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MLS' salary cap can't keep pace with roster evolution

Restrictions that were originally put in place to help MLS are now hold teams back, Paul Tenorio writes. Teams are ready and willing to spend more. Will the league let them?

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The MLS conference championships kick off this week, and it is worth a reminder that the two teams that played for MLS Cup last season have been spectators this postseason.

It’s the first time in league history that both MLS Cup teams did not make the playoffs the following year, and there was a similar problem for both teams in following their 2015 success with wins in 2016.

Under the current MLS salary restrictions, difficult choices have to be made in keeping a team together and building around a core. The struggles of Portland and Columbus in 2016 highlighted an issue in the ever-growing MLS: the league’s salary cap structure has not evolved as quickly as the league itself.

It’s easy to armchair quarterback – could’ve, should’ve, but the league is set up in a way that they don’t allow you to keep the same team after winning a championship."

- Caleb Porter

In Portland, salary cap decisions led to the departure of Jorge Villafaña and Rodney Wallace. Both losses would prove to be significant for the Timbers. In Columbus, the mistake was a choice to keep the core intact and add only depth pieces. That overconfidence combined with a relative lack of funds to hunt for quality starters would prove costly.

“That’s the challenge, it’s always about the cap,” Portland coach Caleb Porter told FourFourTwo. “It’s easy to armchair quarterback – could’ve, should’ve, but the league is set up in a way that they don’t allow you to keep the same team after winning a championship. Ideally you have the same team and you’ve not changed one guy and you rolled it right in to the next year. But they all want to be on more money and how do you keep them all? You’ve got to get rid of guys who are most likely starters, and we lost a couple in Jorge and Rodney and then some key bench players.”

There is an argument that this is the reality in any salary-cap league. Teams only have so much money to spend on a roster, and over time they are going to lose players who can be paid more money elsewhere.

That’s not exactly the case in MLS.

Many of the rules in MLS are structured to eliminate competition between MLS teams for players. It’s why the league fought so hard against free agency in collective bargaining, and why there are stringent limits on the free agency that now exists. In MLS, you’re very rarely concerned about losing a player to a rival team within the league.

Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

But MLS also exists in a global market, and as the league improves and players begin to draw more attention and respect, teams will continue to lose players unless they grow the salary cap structure substantially – either by pushing the budget limits up or by adding more targeted allocation money to the mix.

“It’s difficult for teams that succeed to maintain that,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said last week. “Because either way, if you have a structure where you have three major DPs and you’re winning with them, the supporting cast is going to want more money. And then if you spread it out more evenly and you have a more collective-type unit, everyone is going to want more money. So it’s tricky. That’s why winning consistently in this league is very difficult.”

In some ways, these problems are a result of the fact that the many restrictions within MLS – see: discovery claims – have been outgrown by more sophisticated clubs that are making substantial investments. How does it make sense that an expansion team pays $200 million to enter the league and then is given a structural limit of $3.845 million to build a roster?

Restrictions that were originally put in place to help the league now hold teams back. It’s made it extremely difficult for an MLS team to build depth beyond the top 10 to 14 players on the roster. The only way to navigate those difficulties: salary cap flexibility through homegrown players and Generation Adidas signees. The New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas are the best examples of this.

But for teams with less homegrown talent, the task of building a strong roster – and then maintaining it over time – becomes near-impossible.

Consider teams like NYCFC, Toronto or Atlanta, which the league holds up as examples that the $3.85 million isn’t an accurate picture of investment. That number may not tell the story of the investment, but it does still limit what those clubs are capable of doing with their respective rosters.

Take a look at this hypothetical roster:

Three senior DPs: Forward, playmaker, winger - $1,441,875 (37.5 percent of budget)

Three TAM players: Two holding midfielders, center back: Approx: $600,000 each, bought down with all of funds: $1 million

Winger: $200,000

Center back: $300,000

Fullbacks: Two at $150,000 = $300,000

Goalkeeper: $200,000

Starting XI Total Salary: $3,261,875

That gives teams approximately $583,125 to fill out nine more roster spots on the senior roster, or about $65,000 per player. Good luck finding a quality back-up center back, second striker and midfield depth at those numbers. (And yes, teams have some general allocation money to spend, but it’s difficult to quantify or understand that pot of money when it’s never made public.)

MLS teams are ready and willing to spend more. They are finding better players around the world. But until the league starts to adjust the salary cap to give teams more freedom to spend, the growth rate of MLS will be stifled.

It’s time for the MLS salary budget rules to catch up to the rest of the league so that it can stay on the right trajectory.

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