Last week, Christmas came early for MLS fans: the day that the MLS Players Union released the salaries of its members.
On the surface, it was easy to see the change that the infusion of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) has had on club rosters and on Sporting Kansas City’s in particular. The changes from last year’s payroll to this year’s payroll are many and we’ll examine a few of those changes here.
The most noteworthy change is that Roger Espinoza is no longer the highest-paid player on the roster anymore. That distinction now belongs to Felipe Gutierrez, who showed himself to be worth every penny before suffering an injury and subsequently going under the surgeon’s knife.
Gutierrez was clearly meant to be a focal player, a Diego Valeri or a Gonzalo Higuain around whom an entire squad can revolve. For a player to serve such a role with SKC, they of course have to be comfortable with Vermes’s 4-3-3, but they also have to be relatively disposable as far as centerpieces go. In Gutierrez’s absence, the attacking onus has been picked up by Johnny Russell, who has likewise been worth every penny of his $700,000/year base wages, but also Daniel Salloi, whose base wages are not even a tenth of Russell’s.
(In this respect, Salloi seems to be this year’s Latif Blessing—a scintillating wunderkind who forces the staff to give him regular minutes despite some clear defensive deficiencies relative to what Vermes expects from his forwards. Hopefully Salloi doesn’t get picked off in another expansion draft — and thankfully due to his Homegrown status he should be safe.)
Russell represents the only lavish expenditure on the starting front line. Salloi’s Homegrown Player contract is an absolute bargain, and Khiry Shelton’s and Diego Rubio’s combined $352,245 wages still lag far behind the $550,000 base salary Dom Dwyer drew in 2017, never mind his $1,200,000 wages this season for Orlando City SC. On the bench, however, is Gerso Fernandes, and his roughly $550,000 base salary, after scoring eight goals for the club last season before fading down the home stretch of the campaign (almost certainly due to overuse).
Gerso—and, to a lesser extent, Yohan Croizet, who we’ll get to in a bit—represents an interesting litmus test of sorts for how one views the club’s 2018 payroll. It is not an efficient use of resources to have a player pulling Gerso’s wages starting every game on the bench. But, thanks to the aforementioned infusions of TAM and GAM, clubs can much more easily afford to have a bench player making Gerso-like money.
Gerso’s benching, then—and I say this as someone who believes that he has earned the right to start, especially if Russell misses upcoming games for his Scotland call-up—may not quite be the scandal of salary mismanagement as, say, 2016, when SKC was paying Brad Davis and Justin Mapp a higher combined amount for a truly minimal on-field impact. MLS clubs did not have as much allocation money at their disposal two years ago as they do now, and unlike both Davis and Mapp in 2016, Gerso in 2018 is both healthy and in the absolute prime of his career.
The starting midfield remains largely unchanged apart from Gutierrez. His $1.7M wages are exorbitant by SKC standards, but he counts for the exact same amount against the wage cap as his predecessor Benny Feilhaber would have, and the raises that Ilie Sanchez and Espinoza have taken this year are relatively small. As far as cap considerations go, SKC is spending only slightly more on its starting midfield this year compared to years past.
The biggest variable in midfield is instead Yohan Croizet. He has shown flashes of his ability—his pass to Khiry Shelton that led to Brad Guzan being sent off was certainly Feilhaber-esque—but his $650,000 base wages are similarly Feilhaber-esque, and without quite the role yet to match, even with Gutierrez’s injury creating a ready-made opportunity for Croizet.
(It should be worth remembering that it took Feilhaber a while to acclimate to Sporting KC as well, with him regularly being subbed off throughout 2013 before famously coming into form during the MLS Cup run, and the trade to acquire him from New England is arguably the best of Vermes’s career.)
If that sounds like me counseling patience on determining if Croizet is worth his relatively high price tag, I am preaching partly to myself. Croizet has shown amazing ability and frustrating inability, often within minutes of each other. While that is not something to normally say about a Designated Player, Croizet is already far from the biggest DP bust in the club’s history, thanks to Jeferson.
In defense, Ike Opara has finally earned a much-deserved raise, more than doubling his base wages from $150,000 in 2017 to nearly $325,000 in 2018. In goal, Tim Melia has similarly seen his base pay go from $165,000 in 2017 to $300,000 in 2018. In both cases, their pay raises reflect their newfound status among the league’s elite at their respective positions, and in both cases (I would argue) they are still probably paid slightly below market value. In terms of importance to, and relationship with, their club, Opara cuts a similar figure as Matt Hedges of FC Dallas or Vancouver’s Kendall Waston, both of whom are pulling $500,000-level wages. Similarly, former goalkeepers of the year Andre Blake of Philadelphia and Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando are taking home $450,000 or more annually.
The rest of the defensive payroll is mostly what you would expect, with Zusi still pulling very high wages for a right back but also performing at a very high attacking level as a right back. The possible exception here would be Emiliano Amor’s $225,500 base pay, which is relatively high for a #3 center back on a club like SKC (indeed, it’s over 50% higher than Opara’s 2017 salary). We have not seen enough from Amor in competitive fixtures to say for sure whether his ability is commensurate with that pay, but the club has all year to evaluate him before deciding whether to trigger the option to make his loan deal permanent.
Finally, the infusion of cash further down the roster to players like Amor and Gerso ought to indicate something: players in the 12 through 18 spots on this roster should merit a certain level of trust in their abilities. The club currently has one Designated Player who has begun several games from the bench and another who has been deployed exclusively as a super sub. The team’s #3 center back is making substantially more than the team’s #2 center back was making last year. Cristian Lobato is making borderline starter-level money to be (so far, at least) a squad rotation yeoman.
While the additional wages at the top of the roster are evident, the rising tide on the bench spots should indicate that the quality of depth merits the sort of squad rotation that many of us were howling for last year and the absence of which has been a contributing factor to the club’s annual autumn face plant en route to the ritually quick playoff exit.
At bottom, this is a roster with perhaps slightly less of its payroll invested in its day-in, day-out starting XI compared to last year’s, but I would argue that this is still a more responsible deployment of resources compared to the rosters of 2014-2016, for two reasons: first, during those years, Vermes had a habit of targeting more expensive veterans like Nuno Andre Coelho, or the aforementioned Davis and Mapp, in what seemed to be a “just one or two pieces away from silverware” mentality. Now that significant contributors from the team’s former core like Feilhaber and Chance Myers have since been jettisoned, younger players in their prime like Gutierrez and Russell rather than seasoned veterans have been Vermes’s primary targets. They are priced accordingly, but that leads to my second reason—the overall state of the league.
It used to be that the big spenders in MLS were obvious: Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle. Now, the first two both have second clubs that are showing capacities to spend big, Atlanta has taken the league by storm with its spending and attacking brand of soccer, and Orlando was happy to make Kaka the highest-paid player in MLS history. More teams are splashing more money, and not all of it is coming from team owners. Much of it, as has been mentioned, is coming from the league. With sunset provisions on much of the TAM it has received, Sporting KC has to use that money or lose it, and while they have proved much more judicious in their spending than many other clubs, Sporting fans should not be so surprised that the roster now boasts a player making seven figures, or a starting lineup with five players earning roughly $700,000 or more.
That is the context by which the team’s payroll should be judged. And while bigger financial risks have certainly been taken this year compared to previous campaigns, those risks would seem to be justified, and the returns so far have been remarkably promising.