As the playoffs begin and fans of teams not in competition begin to look toward next season the salary cap will be the talk of the MLS town this off-season. The 2014 cap was set at $3.1 million, compared to $2.95 million in 2013 and $2.81 million in 2011.
Now, this is probably the darkest and most controversial topic in U.S. domestic soccer. As a big part of the growth of the game, talent is quintessential in building a great league. If me and a bunch of nonathletic goons filled up the Red Bulls roster, not nearly as many people would pay attention to us. MLS rules state the maximum a player’s salary can be is $387,500. However, teams can sign three players for more than that amount with only $387,500 counting towards the cap via the Designated Player Rule. This is how Toronto FC players Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe can earn $6 million apiece every season. It creates the ability for teams to sign that big star that can propel their team forward and attract fans. The rule has helped expansion team Orlando City sign Brazilian star Kaká with a yearly salary of $6.7 million, one of the largest salaries in MLS history.
Many advocate for a complete removal of the cap, while it may allow for as many great players as teams can afford to join up their squads, it may have drastic effects on the future of the league. Let’s use the Premier League as an example. In the Premier League, there is no salary cap. This creates an immense competitive imbalance. Every year, the top seven or eight teams usually stay the same. The Big Five that usually compete for the title are Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. Since it’s inception in 1992, the only season where one of these teams did not win the league was the 1994-95 season when the Blackburn Rovers edged out Manchester United by a mere point.
To no surprise, these teams are all within the top five EPL payrolls. Unfortunately, the bicycle kicks and intense race for first place leave the fans of the other fifteen teams in a tricky situation. Unless a team like West Ham is purchased by someone worth billions of dollars, their chances of winning the EPL are slim to none. I fear if MLS removes it’s salary cap, the teams with the biggest pockets will acquire all the talent and could create a Big Five type environment, which is bad for the league and the fans.
There will always be good teams and bad teams, but the cap allows for a cycle. My hometown Chicago Fire won the MLS Cup in 1998, the Supporters Shield in 2003, and accumulated four U.S. Open Cup victories between 1998 and 2006. They frequently made playoff runs. In 2014, they were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a MLS-record 18 draws. Within five years or so, I expect the Fire will be back in the playoffs contending for the MLS Cup. While it may not be the most exciting time for a Fire fan, it’s reassuring to know it’s always possible to get back to where you want to go.
Many expect a rise in the salary cap. A 5% cap increase is automatically built in, bringing the 2015 number to at least $3.25 million. This Winter, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement will expire, which could see major changes to the salary system. We can expect compensation to be a major issue. Some expect a major cap increase. Taylor Twellman, former MLS player and soccer analyst, tweeted back in July that he would be surprised if a fourth Designated Player spot isn’t added and the salary cap doesn’t rise by forty or fifty percent. A fifty percent rise in the cap would raise it to $4.65 million. That with an additional DP slot, it would be a step forward for the MLS.
With that being said, the cap cannot rise 50% every year. The league is growing, but is still not profitable enough to support the kind of cap you might see in other professional sports. If the cap goes up too quickly before the revenue is there, teams could begin overspending and losing money. And as anyone knows, if you’re losing money, you don’t get to have a team anymore. When you start to lose teams, you lose fans. When you lose fans, you have nothing. We saw this happen to the original NASL in the 1980s. A successful league in the late 1970s, the NASL averaged about 13,000 fans per game. The original Cosmos had signed Pelé and other international stars, the league had a time period of great success.
When the decade turned things got worse. The league had expanded too quickly and teams began losing millions of dollars. In 1981, three teams folded and four more relocated. Over the next two years, ten more teams went down. The league shrunk dramatically, and the money stopped coming. At the end of the 1984 season the league suspended operations. Within four years, the NASL went from the top to the bottom. In 1980, twenty-four teams. In 1984, nine. We cannot overspend in MLS. If MLS was to ever go underwater, it will would be a massive blow not to just to domestic soccer, but soccer everywhere. It’s crucial that we have patience.
With caution, it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few seasons, as we witness the MLS leave it’s infancy and come one step closer to becoming a world-class league.