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MLS Player Salaries: Total Expenditures Up About $500,000 Per Team

Among the highlights of the recently released MLS player salary data are a median salary of $80,000 and an median team budget of nearly $3.4 million.

With a reported 2011 salary of just $45,000, the Chicago Fire's Diego Chaves is currently the best value in all of MLS. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
With a reported 2011 salary of just $45,000, the Chicago Fire's Diego Chaves is currently the best value in all of MLS. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Every year, there's this little dance that MLS does with player salary data. Whenever the signing of a player is officially announced, there's a line in the release that says "Per MLS and club policy, terms were not disclosed." Then around this time of year, the MLS Players Union releases their own list of salaries for just about every player. Sometimes the union's data makes perfect sense. Other times, it can be a bit baffling. In any case, it ends up being the best we have to go on, so we do.

Well, that data came out over the weekend and I've been spending the better part of Sunday sifting through it and trying to make some sense of it. It's always a bit dodgy trying to make too much out of individual player data -- since it's not always clear whether the amount shown is how much they count against the salary cap or how much they are actually being paid -- but looked at as more of a snapshot, there's some interesting stuff in there. 

A couple notes to keep in mind about all data: I eliminated Nery Castillo from all calculations. He's on the books for more than $2 million and his presence actually had a somewhat significant effect, which I felt was misleading. Also keep in mind that, tor the most part, I used "guaranteed compensation" instead of "base salary" for my calculations.

Teams drastically increase budgets

To a certain degree, it should not be surprising that MLS teams are spending more money on total player payroll this year than they did a year ago. After all, they added two new teams and six rosters spots and increased the salary cap. Based on the salary data from August of last year -- the most up-to-date data we have from the 2010 season -- the league increased payroll by about $8 million. All but one team is spending more than the $2.675 million salary cap.

MLS Team Salaries

Team Median Total
$80,916.67 $3,296,892.00
$79,000.00 $2,691,177.80
$62,081.50 $3,173,078.64
$66,375.00 $3,471,860.83
$74,500.00 $3,522,437.33
$71,000.00 $3,324,518.57
$97,500.00 $3,199,080.20
$107,531.25 $3,225,771.50
$96,000.00 $12,419,679.00
$73,250.00 $3,432,636.34
$96,748.00 $13,397,087.00
$125,000.00 $3,296,892.00
$74,625.00 $2,652,557.59
$108,675.00 $3,517,956.76
$72,000.00 $2,710,774.71
$85,050.00 $3,465,629.23
$71,833.34 $4,262,444.84
$65,000.00 $3,570,853.38
$80,000.00 $3,378,577.46

Even accounting for the two new teams, the median MLS team is spending about $500,000 more on player salaries than they were a year ago. The team that increased payroll the most was the LA Galaxy, who essentially replaced Edson Buddle's modest salary with Juan Pablo Angel's DP hit.

All but three teams (Toronto FC, the New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire) increased payroll. Even with baseline expectation for increased salary expenditure at $195,600 (the amount it would cost to add six minimum salary players), 11 teams exceeded that.

The New York Red Bulls are the most free-spending team (total payroll about $13.4 million) and the Portland Timbers are the cheapest team (about $2.7 million). The Philadelphia Union have the highest median salary ($125,000) and the Colorado Rapids have the lowest ($62,081.50).

Salary dips in middle, but rises on both ends 

I'm not exactly sure how to make heads or tails out of it, but even though teams were spending more on players, they appear to be spending less per player. The overall median salary for MLS players now sits at $80,000, where it was more than $90,000 last year. The main culprit for that is obvious enough: This year there are 59 players who make less than the last year's league minimum. Without getting into too much nitty-gritty stuff, just know that the official league minimum went up to $42,000 this year, but the union agreed to allow six roster spots to be used by "apprentice" players, whose salaries do not count against the cap. 

Even if you eliminate the "apprentice" players, the median MLS player still makes slightly less (exactly $90,000) than he did a year ago. The average among all non-apprentice players now sits at $166,457, a roughly $6,000 decrease from 2010. 

On the high end of the payroll, there was slightly better news. Last year, 189 players made more than $100,000. This year, there are 207 making at least that much. There was also a significant increase in players making at least $200,000, 65 this year as opposed to 51 in 2010.

