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Sporting Kansas City’s Payroll Relative to MLS in 2017

Spending on player wages has increased substantially for Sporting KC in 2017 from 2016, but the Sporks still rank very much as a small-budget club.

MLS: Sporting KC at Portland Timbers
Central midfield fulcrum Roger Espinoza remains the highest-paid SKC player, but how does the rest of the team’s payroll compare?
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Christmas for Major League Soccer writers and bloggers comes not only in December in the form of the offseason (and, y’know, actual Christmas), but also in April, when the MLS Players Union releases its first batch of player salary figures to the public for our consumption and frenetic analysis.

For the breakdown on how current Sporting Kansas City player salaries have changed from 2016 to 2017, I highly recommend Thad’s post from earlier this week that first reported on the club’s 2017 salary figures, which very helpfully allows you to see not only a player’s 2017 salary but also their 2016 salary to see how their pay has changed from last year to this.

However, there is more to the change in payroll than the players who are on it—it is worth mentioning the players who are no longer on it. On the surface, it wouldn’t appear as though a lot has changed for Sporting KC: its highest-paid players are still Roger Espinoza, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Benny Feilhaber, and Dom Dwyer, and its lowest-paid players are guys who have mostly been getting minutes with Swope Park Rangers like Tyler Pasher, Adrian Zendejas, and 2017 SuperDraft pick Mark from Cabo Colton Storm.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the turnover from 2016 to 2017 becomes apparent. Gone are the (relatively) bloated salaries of Brad Davis, Justin Mapp, Nuno Andre Coelho, Paulo Nagamura, Chance Myers, and Bernardo Anor, which combined took $1,411,694 in base wages off of SKC’s books this past offseason.

Most of that was reinvested in new acquisitions: the combined base salaries of Gerso Fernandes, Ilie Sanchez, Andrew Dykstra, Latif Blessing, and Soony Saad add up to $1,238,303.51.

Considering that none of the offseason roster casualties were consistent starters in 2016—although the impacts of Myers and Nagamura on the club throughout their tenures are undeniable—and that of the offseason acquisitions both Gerso and Ilie are integral parts of the Starting XI (and both Saad and Blessing represent important attacking substitutes and squad rotation players), it is already readily apparent that Sporting KC’s wage budget is being spent much more judiciously in 2017 compared to 2016.

Indeed, the only question mark among the senior (as opposed to supplemental) roster acquisitions this offseason is Dykstra, who seems to have already largely been surpassed by Zendejas as the preferred backup to Tim Melia, but Dykstra costs the club a relative pittance at $87,654.41 in base wages and, as an experienced MLS hand, represents at least a reasonable security blanket should Melia sustain a long-term injury.

Put simply: the bulk of SKC’s salary outlay is now going exactly where it should be going: to the players who are starting week-in, week-out. That wasn’t the case in 2016, and it showed in terms of the quality of play at certain positions (especially on the wing).

But in addition to the factor of SKC’s payroll relative to last year’s, there is the factor of the payroll relative to the rest of MLS. In this, SKC continues to compare very favorably, for a couple of crucial reasons.

First, unlike big-spending clubs like Toronto FC, Orlando City, or (surprisingly) the Chicago Fire, there is not a huge chunk of Sporting KC’s payroll tied up in just one or two or three players. The most expensive player on SKC’s roster—Espinoza—is still paid less than thirty-two other players in MLS according to a tally by the Washington Post’s Steven Goff, and the combined salaries of Espinoza, Zusi, Besler, Feilhaber, Dwyer, Gerso, and Ilie would only come in at number ten on the list of highest-paid MLS players.

This is hardly a detail. Even though he only arrived a scant several weeks ago, it is now almost impossible to imagine the Fire’s midfield now without Bastian Schweinsteiger bossing it, and were he to go down with a long-term injury, it is easy to see the Fire sliding from a club experiencing a renaissance back to perpetual Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers.

