It can often be ugly to talk about money and perhaps unfair to judge a player on their salary. But in a salary-capped league, spending wisely and finding value can be the difference in whether or not you finish above that magical red line. With the MLS Player’s Association’s annual release happening yesterday, what can we take from the latest set of figures from an Orlando point of view?
1. Spending Increase
Orlando City’s total wage bill has risen from $8.8 million to $11.4 million. It takes the club from being the 15th biggest spenders in MLS in 2018 to the 10th biggest this year. That’s largely down to the acquisition of Portuguese international Nani, who became the club’s highest earner upon his arrival in February. His $2.49 million salary eclipses previous top earner Dom Dwyer, who will pocket just over $1.5 million this year. Nani, who leads Orlando in goals with eight this year, is the 11th-highest paid player in MLS. The team’s 28.1% increase in spending is the fourth largest in league and is nearly four times the average rate (7.53%). The biggest increase comes by way of the Columbus Crew, who have increased their salary outlay by 46.75% while New York City FC has slashed its budget by 31.76% — the biggest decrease of any team.
2. Recruiting Value
Excluding Nani, who joined the team as a Designated Player, and the draft picks who naturally enter the league on low figure deals — Santiago Patiño is 23rd out of 29 and Kamal Miller is dead last — the average deal of Orlando’s 11 off-season acquisitions is $173,000, well below last year’s team-wide $294,000 average. Luiz Muzzi has managed to find regular starters in Ruan and Tesho Akindele for $160,000 and $150,000, respectively — similar to what the team was paying the likes of Stefano Pinho and Richie Laryea last year despite their minimal impact.
3. Pay Raises
The nature of MLS contracts mean they usually increase in value year on year. Of the 15 returning squad members under contract by Orlando City, only Sacha Kljestan didn’t see a pay increase in 2019. Last year’s second-highest earner at $1.1 million, Kljestan was pushed down to third by Nani’s arrival. Will Johnson, the assumed recipient of an unexpected automatic contract renewal last year, has received the smallest comparative pay increase of the remaining 14, seeing a 4.5% increase to take his earnings to $491,000. He remains the team’s seventh-highest paid player. The biggest increase was seen by center back Shane O’Neill. Last year’s 25th-highest earner had a run of 13 starts out of a possible 14 under James O’Connor and saw his $80,000 salary increase by 75.5% to $140,000, making him the team’s 17th-highest earner in 2019. It’s a big leap but still a relatively small figure. Other significant rises include Pierre Da Silva, currently on loan at Athletico Paranaense, who saw a 28.9% increase, and Uri Rosell, who moved to sixth overall following a 26.7% boost.
4. Premium Sané
Lamine Sané joined the Lions at the beginning of 2018 from Bundesliga club Werder Bremen as the seventh-highest paid defender in MLS but went on to feature, when not injured, in the worst defense in MLS history. This year, his $950,000 salary ranks him fifth overall in the league behind only Aljaz Struna (Houston), Jorgen Skelvik (Galaxy), Andreu Fontas (SKC), and Michael Mancienne (New England). It’s an extreme price to pay in a league that more often than not tends to invest a lot more in attack than it does in defense. He hasn’t shown his value compared to the likes of Robin Jansson ($290,000) and Alex De John ($147,000). Having already parted ways with Jonathan Spector and his $637,000 budget charge in the last off-season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team cut more of their defensive losses in time for 2020 and find comparatively better value elsewhere.
5. Squad Structure
Last year, Orlando City had two millionaires on its books. Nani joined the club to make it three, meaning the team is just above average at 10% of the squad in the +$1 million bracket. The league total is 8%. The next bracket is the TAM-level players in the $500,000 to $1 million range. Three Orlando players current sit in this bracket. The 10% here is slightly low in comparison to the league-wide 16% within this range.
Perhaps the most telling range is the $100,000-$500,000 mark that has seen an increase from 11 to 14 — roughly 48% of the squad. Although not always true, when recruited well enough, the price bracket usually offers a core of quality depth — a strong foundation on which to add the bigger marquee signings. The likes of Sebas Méndez, João Moutinho and Ruan all fit this bill, as more often than not starters who have shined in the first half of their debut seasons in purple.
Finally the sub-$100,000 category, a price bracket that has historically has seen the likes of PC, RJ Allen, and Jose Villarreal pass through it. Typically a home for rookies of the drafted or Homegrown variety, as well as backup goalkeepers, Orlando City has shown ambition by dropping from 13 to nine in this category, to roughly 31% of the squad — slightly less than the 33% league makeup. Despite this, the team still managed to find a starting goalkeeper, Brian Rowe, for $98,000, down from Joe Bendik’s 2018 salary of $189,000. Obviously this all relies on a colloquial view that you get what you pay for and the contracts handed out are accurately reflective of this — something that this team hasn’t always gotten right but there are signs that the ship is slowly getting turned around.