Interestingly enough, Designated Players are making, on average, less than they did a year ago. This year's 15 DPs make about $25.8 million this year, while last year 13 DPs made closer to $30 million. The median DP makes about $636,000 this year, as opposed to more than $1.7 million a year ago. Fabian Castillo becomes the lowest paid DP in history with a salary of just $42,000 (his DP status is clearly heavily tied to his transfer cost). 

Surprise, surprise, scoring goals pays better than preventing

Breaking this year's salaries down by listed position (understanding that these are less than 100 percent accurate), forwards are making the most money (median: $85,502) and goalkeepers are making the least ($66,511). This trend holds even when you look at the highest paid players at each position. Forward: Thierry Henry ($5.6 million); midfielder: David Beckham ($6.5 million); Defender: Rafael Marquez ($4.6 million); Goalkeeper: Faryd Mondragon ($396,666.67). Expanding the field to look at the fifth best player at each position, the trend remains clear: Forward: $636,000; midfielder: $500,000; defender: $290,000; goalkeeper: $209,756.25.

Big raises, but not necessarily big seasons

Of course, what fun would it be if we didn't at least take a peak at the individual player salaries? As we learn, several players were handsomely rewarded for big 2010 campaigns:

Fredy Montero, the Sounders newly minted DP, got the biggest raise at $456,000; David Ferreira, who somehow is not classified as a DP despite making $705,000 in guaranteed compensation, received a $405,000 bump; and Andres Mendoza, another new DP, got an extra $354,167 this year.

Among players who were at the lower end of the salary spectrum a year ago, none of them got a bigger raise than Geoff Cameron, who went from $40,000 in 2010 to making $245,000 this year. Chris Wondolowski turned his Golden Boot campaign in which he made just $48,000 into a $127,000 raise. Jair Benitez, a FC Dallas defender, went from $42,000 to $171,250.

There were a few big raises that were a little harder to figure out, though. Julian de Guzman, an underperforming DP, got a bump of $193,2000. Joseph Ngwenya scored just once in 589 minutes a year ago, but managed to get a $72,000 raise, which probably explains why the Houston Dynamo traded him to DC United after just one game this season. Troy Perkins, who turned in one of the worst statistical seasons in MLS history last year, received a $75,000 raise and is now the second highest paid goalkeeper in the league at $280,000.

Taking one for the team

I didn't bother to figure out every player who received a pay cut, but I did find 16 who are making at least $25,000 less than they were a year ago. Most of the names on this list weren't particularly surprising (as most are veterans on the tail end of their careers), but there were a few that kind of jumped out.

No one took a bigger pay decrease than Angel, who is making $668,000 less to play for the Galaxy than he did to play for the Red Bulls. Eight other players took pay cuts of at least $50,000. Of those, Kasey Keller (now making $250,000) and Pablo Mastroeni ($245,000) seem to clearly be of the "helping the team out" variety.

Other salary highlights

In addition to Castillo, three other DPs have a listed "guaranteed compensation" of less than the maximum salary cap hit of $335,000: Alvaro Saborio ($305,625), Omar Bravo ($170,000) and Diego Chara (143,758). Saborio is the second best paid player on his team, while seven Sporting Kansas City players make more than Bravo and four Timbers make more than Chara.  

On the other end of the spectrum, 10 players who are not classified as DPs make more than $335,000 (Ferreira, Shalrie Joseph, Dwayne DeRosario, Javier Morales, Brian Ching, Mondragon, Jay DeMerit, Benny Feilhaber and Bobby Convey). 

Bang for the buck

No player is currently giving their team more bang for less than the Fire's Diego Chaves. At just $45,000 in guaranteed compensation, he's produced four goals, or about .89 points (goals + assists) per $10,000. Rounding out the top 5 in points per $10k (two goals minimum) are Paulo Araujo Jr. (.75), Mauro Rosales (.71), Atiba Harris (.63), Kalif Alhassan (.58) and Cam Weaver (.41).

Among Designated Players making at least $100,000, Bravo has produced the most despite the least playing time (1.18 points per $100k). The rest of the top five: Montero (.63), Alvaro Fernandez (.55), Eric Hassli (.33) and Landon Donovan (.33). Castillo has produced 4.76 points per $100k.