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MLS Player Salaries: Trying To Make Sense Of Incomplete Data

The MLS Players Union gives us a peek into the salary structures of MLS; we try to make sense of it.

Getty Images for New York Red Bu

Every year around this time, the MLS Players Union releases salary data for all the league's players. They started doing it in 2007, presumably as a way of shaming the league into raising the bar. Whether or not the league started paying better as a direct result of this seems unlikely, but the union has continued to do it anyway.

With this year's data hitting the internet last week, we decided to take a little time pouring through it in an effort to glean something a little more interesting than who might be the best and worst paid players in the league (although, there's a place for that too). Unfortunately, what the union releases is not a complete picture.

What the union shares is only the guaranteed compensation for each player. Basically, that's their base salary and a prorated portion of a signing bonus. Any other performance-based bonuses are not counted, nor are transfer or loan fees. This surely suits MLS just fine, as it keeps the shroud of plausible deniability hovering over the league's payroll.

That said, I've been assured my multiple league sources that the numbers the union releases are close enough to be of value from a distance. We might not want to read too much into the intricacies, but they are just fine for generalities. I've also been clued into a few other oddities, such as there being a surcharge on each contract that adds about 4 percent to each player's cap figure. Add this all together and I think we can start making some pretty good observations about what's going on in the league.

A couple notes about all the figures I'll be using: they should all be considered approximations and I'm only looking at guaranteed compensation.

Overall picture

Considering the Collective Bargaining Agreement has an annual raise built into it, we probably shouldn't be surprised that MLS players are making a little more than they did last year. The league is paying out about $90 million in total guaranteed compensation, which is about 7 percent more than last year's total of about $84 million, but also includes 30 more players.

MLS Salary Picture

Over cap/k Pts $ per pt/k Avg/k Median/k Total/m
LAG 599 11 $1.15 $407.50 $77.69 $12.63
New York 538 26 $0.50 $518.00 $112.50 $12.96
DC 533.9 27 $0.16 $161.10 $96.25 $4.19
Seattle 461.7 24 $0.17 $128.50 $83.70 $3.98
Vancouver 453.9 19 $0.23 $145.60 $96.20 $4.37
TFC 356.2 3 $2.75 $294.70 $70.80 $8.25
Colorado 241.5 19 $0.18 $110.68 $69.04 $3.43
RSL 219.9 29 $0.12 $135.00 $83.00 $3.52
Chicago 99.7 18 $0.18 $107.52 $87.49 $3.23
KC 61.8 25 $0.12 $111.50 $82.50 $3.12
Dallas -88.2 13 $0.27 $118.97 $75.00 $3.45
Revolution -92.7 13 $0.25 $116.52 $75.61 $3.26
Philly -102.1 8 $0.45 $124.70 $90.50 $3.62
Crew -107.2 18 $0.19 $103.93 $70.54 $3.33
Houston -126.5 16 $0.19 $115.42 $100.46 $3.00
San Jose -156.4 27 $0.12 $107.00 $92.60 $3.21
Montreal -161.5 12 $0.25 $108.07 $70.00 $3.03
Chivas -190.8 15 $0.22 $115.47 $79.50 $3.23
Portland -244.3 13 $0.32 $134.00 $75.00 $4.16
Totals $2,295.9 $90.1

The average MLS player's guaranteed compensation is now around $163,000, which is about 2 percent better than it was last year. Of course, that's thrown off a bit by the Designated Players. The median -- where half the league's players make more and the other make less -- is now a little more than $80,000 by my calculations. That would be about 1 percent more than it was in 2011.

As was the case last year, the average and median salary figures are a little misleading. The league minimum officially sits at $44,000, but 57 players currently are being guaranteed less than that. These so-called "apprentice" players are generally rookies. If we strip them and all players making more than $1 million out of the equation, we have a median of right around $90,000, which is probably a bit more of a fair depiction of your average MLS player.

All teams not spending equally

Sure, MLS is a parity league and the salary cap offers a very strong restraint on spending. But that doesn't quite mean everyone is spending equally.

The top spending teams are, unsurprisingly, the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls who are each getting close to $13 million in guaranteed compensation. They are spending more than four-times as much as the Houston Dynamo and Montreal Impact, who are both barely spending $3 million. Admittedly, the current numbers don't include recent Impact DP signee Marco Di Vaio.

