The MLS Player’s Association released how much the players are paid last week in a tradition unlike any other. Salary guide release day is one of the best days of the year in the league. People get to pick apart who is overpaid and underpaid, there are discussions about why teams that have such high salaries are so bad at being soccer teams, and just knowing that players making a salary that barely gets them into the middle-class have to go to work everyday and try to compete against someone like Zlatan or Wayne Rooney or Josef Martinez explains a lot about why MLS is sometimes so hilariously bad that it’s good.
The salaries may also provide insight into the state of the American Men’s National Team player pool. To the extent that American players are paid what they are worth and aren’t just occupying a roster position by virtue of the fact that they aren’t taking up one of the international slots teams have, the list shows how Americans on the national team in the league compare to others at least in terms of salary and presumably quality.
Here are the Americans who are somewhere in the player pool for the USMNT or are Americans I’ve just included because their pay maybe says something about the league. For comparison I’ve put in non-Americans at similar pay scales to get an idea of players on similar wages who may have comparable talent.
Americans at home - MLS Salaries 2019
|Orlando City SC
|Orlando City SC
|New York Red Bulls
|Seattle Sounders FC
|Seattle Sounders FC
|New York City FC
|San Jose Earthquakes
|San Jose Earthquakes
|Real Salt Lake
International players denoted with***
To start things off at the top is who will probably end up as the third best American central midfielder in the last 30 years and the third best striker in USMNT history in terms of goals scored up with Carlos Vela who is having an all-time great MLS season. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are definitely taking up a lot of salary for TFC while the team struggles to climb the table as their skills are declining and injuries continue to limit their playing time. That said, it’s hard to argue that Toronto didn’t get what they wanted out of their time up north as the team won the treble built around the pair of Americans and Sebastian Giovinco. They might not be as good as a player like Vela, but it’s hard to argue with championship trophies.
The chart also shows that the American creative midfielder class is non-existent at the higher end of the salary chart. Kenny Saief did not have his loan extended and is headed back to Belgium, but his salary offers a point of comparison to a player like the now injured Federico Higuain as it is higher, but not at the level of the better attackers in the league. Paxton Pomykal is probably on his way to being a potentially good no. 10, but hopefully that means he’s heading to Europe and not a DP contract, so take that for what it’s worth.
In the $500,000.00ish-$800,000.00ish tier are a pair of centerbacks that are somewhat comparable in Aaron Long and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez. Long was defender of the year last season and LGP is a solid centerback who could be in conversation for the award this season. This illustrates that outside of goalkeeper, the American who is the best in the league at his position is predictably a defender. Walker Zimmerman is having his own great season and could be in the running for best defender in MLS in 2019 so that tradition may continue.
Then there are attackers Alberth Elis, Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola. Like the Americans, Elis is a speedy winger who can create and score who features for his national team. The difference may be that he has ambitions to go to Europe while Arriola left LigaMX to come to MLS and we all know Morris’ story. While it seems like Arriola and Morris have hit their ceilings, Elis may find himself in Europe in short order.
In central midfield Haris Medunjanin offers a good point of comparison for players like Wil Trapp, Darlington Nagbe, Cristian Roldan, and Sebastian Lletget. The Bosnian international is a versatile player who is good on the ball and can move between shielding the backline and joining the attack well enough in MLS. None are world-beating talents but probably are a fair representation of core members of rosters for FIFA ranked teams in the top 40.
Now we get to the bread and butter of the American men’s soccer depth in MLS - defenders who are paid somewhere between $80,000.00ish-$200,000.00ish. Using Venezuela international defender Rolf Feltscher and defender/midfielder PC of Brazil as points of comparison, the US players that fall in this range are a mix of veteran college graduates, youngsters who might make a jump abroad, and guys who figure to be career MLS players.
Something interesting about this category is that there are not a lot of internationals that get regular playing time compared to the Americans with similar salaries. It seems to be an area where MLS teams want to find value. A part of the cost calculation for clubs is the number of international slots they use since either they have to use the number they have, trade for additional ones, or hire immigration attorneys to arrange for green cards. It seems like to use international slots most effectively, teams are bringing in more talented international players on high paying contracts rather than on low paying ones. As a result, more Americans on the lower end of the talent scale fill out rosters in depth roles or less expensive defensive ones.
At the bottom are Raheem Edwards, a Canadian International who was somewhat hyped when he broke through with Toronto but hasn’t quite lived up to his initial billing, and Corey Baird - last year’s rookie of the year.
Putting the Americans and international players together produces an MLS team with a starting XI that looks something like this:
Overall, what the salaries indicate is that the US player development system, including MLS academies, are overwhelmingly good at producing defenders who can’t do much to stop Carlos Vela from looking like Messi. The American central midfielders in the league are decent and seem pretty representative of where the US finds itself in the newest FIFA ranks - good but not great with a long way to go to make the leap to compete with the top sides in the world. Attackers are a different story with the ones who are on the higher pay scales either content to stay in MLS or on teams that figure to finish near the middle or bottom of their conference tables.
While the MLS players represent about half or perhaps 2⁄3 of the USMNT player pool, it’s important to point out that the MNT players in the league not on designated player contracts, and some who are, play in MLS and not a top five league for a reason. Quite simply, they don’t have the talent to keep up. This is also illustrated by the international players used for comparison. Haris Medunjanin jumped between Maccabi Tel Aviv, Gaziantepspor, and the recently relegated Deportivo de La Coruna before settling in at the Philadelphia Union and becoming a key member of the team. Rolf Flescher featured most prominently at Grasshopper in Switzerland to begin his career and at a club that’s bounced between 3. Liga and 2. Bundesliga before settling in as a regular starter for the LA Galaxy. At the top of the list a player like Federico Higuain bounced around in Argentina never really catching on at a top club, couldn’t get playing time in Turkey or stick around with Club America, and is now one of the best creative players in MLS.
As far as what this means for the national team, there are obviously good players breaking through in top five leagues or established there now. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, Zack Steffen, DeAndre Yedlin, Tim Weah, and John Brooks could form a good core going forward. Beyond that when the team turns to its depth pieces or Gregg Berhalter thinks he’s better served with an MLS player in some positions, the drop off is pretty significant.
The salary chart may also shed light on the story of the last two World Cup cycles and the upcoming one. With Jurgen Klinsmann, a way to look at the inconsistent results in his tenure would be that his ideals were great but the players weren’t good enough for his tactics and he wasn’t a good enough coach to get them to play how he wanted anyway. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out with Gregg Berhalter since he might get way better players and might figure out the tactics. But those are two big “mights” since clearly the player pool has a long way to go until it has the depth and talent that it needs to compete against the best teams in the world internationally and not just win the occasional upset.