Michael Bradley comes to MLS, what it could mean to the rest of the league

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A lot of us have roommates, some because they are friends and others to divide up living costs.  A lot of us carpool or take public transit, some because it is environmentally good and others to save money.  For the 25% plus of MLS players who reportedly made under $50,000 last year I imagine it was a lot of the second, most don’t play in cities where their parents live so crashing in their basement isn’t an option.   Now when compared to the league minimums of other professional sports leagues in the US this number will either make you laugh or cry:

So at the low end of the list is the NFL, a bit of a surprise to me, but consider that just 18 players in all of MLS in 2013 made more than the league minimum of what a NFL player would make, 501 made less.

Now it is kinda unfair to compare MLS which is a very young league with those who have been around a lot longer, but clearly if you want to compete for the very best athletes in the US you have to be able to offer them something closer to what they can make in other leagues.

So why does this matter?  Well last fall we saw Clint Dempsey signed by MLS for over $5 million dollars a year, and now reports have Michael Bradley signing for $6.5 million a year.  Both players are mainstays of the USMNT and some of the best American players in the world, and I am happy to have them in MLS.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions, and just because one has questions or concerns doesn’t mean they are against the league or those players or teams, it simply means that there is far too little information being offered up by the league for the fans who want to know the details, for there not to be questions.

We saw last year several rule changes that were communicated to the teams, never updated to the roster or competition rules that the league posts on their site.  The result is that when the information does come out that some (myself included) are left to wonder what the league was trying to hide.  So last year the signing of Clint Dempsey is a classic example, first was the question of how did Seattle move up the allocation order that MLS says applies to returning USMNT players:

The allocation ranking is the mechanism used to determine which MLS club has first priority to acquire a U.S. National Team player who signs with MLS after playing abroad, or a former MLS player who returns to the League after having gone to a club abroad for a transfer fee. The allocation rankings may also be used in the event two or more clubs file a request for the same player on the same day when the discovery period opens in December. The allocations will be ranked in reverse order of finish for the 2012 season, taking playoff performance into account. 

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Speculation is that a DP signing would be exempt of that rule, but there has been no real verification of that from MLS.  I believe it is more likely that no other team offered more money than the $5-6 million plus a year that Dempsey is making.

There was also a good deal of questions on how the transfer fee was paid, was it paid by the league, by Seattle, or some mix of both.  Why does that matter?  Well if as reported by SI, the league paid the 9 million dollar transfer fee, it could be seen as giving Seattle a huge advantage over other teams, and given the fact that the Sounders ownership group is worth billions of dollars it would be baffling from a business side.  I also heard reports that MLS simply fronted the fee for the Sounders who would pay it back, but that seems odd for an ownership group that has more assets than MLS does.

For me perhaps the biggest impact of the Dempsey deal was what I would consider a meltdown of the Sounders at the end of the season, now you can point to injuries, or other issues but if you watched the team play after the arrival of Dempsey into the lineup they seemed to lack chemistry and couldn’t find a way to effectively involve him in their tactics.  A really big price tag paid by a team that barely made the playoffs and were eliminated by their chief rivals the Portland Timbers, and in the off season the Sounders have been one of the busier clubs rebuilding their roster around their new mega DP.

So fast forward to this week and the reported signing of Michael Bradley by Toronto FC, while there has been no formal announcement from MLS or TFC both Bradley’s agent and folks at Roma say it is a done deal.  So now we again have little information actually verified by MLS, but TFC wouldn’t have been the first in the allocation order (both DC United and Chivas USA would be above them), so did MLS change the rules for USMNT players who return on DP contracts or was it that TFC made the biggest offer and allocation order really doesn’t matter anymore it is all about the highest bidder?

The rumor salary will be $6.5 million a year, a very sizable upgrade from what he was making at Roma as a backup player after they upgraded their midfield both over the summer and in recent weeks.  One can’t blame a player for looking for a bigger payday, or for looking for a place where he will get playing time to keep him in form for the upcoming World Cup.  I don’t look beyond those two things for sources of motivation on why he would make such a change.  That $6.5 million dollar salary is more than 2x more than the club salary cap for 2014, and in a league where 25% of the players make less than $50,000 a year there is little doubt that this will add huge pressure on MLS to make significant chances to their salary structure in the next CBA.

The range of the transfer fee rumors seem to settle around $10 million dollars and once again there have been whispers online that MLS has paid this fee:

One lingering question with the deal is who will pay the transfer fee, though if the Clint Dempsey example is any indication, Major League Soccer may have again broken out the checkbook. While it was initially assumed the Seattle Sounders had paid the price of Dempsey’s summer acquisition from Tottenham, reporting by Sports Illustrated later revealed the league had paid the former Spur’s transfer fee. As the 2013 season progressed, it was revealed other teams had benefitted from new policies allowing the league to pay part or all of certain players’ transfer fees.

Prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com

Of course my issue is that MLS seems only willing to help clubs that are willing to pay for the new MegaDP’s and if that is the case it seems like a very poor way to build a league of parity.  I would suggest that if MLS is going to start paying fees like this that the league should have to give a much larger amount of allocation to clubs who aren’t willing or able to add $5-10 million in team payroll at the drop of a hat.

For me both the Dempsey and now the Bradley deal (in addition to whatever other DP’s may be signed to these Mega DP deals) are both a blessing and a curse for MLS, it has got the attention of the national sports media and got people talking and that is never a bad thing.  It will however probably lead to a very tense CBA negotiation, the current CBA ends this year and I expect that you will see the player’s union push very hard for a very significant raise for average and low end salaries.  In 2013 the reported salary spend on guaranteed contract in MLS was just under $95 million dollars across 569 players, which would indicate an average salary of about $167,000, but if you subtract the 9 players who made over 1 million dollars (they combine for $26.2 million) that number drops by $44,000.  The 75 top paid players in MLS collectively make more than the other 490 players do, and I expect that the gap will widen even more when the next set of salary numbers are released by the players union.

There will be no way the league can plead poverty, as they have collected over $150 million in expansion fees from NYCFC and Orlando City SC, and when clubs are showing a willingness to pay these huge salaries to get this new breed of MegaDP’s into the league.  I know that the league will do their best to play low-ball, but clearly the time is now for the league to start making real moves towards making the league attractive to players and to me an immediate raise of the minimum salary to $75,000 a year and increase of the overall salary cap to $4 million with yearly increases of $300-500,000 seem like something MLS should embrace if they really want to be a top league in the world within 8 years.

That’s How I See It

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