MLS player salary data reveals some big bargains, a few busts

Thearon W. Henderson - Getty Images

Using a metric we're calling "Bang for the Buck", we determine who some of the best values in MLS are and discover that the Earthquakes are really spending wiser than anyone else.

Simon Dawkins is the best value in MLS. OK, that might be overstating it a wee bit, but no player in the league is producing more bang for the buck than the San Jose Earthquakes midfielder.

The second-year player, who's currently on loan from English giant Tottenham, currently has eight goals and one assist. He's also being paid $50,000 in guaranteed compensation, according to the salary data just released by the MLS Players' Union. That gives him 1.80 goals and assists per $10,000, the best mark in the league.

Admittedly, this metric is far from perfect. It does nothing to account for goalkeepers, shutdown defenders or anyone else that doesn't put rack up goals or assists. Beyond that, these salary numbers are notoriously inaccurate, as they don't include any number of ways in which players are compensated.

That said, I've been told by numerous MLS front-office officials that these figures at least serve as a decent point of comparison between players and teams, even if only in a relative sense. For the purposes of this article, I always refer to "total guaranteed compensation" when talking about salaries. I'm also going to go ahead and use "Bang for the Buck" as short-hand for "goals and assists per $10,000 in salary."

Maybe the biggest takeaway from this latest salary dump is that there are quite a few good values in MLS and not too many egregious wastes of money. The Bang for the Buck stat also reveals some good values in places you might not expect. Coming in just a fraction behind Dawkins, for instance, is first-year Rapids midfielder Martin Rivero, who has contributed a goal and eight assists while making just $50,004. His teammate Jaime Castrillon posted a Bang for the Buck of 1.46, the sixth best mark in the league. (Table below shows the full Top 10, click here to see the Top 50.)

What Bang for the Buck really highlighted, though, was just how good the Earthquakes have been.

Not far behind Dawkins is Alan Gordon, his Earthquakes teammate. That Gordon is having an impressive year is well known by now, but just how good of a value he's been has not been so widely reported. Gordon's 13 goals and seven assists are costing the Earthquakes a reported $120,000. Only two other players in the top 10 of our Bang for the Buck metric make six figures and his mark of 1.67 is the third best in MLS.

In fact, the Earthquakes have six of the top 30 players by this metric. Steven Beitashour (11th, 1.36), Chris Wondolowski (21st, .97), Shea Salinas (24th, .91) and Marvin Chavez (30th, .73) are all providing substantial returns on their relatively modest salaries. No other team has more than three players in the Top 30.

Club Last Name First Name Pos Guaranteed comp. G A Min g/10k a/10k Bang
SJ Dawkins Simon M $50,000.00 8 1 1,781 1.60 0.20 1.80
COL Rivero Martin M $50,004.00 1 8 2,327 0.20 1.60 1.80
SJ Gordon Alan F $120,000.00 13 7 1,230 1.08 0.58 1.67
NY Barklage Brandon M $45,566.67 2 5 1,270 0.44 1.10 1.54
LA Juninho M $65,625.00 7 3 2,396 1.07 0.46 1.52
COL Castrillon Jaime M $68,375.00 8 2 2,255 1.17 0.29 1.46
DAL Castillo Fabian F $56,250.00 5 3 1,633 0.89 0.53 1.42
SEA Johnson Eddie F $106,333.33 13 2 1,895 1.22 0.19 1.41
NE Nguyen Lee M/F $50,500.00 5 2 2,386 0.99 0.40 1.39
KC Zusi Graham F-M $138,812.50 5 14 2,523 0.36 1.01 1.37

Earthquakes getting more than they bargained for

Given all this, it should hardly come as a shock that the Earthquakes also rank as the team that is getting the most for its money. In addition to leading the Supporters' Shield race with 61 points, they also have the second lowest payroll in MLS at just a shade under $3.2 million. That means they are paying just $52,000 per point this season.

Second on that list is Sporting KC at roughly $56,000, which probably shouldn't come as a surprise as they are also running second in the Supporters' Shield race. Their payroll is the third lowest in MLS. (Click here for all team payrolls)

While it seems a bit unfair to suggest that total salary has literally no correlation with actual position in the table, the numbers suggest there's something to that argument. Even beyond the Bang for the Buck stars of Sporting KC and the Earthquakes, teams in the bottom half of the payroll ladder are averaging 44 points, while teams in the top half are averaging less than 42. Teams are equally as likely to be in the playoffs regardless of where they are in terms of payroll.

DPs are not about value

Designated Players have a way of throwing these numbers off a bit, though. Considering there are five players who make more by themselves than the entire Earthquakes team, that makes sense.

Among players making at least $500,000 in guaranteed compensation, Dwayne DeRosario is providing the best return on investment. His seven goals and 12 assists come with a $663,000 price tag, meaning D.C. United is getting .29 goals and assists per $10,000. Fredy Montero (.24) is the only other player in that price range who is above .15.

Landon Donovan (.10) is the only player making more than $1 million who is providing at least .10 "Bang for the Buck." Donovan might be considered a relative bargain, though, as he's providing about the same production per $10,000 as D.C. United's Hamdi Salihi, despite being paid about five times as much money as his fellow DP.

Over-priced and over-hyped

Even though Rafael Marquez is not supposed to be someone who puts up big production numbers, it seems a pretty open and shut case that he is still one of the worst investments in the league. He's being paid $4.6 million, but has only played fewer than 800 minutes this year.

If one player can give him a run for his money in terms of bad investments, it's starting to look more and more like Bakary Soumare might be that player. From best I can tell, no player with nearly as much time with his team and making at least $100,000 has played as little as Soumare's 90 minutes. In Soumare's defense, he is still coming back from a knee injury, but the fact remains that he has played just one match since joining the Philadelphia Union back on June 26. His only appearance came on Aug. 15 and he hasn't done much to earn another shot.

For all this, he's being paid the equivalent of $280,000 a year in guaranteed compensation. Soumare may end up being a player that the Union can build a defense around, but the league will have almost certainly paid him a rather healthy chunk of change for almost zero production this year. Just for good measure, he's already been ruled out for the rest of the season.

Even though the Galaxy and Red Bulls continue to outspend their competition by a decent amount, Toronto FC manages to waste money like no other.

TFC's struggles are made even more notable by the reports that they are still paying Julian de Guzman's salary even after trading him to FC Dallas. If those reports are accurate, they are actually spending closer to $10 million in guaranteed compensation. That would also mean they are spending about $450,000 per point so far this season.

Even though TFC only claimed 33 points and spent close to $7 million in 2011, they could wind up spending $200,000 more per point if they don't close out the season reasonably strong. Chivas USA, who has just 28 points this year, is spending less than a third as much per point as TFC to get there.

Broad takeaways

In a much more broad sense, MLS is clearly starting to open its wallet a little more each year. There are now 241 players in the league pulling in at least $100,000 this year and the total payroll is just a shade under $100 million. At the end of last year, those figures were 207 and roughly $85 million. Those are increases of roughly 16 and 17 percent, respectively.

The average salary is now up to $179,000 and even the median is a respectable $85,000. Considering the salary cap only went up 5 percent, it's notable that those increases are 10 and 6.25 percent above last year, respectively.

The bottom of the salary scale is clearly not ideal, as 57 players are being paid less than $40,000, but there's even a shred of good news there. Despite another team being added, and six potential "apprentice" positions along with it, that number is actually down from 60 a year ago.

MLS still has a long ways to go in terms of paying players what they are overseas, but the progress is clearly moving in the right direction.

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