Mo Money, Mo Winning: MLS Embraces Salary Disparity

Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and the New England Revolution. The last four teams standing in the MLS Cup playoffs are all big spenders from big markets.

Traditionally, clubs that have the deepest pockets stand atop the table. In MLS, the formation of super clubs has been prevented by the salary cap. As the allowed number of DPs has climbed to three and the salary cap has loosened, clubs like Seattle, New York and L.A. have embraced the role of big spender. Of the final four teams, the Revs are the only surprising addition to this elite company. They’ve been stingy in recent years, but ever since they signed Jermaine Jones away from the Chicago Fire, they’ve been acting the art of super club.

The four semifinalist clubs are all in the top 6 in spending this year (and that includes Orlando City and Kaka’s enormous $7.1 mil contract, the largest contract in league history). The only team that actually took the pitch this season and isn’t in the final four? You guessed it, Toronto FC. TFC was the biggest spender in the league and didn’t even make the playoffs, again.

MLS might finally be transitioning to a big-name league. Maybe this is the beginning of a new trend and we’ll never again see a Dallas-Colorado final (unless those clubs loosen the purse strings). If so, I pity the small markets. Unless you have marquee players you’re not doing squat come autumn. All the big boys have their big toys and, except for perpetually cursed TFC, the big players played big in big games. Or maybe this whole phenomenon is a one-off. We are only one season removed from Kansas City vs. Salt Lake in the MLS Cup.

Some fiscal imbalance is good for the league. MLS needs marketable stars, big names with big talent. No offense to SKC or RSL but when Graham Zusi and Kyle Beckerman are the faces of the two respective MLS Cup tilters, the league ain’t exactly capturing a large TV audience. This season, MLS has celebrities to sell. Dempsey, Donovan, Henry and even Jones, considering his tremendous efforts in Brazil, are household names. ESPN can slap Deuce’s face on a promo and non-soccer fans are like, “oh yeah, that guy.” It’s the economy stupid: the more people tune in, the more commercials are sold, the more the league profits, the more salaries can rise, the better the league gets.

Compare this season’s playoff bracket to the spending list:

spending and the playoffs

The team that spent more consistently beat the team that didn’t, regardless of seeding. The play-in games gave us one exception: #10 Dallas beat #9 Vancouver. Spending between those two clubs was close, $5.1 to $4.5 mil, making the difference in total payroll negligible. As a Sounders fan, I hope this “more spending trumps less spending, unless the differences aren’t too large” theory holds. L.A. outspent us by $1.3 million.

But I think we can all agree that DeAndre Yedlin and Marco Pappa are vastly underpaid, so maybe the spending difference is none too large between the robber barons of the West.

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