One of the United States men's national team's greatest ever players is coming back to MLS after a 13-year absence. On Sunday, the Colorado Rapids announced that they'd agreed a deal to sign Tim Howard from Everton. Howard will finish the season with Everton, join up with the USMNT for the summer, then suit up for the Rapids starting in July.
According to ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle — who broke the story that Howard was close to moving to Colorado a month ago — the American No. 1 will make $2.5 million to $2.8 million per season over the course of his three-and-a-half-year deal with the Rapids. That deal runs into his age 40 season.
Rapids fans will be happy to have an upgrade at goalkeeper and the MLS front office will be thrilled that one of America's biggest stars has decided to come home. But between Howard's salary, his age and contract length, this deal doesn't appear to make sense for Colorado.
It's impossible to tell if Howard is going to be a big draw
Last season, the Colorado Rapids finished dead last in MLS with an average attendance of 15,657. As part of Grant Wahl's MLS ambition rankings for Sports Illustrated, they revealed that they had almost 6,000 season ticket holders in 2015, fewer than any team that chose to reveal their numbers for the piece. By comparison, local rivals Real Salt Lake have more than 15,000 season ticket holders. The Rapids are undoubtedly hoping Howard will draw in both new and repeat customers.
Whether or not they'll be successful is tough to nail down because this signing is unprecedented. The Seattle Sounders didn't make Kasey Keller a designated player when they signed him, and it's very difficult to nail down how many people that bought season tickets in 2009 were pushed into that decision by Keller's signing. No established MLS team has ever signed a goalkeeper with the expectation that they'd sell tickets, and it's a rare move elsewhere in the world, too.
The Rapids are essentially making a guess that Howard's popularity from his success as the USMNT goalkeeper is going to draw eyeballs. If he helps the team win and plays well enough to keep his USMNT place, those eyeballs might stay fixed on the Rapids. It's certainly not a baseless guess.
But despite Howard's status as both one of the best and one of the most popular USMNT players in history, we don't know if people are willing to pay money to see a goalkeeper.
Howard doesn't represent pure on-pitch value for money
If there's a position where most teams look to save money in MLS, it's goalkeeper. Here's how much each of the league's current starting goalkeepers makes:
Tim Howard's salary reported as high as $2.8m a year, more than all current MLS starting GK's made in 2015 combined. pic.twitter.com/VaXOTzNVFZ— Kurt Austin (@kaustin01) March 20, 2016
Swope Rangers GM Kurt Austin had to do some gymnastics to get under $2.8 million here, omitting injured D.C. United starter Bill Hamid. But still, his larger point stands — Howard is making almost eight times more the next highest paid goalkeeper. Only two other teams — DC and RSL — have a goalkeeper that is near the maximum salary cap charge.
The case for Howard lies in how much Hamid and Nick Rimando have meant to their teams. Last season, United famously became the first team in MLS to ever win a game while only taking one shot. Hamid's save percentage of 77.7 was the best in the league among goalkeepers who started more than half of their team's games. Despite taking the second-fewest shots in the league, United finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, making the playoffs comfortably. RSL had a poor 2015, but in 2014, they finished third in the Western Conference. Rimando's save percentage of 73.2 was second among starters (behind Hamid), while RSL was bottom-half in shots taken. If Howard can match Hamid and Rimando's performance level, it's very possible that the Rapids could become a playoff contender without getting any better at soccer otherwise.
But the money committed to Howard and the length of his contract means that they can't afford to be wrong about him from a pure soccer standpoint. He's not coming off their books anytime soon, and with a reported salary of $2.8 million per season, it would be almost impossible to buy him down to a non-Designated Player contract with Targeted Allocation Money. The reason Everton are letting Howard go without a fight is because he's declined over the last couple of seasons, but the Rapids are betting that he's just lost a step and will maintain his current level for a few years without progressively getting worse. If they're wrong, they'll be stuck paying an average goalkeeper a lot of money for multiple seasons.
Any Rapids fan concerned about the money going toward Howard might be trying to talk themselves into it after Zac MacMath made a costly error during Sunday's game against D.C., but Howard can't just be a marginal improvement over MacMath to be worth his salary. He needs to be the best goalkeeper in the league. Based on the standard Hamid and Rimando have set, that's a high bar to clear.
If he's on the Rapids, everyone else passed
Before going in on Colorado, we have to let Howard present his case for joining his new team.
"The Rapids are trying to build something special," said Howard on ESPN. "They're one of the teams who have won an MLS Cup championship. They know what it is to be a winner, and they're trying to get back to those heights. The plan that they've put in place to add players, to become one of the distinguished franchises in the MLS excited me. It's a project, it's something I'm looking forward to."
OK, thanks Tim. Straight out of the new signing playbook, right? This is what you say when you join any club that isn't competing for trophies. They're building something special, mention history, say you want to get them back to their historical best, mention their "project." If you follow soccer around the world, you've heard this exact spiel a hundred times.
Howard and the Rapids will deny this up and down — that's fine, it's their job to — but if another MLS team wanted him badly enough, he'd be on another team.
It's likely that Howard's salary and contract demands scared off the league's top organizations. If the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, or his former team the New York Red Bulls were willing to commit a lot of money over a long period of time to Howard, it's likely he'd be playing for one of those teams. We can probably say the same about at least a half-dozen other teams. The Rapids are no one's first choice, and for good reason — their squad is mostly made up of MLS journeymen that better teams didn't want anymore and college draft picks. A lot of teams — most of which have been demonstrably smarter than the Rapids in recent years — decided Howard wasn't worth signing.
Howard is the only clear winner in this deal. Even though he probably would have preferred to sign with one of the MLS Cup favorites, he's made out like a bandit here. He's certainly a good player, probably worthy of DP money, but that a 37-year-old secured a three-and-a-half-year contract is stunning. He'll also be guaranteed a starting place, which he wouldn't have been at Everton or any other top-flight European team he might have joined. And in turn, that guaranteed first choice status for his club might let him keep his place over Hamid and Brad Guzan in the USMNT.
But in order to be a success for the Rapids, Howard has to defy what we know about both his age and his position to be an on-pitch and commercial success for three-and-a-half seasons. It's possible, but it's also fair to call that unlikely. This is a big gamble by the Rapids, and there's no reason to guess that it's a smart one.
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