just like we do. But for agents and GMs, those debates take another step, because the release of those numbers sparks immediate demands for contract renegotiations.

A quarterback finds a comparable player making much more than them on another team and immediately calls their agent. That agent must relay the message to the front office and act on behalf of their customer. Over the course of several salary release cycles (or even just one, depending on how little patience the player has), a change in representation can occur, so agents feel the same as GMs.

For everyone else, MLSPA payroll filing day is a fun day. In a league where transparency hasn’t always been a strong fit, it’s a valuable sight on club-to-club payrolls.

It’s fun to discover new deals, new signings and anything general to collect. It’s fun to argue about these numbers. It’s fun to play armchair GM with friends.

That said, just be careful not to get too carried away with guaranteed player wage expenditure as a be-all, end-all data point in any club’s total expenditure. It’s just salary cap spending on a roster and, with teams having the same limitations and parameters, really it simply shows how much each team spends on salaries for their particular players.

The gap between the sixth-highest salary expense (FC Cincinnati, $18 million) and the bottom spending team in MLS in salary (St. Louis, $12 million) isn’t huge. If St. Louis would sign a new, expensive DP — say someone like Emil Forsberg, who makes $6 million in his debut season with the New York Red Bulls — they’d go from the dead to the top eight.

The teams last in salary cap spending also aren’t necessarily the bottom in total discretionary spending for the first team. Real Salt Lake has the third lowest wage bill, but those figures do not include more than $15 million in transfer fees ($6 million for Chicho Arango, about $3.5 million for Andres Gomez, $2.5 million $2 million for Brian Ojeda, $2 million for Nelson Palacio).

Nashville finds itself in the top four, but could afford to be a little more generous and reward individual performances with new deals. Hany Mukhtar was acquired before his expansion season for just under $3 million. He has been one of the best players in MLS during that time and his new contract puts him at $5.2 million. Walker Zimmerman signed a new deal two years ago, making him a rare PD quarterback.

Both of these players have been with the club since their debut in 2020. That’s two DP spots with a total acquisition cost under $3 million, leaving more discretionary spending to devote to their salaries than to sell and buy new DPs.

A more complete picture of discretionary spending includes transfer fees. Salary data is important, and it’s great that the MLSPA releases it twice a year, but just be careful about making grandiose measures without considering the context. With that said, here’s what we can take away from this release.

– Tom Bogert

It pays to be an MLS player these days

Ask any player from the first 10 to 15 years of MLS about their time in the league, and they’ll inevitably make a joke about how little they earned for their toil.

Until David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy in 2007 to introduce designated player rules, playing in the league was not a rich profession. The 2006 season saw only five players earn at least $500,000 guaranteed – 1.6% of the league’s 320 players at the time). Only one player won a million dollars: Juan Francisco Palencia of Chivas USA, with a guaranteed compensation of $1.36 million. Even Landon Donovan, the face of American soccer, in his prime at that point and with three MLS Cup titles to his name, got $900,000.

Through a multitude of historical moments, the landscape has changed. In 2024, 302 players (or 34.6% of the league) take home at least $500,000 and 115 players will earn at least $1 million. Instead of reserving seven-figure salaries for big-name international signings, proven homegrown players like Nashville’s Sean Davis, New England’s Henry Kessler and Dallas’ Paxton Pomykal all fit a player profile that justifies that salary outlay for clubs in theirs.

When Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007, he earned a record $6.5 million in guaranteed compensation, or $9.55 million when adjusted for inflation. It’s a healthy total, to be sure, but still far behind what Insigne is collecting from Toronto. Two years ago, Xherdan Shaqiri set an MLS milestone as the league’s first player to earn $8 million in a season; now, he is the fourth highest paid player in the league and not an aberration.

As such, MLS’ all-time winningest list carries an undeniable recency bias. Messi and Insigne are rising on the horizon with eight-figure earnings, two of four active players on the MLS roster to make the top 16 earners from 2024.

In just two seasons, Messi has won more than three players in MLS history to date. This, of course, does not matter non-salary incentives that helped lure him to the state, including contributions from league partners Apple and Adidas. Toronto FC is well represented at the top of this rich list, with the top three finishers and four of the top seven (counting Sebastian Giovinco) spending at least the majority of their MLS careers with the Reds.

Surprisingly, two players ahead of Messi continue to appear on the MLSPA salary release despite being without clubs. Jozy Altidore is listed as under contract in MLS with a healthy $2.24 guaranteed compensation; Altidore last played an MLS game on June 3, 2023 for New England and has played just over 1,500 minutes since the start of the 2021 season.

Altidore’s longtime club and national team-mate Bradley also earns $725,000 this season despite announcing his retirement from the game last fall. That total also helps keep him atop the all-time chart for one more season; if not for his post-retirement payday, Insigne would have passed him as the league’s highest-paid player to date.

– Jeff Rueter

The biggest risers and fallers from 2023

Inevitably, an offseason provides the best window for a team to radically shake up the payroll. The January-to-December player contract window leaves many teams with tough decisions across the roster, and players saddled with past paychecks could enter a winter of discontent as they wait for a new pact.

After Thursday’s official release, we now know that six teams saw their total payrolls change by at least 20% compared to last fall’s payrolls – four that went up and a pair went down.

Orlando finished 2023 with the lowest MLS payroll, posting a $9,642,918 expense that was over a million dollars more frugal than the next on the list. That figure has grown to just over $15 million this year, a 56.2% year-over-year increase. It’s pretty easy to see how that happened: The Lions handed young striker Luis Muriel a healthy $4.3m salary after leaving Atalanta this winter, while several players from last year’s runners-up received significant raises; among these players are Facundo Torres (who earned an 82.5% increase to $1.8 million) and Robin Jansson (50% to $946,667).

The New York Red Bulls (up 51%) surprised many by spending big on Emil Forsberg, with the Swede himself adding over $6 million to their wage bill. FC Cincinnati was active in bolstering their already strong defense and midfield, increasing their wage bill by just over 30% despite losing striker Brandon Vazquez. Nashville increased salary expenses by 25.9% in part due to raises for Hany Mukhtar, Sean Davis and Walker Zimmerman, while the Chicago Fire added a second high-salary forward (Hugo Cuypers) to the roster.

Conversely, both clubs in LA cut their wage bill by over 20% year-on-year. This is mainly due to the departures of Javier Hernández to LA Galaxy and Carlos Vela to Los Angeles FC, of ​​course. LAFC is bound to get their figure back up again The arrival of Olivier Giroud this summer. The Galaxy opted for newer and (relatively) more frugal replacements with Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec, whose combined guaranteed compensation of $5.8 million is still well short of the $7.4 million Chicharito made on his own in 2023.

It is still too early to find a definitive correlation between changes in wage expenditure and success on the pitch, and the second semi-annual release (after the summer window) will be more instructive to that end. In total, 17 clubs have had an increase in their wage bill in 2023, while 12 have decreased their bill year-on-year. After Wednesday’s games, 10 of the 17 climbers are in playoff position (58.9%), while eight of the 12 losers (75%) are above the postseason cutoff line.

As always in the MLS: it’s not about how much you spend, but how wisely you invest those funds.

Rueter

(Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)



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