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Besler, Zusi and Espinoza’s Unique Contract Situation

Peak MLS: Free agency doesn’t actually exist for players that should otherwise qualify.

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MLS: Sporting KC at Montreal Impact Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Three and a half years ago during the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union the two sides were able to institute free agency for the first time in the history of the league. Free agency in a very limited sense.

First, players needed to be at least 28-years-old and have eight years experience in MLS. On top of that the raises from there are restricted. Players that make more than $200,000 can get no more than a 15% raise, players making $100,000 to $200,000 can get a 20% raise and if players make less than $100,000 they can get a 25% raise. Not terrible, but far from great.

Something that was under reported or perhaps not reported at all is that the rules are far different for Designated Players who become free agents. Excellent reporting from Paul Tenorio in The Athletic brought to light something in the CBA that falls into Section 29.6(a)(ii):

Compensation Limitation: An out-of-contract Player whose Salary Budget Charge exceeded the Maximum Salary Budget Charge for the immediately preceding League Season, and whose Salary Budget Charge for the next League Season, based on an offer from his current Team, will also exceed the Maximum Salary Budget Charge, will not be eligible for Free Agency. An out-of-contract Player whose Salary Budget Charge exceeded the Maximum Base Salary for the immediately preceding League Season, and whose current Team did not make him an offer in excess of the Maximum Salary Budget Charge, may go through Free Agency provided that he agrees to a new [Standard Player Agreement] that results in his Salary Budget Charge being less than the Maximum Salary Budget Charge.

If that didn’t make sense, it essentially means that if a player makes above the league maximum of $504,375, then if their team offers them $1 more than the max, the player isn’t a free agent anymore. However, if the team doesn’t offer them a new deal, they become free agents but must make less than the league maximum. That would mean players who could have been bought down with Targeted Allocation Money or are DPs basically can’t be a true free agent.

It may have slipped by because players meeting this definition haven’t “reached free agency” in the last few years with one notable exception. Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake hit it before this season and he took a big pay cut from $750,000 to $530,008. A nearly $220,000 reduction. It could be argued that Beckerman isn’t even worth that at 36, but that brings us to Sporting Kansas City.

SKC will have three players falling into this category at the end of this season: Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza. All of them are out of contract after the season and all of them make over the maximum budget charge and are either DPs or had their DP contracts bought down with TAM. Here are their 2018 salaries for comparison.

2018 Salaries

First Name Last Name Position Base Salary Total Compensation
First Name Last Name Position Base Salary Total Compensation
Roger Espinoza M $900,000.00 $900,000.00
Matt Besler D $750,000.00 $783,250.00
Graham Zusi D $750,000.00 $782,102.27

It should be noted, when we asked Matt Besler about this subject this week, he indicated he had read the story in The Athletic, so you should too. He agreed with what Zusi said in the story as well. When The Blue Testament asked Besler about Graham, Roger and he being a free agent he said it was, “somewhat true.”

“When you look into the rules, there is definitely limitations. What we did is, we all realized that our contracts are coming up at the end of the season. What does that mean? What is going to happen? What are the options that we have? What are the options the club has? When we started digging deeper and looking into what those options are, we started learning and finding out about the collective bargaining agreement that was made four years ago between the players and the owners.

“In general, the rules in this league, specifically in free agency, are complex, at times confusing. It’s important for players to take the time to understand their situation because it’s always changing. Your situation is going to be different than someone else’s who is foreign, or who is younger, or who is older, or who makes more or less money. The rules could apply to you in a certain way one year, and then the next year, they could be completely different. It’s something that you have to take responsibility for to really look into the rules and how they apply to you, how you can take advantage of them and how you can make sure that the rules aren’t taking advantage of you.”

When Zusi was speaking to Tenorio he had his own take.

“It’s not ideal, the situation. I consider myself lucky because I’m in such a good situation in Kansas City and I would love to finish my career there. But really in every other situation it kind of bites you in the butt if you’re looking to explore other options. It’s something I think needs to change, and I know for a fact that our union is working hard to get those rules changed, really as soon as possible.”

Zusi went on to say, “there are mixed feelings about whether we could have done better on this [CBA]—people have been outspoken about that. It needs to get better, for sure. And whether that’s doing a short extension and trying to get things done early or waiting until the last minute like it seems to always be, I think the way free agency is laid out needs to become more player-friendly. The restrictions on the 28 [years old] and eight [years in the league] are absolutely crazy, and then these little rules in between the lines, as well. If you make it hard to move where you want and you’re unable to figure out your market value, it’s almost impossible [to be called a free agent].”

When TBT asked Besler if the player’s union proactively informs players about the rules, he gave a little more insight.

“They are always on call. I’ve had multiple conversations with the union through this process. You can pick up your phone and call somebody and have a conversation and ask questions. For the most part, they will be able to answer it right away; in some cases, because the rules are so complex, there are times where they are ‘Let me get back to you.’ In our situation, me, Graham, and Roger, this is the first time [outside of Kyle Beckerman] at this level, so it was a learning process for both sides. There are certain situations where you talk to the union and they will come out and say ‘We think it’s this way, but let’s go back and read the language. We can check with the league as well.’ It’s a working relationship. I have a feeling if you were to interview someone on the league side, they’d be telling you the same stuff I am as far as ‘This is the way the rules are written. They are very complex, sometimes confusing.’”

