When I was “making excuses” after Sporting Kansas City lost to Minnesota United on Thursday night I brought up the point that Sporting were without Alan Pulido and Felipe Gutierrez (and a fully fit Gadi Kinda). I threw out a couple examples of what that would have meant for Minnesota or the Seattle Sounders, but it got me thinking about other teams and what that would mean to them.
Major League Soccer is structured in such a way that a team can’t be completely “loaded” with stars unless they’ve done an exceptional job of getting a lot of value in the lower parts of their roster.
Without getting into a long explainer on the weird complexities of MLS Roster Rules, let’s just make it as simple as possible. MLS teams can pay three players whatever they want and they will only count for $612,500 (in 2020 — $651,250 in 2021) against the salary budget (it’s a budget because it’s not a hard cap). These are Designated Players.
Then anyone making less than $1,612,500 (in 2020 — $1,651,250 in 2021) can have their budget charge bought down with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) or General Allocation Money (GAM). The figure that has to be bought down, outside of the DPs, also includes pro-rated transfer fees. So, teams can’t spend endlessly on their roster (outside of those top three spots).
All this finagling has to fit inside of a mere $4,900,000 salary budget (in 2020 — $5,210,000 in 2021), however, with all the GAM and Discretionary TAM (don’t ask) teams can really effectively spend $9,225,000 (in 2020 — $9,830,000 in 2021) on their roster (again, outside of DP transfer fees).
Confused yet? All of this is to say, you can’t spend unlimited money and good players (who aren’t young, up and coming unknown prospects) cost lots of money. So when a team is without their two most expensive players, it has an impact. That is exactly the scenario Sporting KC dealt with throughout the playoffs without Alan Pulido and Felipe Gutierrez. As you all know, they haven’t had Gutierrez for the whole season.
Johnny Russell is the team’s third Designated Player, though in 2021 with the purchase option on Gadi Kinda’s loan, Kinda will be the third (or maybe even second) DP (likely solely because of his transfer fee). And he could only be a sub in the playoffs due to (likely) being not fully fit after an injury (that may or may not have been COVID).
So without their highest two paid players for much of the season (Pulido only had 12 appearances and 11 starts in league play), KC still finished first in the Western Conference (with an admittedly odd schedule).
Let’s imagine the other MLS Cup Playoff Teams that made it at least to the Conference Semifinals without their highest two paid players.
This will be an exercise with a bit of an asterisk. There is no 2020 MLS Salary Data due to COVID and the MLSPA deciding not to release it. Because of that we don’t know what some players are making. We’ll use a combination of the full 2019 MLS Salary Data, known transfer fees and the MLS Roster Pages that disclose what three players are DPs on each team. I won’t try to figure out who’s first or second, just who are in the top two.
Teams Still in the Playoffs
- Nicolas Lodeiro
- Raul Ruidiaz
Only the teams striker and possibly the best player in the league in Lodeiro. I’m sure they’d be fine without them...
- Emanuel Reynoso
- Jan Gregus
We don’t know the numbers for sure here, but Gregus makes a lot more than Thomas Chacon but Chacon does have a higher transfer fee (just south of $4M versus Gregus at around $2.5M). I think it’s probably Gregus, but what matters is all three were available and Reynoso is a monster. He had all three assists in both playoff games (six cumulatively). That’s crazy. Sporting KC fans will have nightmares about Reynoso.
- Lucas Zelarayan
- Gyasi Zardes
Another attacking midfielder and striker combination. A combined 18 goals and eight assists. Seems important.
- Gustavo Bou
- Carles Gil
Another forward/attacking midfielder combination. Their combined transfer fees are thought to be in the neighborhood of $17 million. If you don’t think Gil is important, he’s a huge reason they’ve caught fire in the playoffs. Don’t underestimate New England.
Eliminated Playoff Teams
- Sebastian Blanco
- Jaroslaw Niezgoda
Another striker/attacking mid combination but I bring it up for another reason (*yeah I know they aren’t in the Conference Semifinals, but stick with me). Both of these players were out for the season with injuries. They had them during MLS is Back when they won the whole thing.
They didn’t have them both when they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs against FC Dallas at home. No reasonable person is calling for the firing or blowing up of that team. It’s a very apt Sporting KC comparison because Portland is a smaller market team too, though being on the coast surely helps them over Kansas City.
Los Angeles FC
- Carlos Vela
- Brian Rodriguez
Diego Rossi doesn’t even make the top two and he was an MVP finalist. It’s wild LAFC were the seven seed. But imagine LA without Vela. It’s not hard since he missed a lot of the year with just four regular season appearances. That’s why they were the seven seed almost certainly.
- Dom Dwyer
Technically Dwyer is second but Mauricio Pereya joined Orlando on a free transfer when his market value was north of $7 million, but he technically makes less than Dwyer who was injured. Regardless, they went out in the same round as SKC but it could be said their red card problem was their biggest issue but without Nani they probably don’t do much.
- Hany Mukhtar
- Randall Leal/Jhonder Cadiz
There is zero salary information available on Nashville outside of the players that were on other teams in 2019 (since Nashville didn’t exist). These three are new to the league. The above players are their three DPs and Cadiz has an approximately $500k loan fee while Mukhtar had a $3 million transfer fee. I’d argue Leal is more important than Cadiz since he didn’t join until very late in the process.
- Franco Jara
- Thiago Santos
These are a bit of a guess (Santos had a fee around $1 million). The third DP is Santiago Mosquera. They don’t make my case as well as Dallas are cheap as a franchise.
Yeah, excuses are annoying. No one wants to hear them. There is a famous saying about excuses and how they stink. Excuses are like... I think you know the rest. But some excuses are better than others. It is pretty obvious most of those above teams would struggle without their stars though of course we can’t know without seeing them get hurt. MLS is a league of stars because of the way salaries are structured. You can only have so many DPs.
However, If players like Pulido, Gutierrez and even Fontas (he is one the team’s highest paid players) continue to be injured then Peter Vermes has to take some responsibility. Is it signing of the wrong players? Is it the way the team practices? Is it just horrible luck? Regardless, the Head Coach and Sporting Director can’t be blame free if it keeps happening.
Sporting KC have long played the card of “the team is the star” but MLS is won by teams that are well built, but have stars in the proper spots. Look at other teams without expensive DPs (Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas) and they never win in the playoffs when it supposedly matters the most. That said, I’d take a Supporters Shield trophy (Dallas, NYRB).
Stick with The Blue Testament through the offseason which will hopefully see the team stabilize their defense and get healthy and ready to make a run in 2021.