Last night’s draw against Herediano, and subsequent failure to qualify for the knock-out rounds of the CONCACAF Champion’s League, most likely signals the end of the road for Real Salt Lake’s core group of players. Without the allocation money that comes with qualifying for the quarterfinals, RSL will likely have to part ways, or negotiate significant lower salaries, with a player like Javier Morales. They may also have to sacrifice some of their other quality players in order to make the salary cap.
In addition to Morales, Jamison Olave, Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran will also see their contracts expire at the end of the season. Further, Alvaro Sabario is contractually obligated for a pay raise. All of this means that some of these players will be gone. Losing a player like Olave will hurt, but with Chris Schuler a capable player, the loss won’t be devastating. However, if the team were to lose Wingert or Beltran, their strong defense could suddenly turn into a mess. Basically it’s a no-win situation for the team, they either trade for allocation money now, or they get worse.
The most disappointing aspect for RSL is that they are going to have to shed salary in areas of the field where they are strong, and will not likely have the money they need to make an impact at forward. The absence of Sabario against Herediano was painfully apparent, and besides Fabian Espindola, the team frankly does not have a MLS caliber forward. To go out and get a quality third forward is simply too expensive without allocation money. Even if RSL was willing to pay for a designated player, that player’s contract would still count against the salary cap.
Another element that will hurt Real Salt Lake next year is Luis Gil’s graduation from the Generation Addidas program. He will not be cheap and the club will be force to either sell Gil to Europe, or sacrifice one of their veteran players. With all the talk of MLS wanting to keep its bright young stars, it’s a shame that selling Gil may be the best option for RSL. After all, a good size transfer fee would deliver a good size allocation to the team.
RSL isn’t to blame for the situation they are going to face. Conversely, they have don’t phenomenally well with what they were given. If blame is to be placed anywhere for the break-up of one of the league’s best teams it is with the league itself. MLS rewards failure and only partially subsidizes success. Teams at the bottom of the league continually get large allocations to improve their squad while teams that win the league or do well in international play get allocation money to help keep their squad intact.
However, the allocation money to successful teams is misleading. It’s important to remember that there are large bonuses for qualifying for the Champion’s League quarterfinals or for winning MLS Cup. Those bonuses surprisingly count against the salary cap. So even if a team received $200,000 for doing well in CONCACAF, a good chunk of that team will be eaten up by current players on the squad. Additionally, players will want to be rewarded for performing consistently well and will ask for raises, taking even more of that allocation money. This prevents good teams from building overall squad-depth. As we have seen over the last several years, teams that have competed well in the U.S. Open Cup or Champion’s League tire when it comes to MLS Cup. Simply, they don’t have the money to build a deep enough team to compete for 40 plus matches.
As the system currently exists, the teams getting hurt the most by the system are those that finish in the middle. They do not have the allocation money necessary to keep their squad’s intact and often have to make difficult choices. Essentially the middle-class of MLS is getting taxed to provide assistance to the poor and tax cuts to the rich.
On the whole, the current MLS financial system makes sense. The league is still young and several teams are still struggling to turn a profit. Parity is also something that is generally positive. It make the league more dynamic from top to bottom. However, there are still a few things the league can do to ensure that its middle class has a fair outcome.
First, raise the salary cap. The current salary cap of just above $2.5 million is not enough. If the salary cap was raised to $5 million it would allow these middle class teams to make better choices. It would allow smaller market teams to sign designated players without sacrificing depth on their roster. It would allow the top teams to build depth and would allow the lower teams to bring in decent talent.
Second, work with the player’s union to keep bonuses from counting against the salary cap. Punishing success is crazy, especially when that success helps boost the profile of the league and of the clubs in their local markets.
Lastly, create roster rules that allow for more flexibility for top American players. It’s frustrating to see a designated player rule that makes it easier for higher quality foreign players to come into the league but makes it difficult for American players to have that same advantage.
This is all part of the learning process for MLS, but if the league has shown anything over the last five years, it’s that it is willing to take steps to improve itself. Hopefully at the end of this season the owners, players, coaches, and administrators will get together and fix the plundering of the MLS middle-class.
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