Of course, when we say a team is "spending" a certain amount of money, that's a bit misleading. The reality is that contracts are actually held by individual teams and their salaries are all paid by the league. The big exception here is with Designated Players, who individual teams must pay out of their own budgets. So a team like the Colorado Rapids, whose total guaranteed compensation is around $3.43 million and a team like the Dynamo are really "spending" basically the same amount as neither has a DP.

Predictably, it's a different story among teams with DPs. The Red Bulls ($12.96 million) remain the top spending team even though they have an open DP spot mainly because they have the two highest-paid players in the league. Thierry Henry ($5.6 million) and Rafael Marquez ($4.6 million) each make more than the total guaranteed compensation of 16 entire teams. The Galaxy are right on their heels ($12.6 million), but they've "spread" the money out a little more with their three DPs making between $4 million (David Beckham) and $2.4 million (Landon Donovan). Of course, those five players also rank among the six top highest paid players in the league. Only Toronto FC's Torsten Frings ($3.4 million) keeps them from occupying the top 5 spots.

Speaking of TFC, their three DPs help drive their total compensation to No. 3 on the list at $8.25 million, almost twice as much as the No. 4 team on the list. In fact, those three teams have the eight highest paid players in the league among them.

Curiously enough, the No. 4 team on the list, the Vancouver Whitecaps, only has one DP currently on their roster (Barry Robson is expected to be a DP, but does not show up on the union's list at this time). As a point of comparison, the Seattle Sounders have three DPs and are supposedly spending about $400,000 less.

Money doesn't buy you happiness

It's become a bit of a meme in certain MLS circles: Payroll has almost no correlation to performance. In a broad sense, that remains true as there's actually a negative correlation between guaranteed compensation and 2012 point total. The Galaxy, TFC and the Portland Timbers are 3 of the top 6 teams in terms of guaranteed compensation and are also three of the worst teams in the league. Conversely, the San Jose Earthquakes ($3.21 million) and Sporting Kansas City ($3.12 million) are each among the bottom 4 in team payroll yet are two of the top five teams in points. Of the top six teams in the standings, only the Red Bulls are among the truly high spenders.

The number of DPs a team has also has no correlation to their point total. Among the three teams with the maximum number of DPs, only the Sounders currently are in playoff position. Teams with two DPs are fairing better, as 3 of 4 are in playoff position. But teams with one DP are currently performing worse on average than teams with no DP.

How you spend your money, though, can be a bit more telling. When you look at each team's median salary, performance has significantly more correlation. In addition to spending the most total payroll, the Red Bulls also have by far the highest median salary ($112,500). Among the 10 teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today, only three are in the bottom half of team median salary.

The Allocation Mystery

MLS does a very good job of disguising exactly how much money they are spending on allocation by basically never talking about actual figures. We can however, get at least some kind of idea about the minimum amount the league is spending by figuring out each team's standing against the $2.81 million salary budget. I counted each senior DP as counting $350,000 against the budget, each youth DP as counting $200,000, removed all Generation Adidas and Homegrown Players from the calculation and only counted the top 20 earners from each team (as all others are considered off budget).

The figures I came up with are admittedly rough, as I made no attempt to figure out how much money teams may have spent on transfer fees or how much players are making outside the stated totals from the union.

Those caveats aside, it should come as little surprise that the Galaxy and Red Bulls are using the most allocation. By my estimation, the Galaxy are about $600,000 over the cap, while the Red Bulls are at $538,000. The No. 3 team on the list was a bit of a surprise, D.C. United ($534,000). The reason was mostly because I counted Dwayne DeRosario as counting a full $663,000 against the budget as he's not currently registered as a DP. The Sounders and Whitecaps are both more than $400,000 over the cap, which also wasn't a huge surprise given their relatively well-paid players.

The big surprise in terms of being over budget was the Colorado Rapids, who I estimated as being nearly $250,000 over budget despite having the lowest median salary ($69,000). There are a couple reasons for this: 1. Their top 20 wage earners are all on budget; 2. Conor Casey's cap hit of $400,000 is the fourth highest in the league; 3. they have five players making more than $200,000.

Nine of the teams are actually below the salary budget by my estimation, but I'm sure the reality is that fewer are for the reasons I've previously stated.

The biggest surprise here is the Portland Timbers, who are about $244,000 under the salary budget, despite having two Designated Players who count a full $350,000. Among the issues aiding their budget situation are having their second-highest paid player, Darlington Nagbe, not counting as he's still a member of Generation Adidas. Based on the information we have available, only eight players make as much as $100,000 and their median salary of $75,000 is the 14th highest in MLS.

Added all up, it would appear that MLS teams are spending at least $2.3 million in allocation.