Each MLS team has a player that represents them with the Player’s Union. Tim Melia is the rep for Sporting KC. The rep and the Union usually have a conference call once a month. Besler added, “lately we’ve been starting to ramp up the conversations because there is a collective bargaining agreement that is about to expire at the end of next season. So we are preparing to go through negotiations.”

Knowing everything that is outlined above, it seems pretty clear the players got a raw deal. MLS is a league that is still growing and salaries are increasing each year so I have no doubt players will get a better deal next time around. For comparison, when Zusi was drafted in 2009 he made just $34,008 and he lived in the basement of Matt Besler’s parents home. In that same year, the league minimum for pay was just $20,100.

The league minimum in 2018 is $54,500 for the reserve roster (the last four — but kind of six — slots) and $67,500 for the senior roster. SKC filled all six of those slots with players making at or near the lower minimum number. But $54,500 is more than a living wage. MIT categorizes a living wage in Kansas City as just $22,983 for a single person.

The CBA is Still Unfair

With Besler and Zusi in the fourth year of their new deals and Espinoza in his third, all three are now likely millionaires assuming they haven’t wasted their money. No one is going to shed a tear for them if they all end up making $1 over the league maximum budget charge. That’s still north of half a million dollars each. But the fact that their only options are to either stay with their team, go to another MLS team for a massive pay cut or head overseas, it seems broken.

Now the only option for a player to get a raise or even an above max salary with another MLS team, is for a sign and trade. It’s a move often done in the NBA but rarely if ever seen in MLS where a team re-signs a player to a new deal the other team cannot do and then a trade is executed.

Speaking of the NBA and all the other Big Five American sports, MLS is obviously by far the lowest paid of all the athletes. When we add in other major sports around the world and we do a comparison of average pay, MLS comes in 12th (though it seems clear this site has left out leagues). That puts at least six top flight soccer leagues ahead of America including: England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France and China.

Could MLS have intended to keep DPs with the squads they started with? It appears so, but at what cost to the players? When the new CBA rules came out in 2015 no one thought free agency was truly free. Now it’s even worse than anyone imagined at the time. The current CBA doesn’t expire until January 31, 2020. This year not only will Besler, Zusi and Espinoza be impacted but so will former Sporting KC players Benny Feilhaber and Kei Kamara as well as two Seattle Sounders: Clint Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso.

What should Sporting KC do?

If they are cold and calculating, they offer all three $1 above the minimum. All three players are likely past their prime but still contributing at high levels and would be worth keeping around. If SKC were to go that route, it would seem it could be toxic to the locker room. Peter Vermes has always said he won’t keep player in KC who don’t want to be here. If salaries are cut by hundreds of thousands of dollars it’s possible none of them would want to stick around.

At the start of the 2019 season all three players will be 32-years-old. Zusi just turned 32 in the last week. If Sporting keep all three players, are they worth their current wages? Besler has lost a step, but is clearly still one of the best center backs in the league. Zusi is quite possibly the best full back in the league, but he’s also by far one of the highest paid ones. And Roger Espinoza is a ageless destroyer as the box-to-box midfielder. But Father Time is undefeated. Everyone gets old and in sports it happens sooner. They will all start to decline (and may have already).

It seems likely that Sporting have enough allocation money to keep paying them down but I wouldn’t be surprised to see most or all of them take pay cuts if they still want to stick around.

Sporting KC just signed Andreu Fontas, a left-footed center back who is being paid a salary that required TAM to buy it under the max budget charge. If Besler won’t take less money, SKC could roll the dice on Fontas.

Jaylin Lindsey has performed fantastically, even out of position, and is just 18-years-old and is under a cheap contract until 2021 with an option for 2022. Some may want him to replace Zusi.

Felipe Gutierrez is the highest paid player on the team and he’s signed through 2020 with a 2021 option year. Vermes says his best position is Espinoza’s #8 spot. So Sporting could go full youth movement and put 16-year-old Gianluca Busio in at the #10 as he’s signed through 2020 with options for 21’ and 22’.

I suspect all three will be back unless the team utterly collapses (again) in the last months of the season. If I’m a betting man, Besler and Zusi will definitely take less money and Espinoza may, but could hold steady (I’m 100% speculating — I have no inside information).

Zusi Nears Extension

The Kansas City Star put out a story yesterday that Zusi is on the verge of signing a new deal. Sam McDowell talked to both Zusi and Vermes who confirmed Zusi was “nearing a multi-year contract extension.” The deal is expected to be done “before the close of the month” which is in about a week.

“I really have no interest in being anywhere else but here,” Zusi said. “It’s just the way I’ve gone into (the discussions). Both sides — myself and the team — it’s been smooth. The talks have been smooth. We’re moving right along.”

Vermes indicated that “we’re willing to spend more than other teams might want to” when it comes to paying heavily for a right back. McDowell points out some stats that show Zusi’s value to SKC’s system.

“Zusi ranks second in the league in touches (2,117) this season. Since transitioning to right back last season, Zusi leads all MLS defenders with 12 assists. He has been credited with creating 105 chances, more than double any other full-time defender.”

Zusi ended with some optimism on the long-term extension.

“It’s not going to be a one-year thing where we go year by year and see how I am. I think they’re understanding that I’ve got at least a few years left in me. And I feel the same way.”

It sounds like one down. The question is, are there two more to go or will Sporting KC move on?

All Matt Besler quotes obtained by TBT staffer Robert Rusert. Thanks Bob!