Second, as you can probably gather from the previous two paragraphs, Sporting KC does not rank anywhere near the top of payroll spending by MLS clubs; indeed, per this useful graph from the folks over at Total MLS, SKC isn’t even in the top half of spending on player wages in the league, ranking a paltry 14 out of 22 (technically 23, I suppose, if you include the LAFC outfit, but they haven’t started play yet so it is hardly an apples-to-apples comparison).

If there is a single maxim to soccernomics, it is that the club that spends the most on wages should be expected to win the most shiny things. Granted, that maxim gets complicated slightly in MLS owing to the myriad ways that monopoly money Garber Bucks totally normal means of advantaging the Los Angeles Galaxy can affect payrolls, but still, it is so universal a rule of thumb in soccer that it is at least instructive here as well.

To that end, Toronto FC, as the club with the highest payroll (and it isn’t even really close) ought to be winning the Supporter’s Shield every year, and yet the club has not a single one to its name. Coming in second is NYCFC, whose status as a recent expansion club perhaps excuses it somewhat, yet both TFC and NYCFC are currently muddling along in the middle of the Eastern Conference table.

Instead, atop the Eastern Conference standings is another recent expansion club, Orlando City, even though its payroll is roughly 60% of TFC’s, suggesting that just maybe Jason Kreis does still have it after all (although it certainly helps to have an overachieving Hegelian-esque super-man like Cyle Larin running roughshod over the league while being paid peanuts).

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, FC Dallas sits in second place with two games in hand on the first-place Portland Timbers, yet is a humble 17th in payroll expenses (which goes to show just what an impressive job Oscar Pareja has done and is doing down in the Lone Star State). In point of fact, the conference’s most extravagant spender, the Los Angeles Galaxy, is sharing the conference cellar with the Colorado Rapids, who thus far seem determined to prove that last year’s excellent campaign was an aberration rather than an actual renaissance.

Now, all the usual caveats about sample size apply—we’re only about a quarter of the way through the 2017 season, and as the recent string of playoff brackets demonstrates, a club can be absolutely horrendous for the first third or so of the season, begin to right the ship in the summer months, hit a vein of form down the home stretch, and still eke their way into the playoffs before making a deep postseason run.

Still, the MLSPU salary numbers are instructive--and not just for the players themselves as they negotiate contracts with their clubs and the league. They’re instructive for the fans as they learn whether their club is making the most of its resources, whether that club has money coming out the ears like Toronto FC or whether that club is a small-money outfit like FC Dallas.

For Sporting Kansas City fans, I think the initial salary numbers are a reason for optimism. The club may never spend at the level of the Los Angeles Galaxy or Toronto FC, which makes it all the more imperative that what funds it does have are going towards the players making the most impact on the pitch. Compared to last year, this year’s squad achieves that goal. And compared to the league, Sporting KC is over performing relative to its place in the payroll rankings by a substantial margin.

Of course, simply over performing relative to your payroll isn’t good enough for a club that, like its fans, demands that it compete for silverware every single year, and that has three trophies from the past five years in its cupboard. But should you need a lock-down reason to back up your argument that, say, Sporting KC really is going about its business the right way, or that Peter Vermes really does still merit a place in the shortlist of candidates to replace Bruce Arena after 2018, how the club has come to manage its payroll this season is that reason.

None of that means that there are no economic inefficiencies on the club’s books. Graham Zusi is the most highly-paid fullback in the league by a margin of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Kevin Ellis is being paid almost identically to Ike Opara (although this also to do with the fact that Opara is seriously underpaid, even when considering his injury history), and the club and fans have yet to see the best of the convalescing Diego Rubio as he collects a $218,875 base salary.

But no club’s books will align perfectly with the on-field contributions of the players, and the bottom line is that SKC’s books far more accurately reflect on-pitch performance than in years past while achieving outsize on-pitch results relative to accounts payable.

And for that reality, and that reality alone, the player union salary figures should be welcomed as very good news by Sporting Kansas City fans.