Spreading the Wealth in the MLS

By Andrew Winner
The TalismanRecently, the L.A. Galaxy have been making soccer headlines with their pursuit of a star striker, Poland’s Maciej Zurawski. Before they put pen to paper on that deal, they would be wise to look at an alternate strategy.

For those general managers who have been paying attention, the Houston Dynamo and general manager Oliver Luck have given the rest of the league the template on how to field a successful team.

Based on the 2007 MLS Player salaries released by the MLS Players Union, the salary of Houston’s top-20 highest-paid players – essentially every key contributor – weighs in right under the salary cap of $2.2 million. It’s an exceedingly reasonable figure, especially when you consider that Chicago’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco earns more than that by himself.

Currently, there are two trains of thought on team management in MLS.

  1. Sign one big name, perhaps a designated player, to get fans in the seats and have a few other key players with salaries on the six figures, but fill the rest of the roster with bargain basement players.
  2. Spread that money you might have spent on a DP around and field a team full of solid MLS players.

Clearly, Houston ascribes to the latter theory. To their benefit, two of their players, Brian Ching ($220,000 base salary in 2007) and Dwayne DeRosario ($157,500) provide a great deal of bang for the buck, especially the latter.

Professional soccer can be a game of attrition. Injuries happen over the course of a long season. In their current form, the Galaxy, who currently ascribe to the former theory, don’t have the depth to succeed over a course of a full season, even with a healthy David Beckham and Landon Donovan.

Houston, by contrast, was able to bridge the gaps when key players went down. With Ricardo Clark confined to the bench after a season-ending suspension, Richard Mulrooney was able to step into defensive midfielder role almost seamlessly. When Brian Ching was out of action for the final game, midseason acquisitions Joseph Ngwenya and Nate Jaqua (both reasonably priced, one might add) stepped into the void.

That’s just on the field, though. Certainly there are other reasons to pay high wages to a designated player – people like Blanco and Beckham lift the profiles of their respective clubs, assisting them with merchandise sales and corporate sponsorships. However, performance on the field is, in my opinion, the only way to guarantee continued financial success. Winning teams stick in the minds of the community and create lifelong fans in the way that glitzy players coupled with mediocre results never will.

Additionally, there is a cause for concern with teams who sign big names. Spiraling salaries played a key role in the downfall of the NASL. One year ago, I was confident in the leadership of MLS Commissioner Don Garber to learn from history and prevent this fate from befalling MLS. However, the owners’ decision to reverse itself and allow teams to continue exempting an extra player from the salary cap for the 2008 season (the Galaxy and Landon Donovan are the obvious beneficiaries here) gives me pause about the voiced commitment to fiscal responsibility.

But as MLS continues to grow and more designated players are brought in at astronomical salaries, clubs would do well to take a lesson from Mr. Luck. His model has shown that in MLS, a couple of star players don’t lead to championships. A team full of solid players does.


The MLS also announced today that teams will be granted another roster spot for a foreign international. Additionally, these roster spots can be exchange among teams, allowing one team in theory to field a team full of non-Americans.

The reasoning given by the league addresses the predicted dip in the level of play when San Jose enters the league in 2008. However, the senior international will still count against the salary cap in the standard manner and should not be confused for another “designated player” slot.

Snoop Dog: In other news, it appears that Becks is down with the D-O-Double-G.


The predictions have been proceeding favorably for the Talisman. First I predicted Houston would win the MLS title, and then I predicted Liverpool would make the knockout stages of Champions League. I feel like quite the Nostradamus over here.

This week, I’ll base my prediction on a player much-maligned in soccer circles for the past couple years – Bobby Convey. I watched his match against Liverpool last week and he looked dangerous for Reading, setting up James Harper for the nail in the coffin. Look for Convey to play a crucial role for the rest of the season as he starts to regain the form that made him a star. I recommend Yanks-Abroad.com for updates on American players like Convey playing in Europe.

Andrew Winner is a freelance soccer writer based in Seattle, Washington. He can be reached at: andrewwinner@gmail.com