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MLS’ desire to improve the quality of the league is complicated by its expansion efforts over the last decade. Growing a sports league and improving quality of the game are difficult objectives to achieve simultaneously. The four major U.S. sports leagues all experienced declines in quality of play as they over-expanded during the 1990’s. MLS is attempting to nearly double the number of teams in the league in less than a decade’s time.

Increased revenues, especially from television, would allow MLS to take the easy route to improve the quality of play: buying better players. But the money just isn’t there right now and might not be there for another decade.

This leaves MLS with only two options: domestic development or shrewd purchases of cheap, overseas talent.

Domestic Development

I’m not going to spend a lot time opinionating as to the current quality of the average American professional soccer player. I’ll simply remark that there are more American pros than ever and those players are increasingly able to move overseas to play at a younger age.

For 2009, MLS reduced roster size from 28 to 24, but increased the number of senior roster spots from 18 to 20. Teams are permitted to carry up to four developmental players outside of the team salary budget. MLS permits a team to carry up to 8 international players on their 24 man roster.

Within 2 years, there will be 18 teams who each carry approximately 16 American players on their roster. That’s 288 Americans (and green card holders) playing first division soccer in the United States.

Most of the best American players have and will continue to move overseas. Gone are the days when you could put together a solely MLS based squad and expect it to compete with the Yanks Abroad. But MLS lifers like Donovan, Ching, Clark, Hejduk and Mastroeni are integral pieces of the U.S. team.

For most American players, those who will never go overseas to play, MLS is the end goal. As the quality of the American player increases, more of them will be able to find jobs overseas. As the availability of jobs overseas increases, MLS will be required to increase what it pays its best American players.

MLS can survive losing some percentage of American players to Europe. How it goes about replacing those players will help to determine the course the league charts.

Finding Foreigners

MLS needs to be concerned that it is expanding at a faster rate than the supply of American talent can be developed leading to a decline in quality of the product it is putting on the field.

Fortunately, MLS has a significant advantage that the Big Four pro leagues did not have as they expanded throughout the 1990’s: cheap foreign talent that is better than its American counterparts. MLS teams with effective scouting departments have no shortage of talent throughout the world that they can bring into the league relatively cheap.

MLS’ balancing act may be more complex than that faced by the Big Four. MLS needs to:

  • (a) Expand;
  • (b) Use inexpensive foreign talent to prevent quality decline;
  • (c) Use expensive foreign talent to increase quality and to expand the fanbase; and
  • (d) Don’t use so much foreign talent that you inhibit the development of American players that should be the backbone of the league.

Arguably, MLS has performed this balancing act fairly well so far. With three more teams coming in the next two years however, its probably too soon to say they’ve succeeded.

Salaries and Rosters

The Chicago Fire’s 2008 roster, with salaries, is a fair example of what a typical MLS team looks like.

Player 2008 Salary
The Box Office Attraction:
Blanco Cuauhtemoc $2,666,778
The High Priced Vets:
McBride Brian $189,333
Gutierrez Diego $107,500
Brown C.J. $111,711
Mapp Justin $200,000
The Backbone of Major League Soccer:
Pause Logan $84,230
Prideaux Brandon $72,000
Robinson Dasan $44,625
Rolfe Chris $86,075
Thorrington John $61,875
Busch Jon $81,250
Carr Calen $63,100
They’re Stealing American Jobs:
Frankowski Tomasz $214,250
Marmol Lidor $109,750
Herron Andy $102,500
They’re Doing Jobs Americans Can’t Do:
Conde Wilman $163,500
Segares Gonzalo $61,090
Pappa Marco $33,000
Recent First Round Draft Choices:
Nyarko Patrick $135,000
Soumare Bakary $103,000
Low-round Rookies Who Contribute:
King Stephen $17,700
Welcome to Hardees, May I Take Your Order:
Kasiguran Kai $12,900
Kettering Tyler $12,900
Lowry Peter $12,900
Washington Austin $12,900
Woolard Daniel $17,700
Noble Nick $17,700
Banner Michael $ 12,900

One or two Designated Players that make great money, five or so rookies that are barely scraping by and the bulk of the team making somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000.

In 2008, 21 MLS players made more than $250,000 and 6 made more than $1 million, including Beckham ($6,500,000) and Blanco ($2,666,778). The Designated Player rule expires after the 2009 season but is sure to be extended in some form or another. Salary cap increases are likely to be incorporated into the new MLS collective bargaining agreement.

The players may not like the seemingly snail pace of the salary caps’ expansion over the last few years. For individual players, whose stay in the game is over in the blink of an eye, they want to make as much money as possible. But the reality is that the league is making significant progress by expanding the number of teams in the league.

Simply put, more teams means more jobs.

Early in the decade, ten teams with salary cap of $1.6 million resulted in about $16 million in salary being paid. Today, 15 teams with a salary cap of $2.3 million means $34.5 million (not counting DP’s) in salary being paid. By 2015, eighteen teams with a salary cap of, let’s say, $3.5 million, results in at least $63 million in salary, not counting Designated Players. That’s a quadrupling the amount spent on players’ salaries in about a decade.