The Major League Soccer Players’ Association released its fall salary information yesterday and the numbers revealed some interesting trends in regards to teams’ payroll spending. As a general rule, in 2018 you don’t want your team to spend the most money or the least if you’re interested in the club playing postseason soccer.
Let’s take a look at the payroll breakdown:
1. Toronto FC $26,559,206.65
2. LA Galaxy $17,507,008.30
3. Chicago Fire $15,531,522.67
4. New York City FC $14,824,390.78
5. LAFC $14,134,135.99
6. Seattle Sounders FC $13,427,648.33
7. Montreal Impact $12,642,036.90
8. Atlanta United $11,606,330.49
9. Sporting Kansas City $11,554,237.01
10. Portland Timbers $10,994,792.96
11. Colorado Rapids $9,741,570.96
12. DC United $9,689,537.84
13. FC Dallas $9,334,556.52
14. Philadelphia Union $8,914,581.59
15. Orlando City SC $8,873,899.44
16. Minnesota United $8,542,121.37
17. San Jose Earthquakes $8,308,343.41
18. Real Salt Lake $8,132,415.56
19. Vancouver Whitecaps $8,107,770.17
20. New York Red Bulls $8,064,992.45
21. Columbus Crew $7,715,954.14
22. New England Revolution $7,471,669.49
23. Houston Dynamo $5,896,563.27
24. FC Cincinnati $2,057,575.83
*These numbers were compiled from individual salaries by SB Nation’s Jeremiah Oshan. I haven’t checked all of them for accuracy but I did double check that Orlando’s is correct given the data from the MLSPA and I looked at a couple other random teams and found no discrepancies. For these purposes, the total compensation column was used rather than base salary.
How Orlando City Fits in the MLS Spending Picture
The first thing that stands out is this: holy cow is Toronto FC spending a lot of money! To me, the second thing that stood out when I saw the numbers displayed like this is that two of the top three payrolls are out of the playoffs and the No. 2 LA Galaxy are below the line with one game left to play. With a game in hand on Real Salt Lake, it’s possible the Galaxy will win and get in, especially with a home game looming against Houston, but a draw or a loss would eliminate LA and put the top three payrolls in the league on the outside, looking in.
The next thing you notice in this column (or at least for me, as someone following Orlando City) is that the teams below the Lions are not doing well. Of the eight teams below Orlando City’s payroll number (not counting FC Cincinnati, which isn’t fully in the league yet), only one team is safely in the playoffs. Five of the eight are out and two more — Columbus and Real Salt Lake — both could miss the postseason as well.
It’s likely the Crew will get in, with only a home game remaining against Minnesota. Even a draw would see Columbus through. Montreal needs to beat New England and get help from the Loons to knock Columbus out. But we’ve already mentioned that the Galaxy just need a home win against a poor Houston side to leapfrog RSL. So the likelihood is that six of the eight teams below Orlando in payroll will miss the playoffs, while 10 of the 14 teams that spent more will continue playing beyond Sunday and two of those four teams to miss the postseason are Toronto and Chicago, the league’s No. 1 and No. 3 spenders.
D.C. United’s payroll was lower than Orlando’s prior to the secondary transfer window and the team languished near the bottom of the table. However, once the spending increased the team quickly climbed up the Eastern Conference. That’s certainly not the only factor in D.C.’s rise, with the other being a bevy of home games in the second half after spending the early months of the season mostly on the road, but it does follow the spending trend.
The New York Red Bulls are the league’s outlier. Sunday’s Orlando City opponents have been outspent by everyone but Columbus, New England, and Houston, yet are gunning for the Supporters’ Shield this weekend. Excellent player evaluation and an even better academy have served the Red Bulls well.
If the Crew get in, they’ll be a second outlier, as Columbus spends very little. Talent identification, smart spending, and good coaching have gotten the Crew a long way. On the other end of the spectrum, Toronto FC and Chicago are outliers in a negative way. Each spends a lot but didn’t reach the playoffs. With the Reds, that’s due largely to a spring spent chasing the Concacaf Champions League title and a rash of key injuries. It’s also possibly, in part, a hangover from winning a treble just a year ago. The Fire also dealt with some injuries this season but mostly they just played poorly throughout the year. Should the Galaxy stumble on Sunday, they would join the Fire as clear underachievers at the top of the MLS spending ranks.
Orlando City was much higher on the payroll list from 2015 to 2017 but that was mainly due to paying Kaká the league’s highest salary. The team did a better job of more evenly distributing its spending in 2018; however, it is now just 15th of the 23 current MLS teams in payroll and in the range of spending occupied mostly by teams that will miss this year’s postseason.
How Orlando Spent its Money
With the vast overhaul the team did last off-season, and the amount of allocation money used, it is unclear how much flexibility the Lions will have to distribute across their payroll in 2019. There are some tremendous bargains on this team, such as Adam Grinwis ($67,500) and Shane O’Neill ($79,499.92). However, there are also players making far too much money for the amount of minutes they’re getting, like Donny Toia ($125,004), Dillon Powers ($180,000), Stefano Pinho ($183,333.33), and Richie Laryea ($164,000).
Injuries have also been costly, with Jonathan Spector ($636,941.50) limited to just 13 matches in 2018, while the club should also look to be more economical with the roster spot occupied by Cristian Higuita ($581,662.67), who will appear in less than two thirds of the team’s games this season.
Speaking of Higuita, the Lions are spending an extraordinary amount of money on defensive midfielders. If you don’t include Yoshimar Yotún’s salary of $599.996 in that, the club is still spending $2,193,474.80 combined on Higuita, Powers, Uri Rosell, Will Johnson, Carlos Ascues (who could feature in a three-man back line next year instead of defensive midfield), Tony Rocha, and Cam Lindley.
The Lions are spending $3,818,916.62 in the attack (if you consider Yotún there, as he’s played much of the season in the attacking midfield, although it’s not his most natural position). This includes the team’s only two strikers — Pinho and Dom Dwyer — as well as attacking midfielders Sacha Kljestan, Josué Colmán, Yotún (who generally plays deeper, where he’s more comfortable), Laryea, Jose Villareal, and Pierre Da Silva (a bargain buy at $54,504 for a developing young player). Keeping in mind that Dwyer and Kljestan make up more than $2.48 million of that $3.8 million total and another half a million plus is Yotún — a more natural left back/left defensive midfielder — that leaves $735,587.25 on the rest of the attack (Pinho, Laryea, Villareal, Mueller, Colmán, and Da Silva). Four of those players hardly ever play, Mueller’s production (but not his work ethic) has dropped dramatically since the early part of the season, and Colmán has yet to find good enough form to warrant being a lineup regular, appearing in 23 games but starting just 10. This is clearly an area in need of an upgrade and a more even distribution of expenditures.
The back line is somewhat expensive at $2,469,174.62. It has also been hit hard by injuries in 2018. There is a lot of quality on the team in this area but with injuries and international call-ups leading to 25 different back line combinations in 33 matches, you’d hardly know it. Orlando set a new MLS record for goals conceded in a season largely due to so much inconsistency on the back line. For the purpose of counting the back line cost, I did not include Ascues, as I believe he was intended to be a defensive midfielder who can fill in on the back line. (You can add $391,500 to this total for Ascues and subtract it from the defensive midfield, if you like.) That could change next season if James O’Connor sticks with three at the back, since the Peruvian is adept at playing the ball with his feet and he combined well with O’Neill and Lamine Sané the last couple of games.
For our purposes here, I’m counting the guys who are primarily center backs and fullbacks (minus Ascues). So, the total above reflects the combined salaries of Toia, Spector, Sané, O’Neill, RJ Allen, Mohamed El-Munir, PC, Chris Schuler, Scott Sutter, and Amro Tarek. I think the team has done a good job overall spending in this area and there is good quality. It just needs to stay healthy consistently. Perhaps removing Spector and using his salary to improve the depth players at fullback would be the right move here as it would seem unlikely to sustain such an insane rash of injuries at center back again, and Ascues could certainly fill in when needed. Allen’s not a bad depth player but PC and Toia aren’t being used and an upgraded is needed behind El-Munir who has finally started playing better defensively now that he’s being deployed more as a wingback than a fullback.
The goalkeeping is only costing Orlando City $324.833.40 this year. Several teams pay their starting goalkeepers more than the Lions pay all of their keepers combined. Joe Bendik makes more than half of the above total and he’s not been nearly good enough in 2018. Grinwis has been a nice find but it took him all season and a number of poor performances by Bendik and a lack of seizing the job by Earl Edwards, Jr. to get his chance. It’s unclear if Grinwis is the long-term answer the Lions need but if he is, he’ll get a significant raise. This is another position the Lions will need to upgrade this off-season.
To summarize, the Lions should use a better payroll distribution across the attack, upgrade the goalkeeping position, and stay healthy at the back. Jettisoning Spector would save the team a lot of money, but would also result in a loss of leadership and quality, as he’s been the team’s best center back when fit, so that will have to be taken into consideration.
Committing to playing Yotún either in the defensive midfield or the attacking midfield and Ascues either in the midfield or the back line, would also help the club see where it needs to best address payroll this winter. And, finally, O’Connor must decide whether an expensive Designated Player like Kljestan fits within his system or if the money spent on the veteran midfielder can be used more effectively.