Thursday, April 11, 2013

Another "MLS Salary Cap" Story

Your humble scribe here has been getting into MLS more and more this season, and has also been following the process of the MLS teams advancing in the CONCACAF Champions League. The final 2, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy, ran into the typical Liga MX buzzsaw in their semifinal ties, and thus are both out. MLS has made some major strides in the last few years, and finally outing a Mexican team over 2 legs is the next goal. But, why isn't it happening now, and does MLS' infamous salary cap have anything to do with it?

The 2013 MLS salary cap was set at $2.95 million, which does seem low, especially when you compare it to the wage bills of global teams, even ones across the border in Mexico. But, the salary cap is necessary for MLS now, and might forever be a part of the league. The owners in MLS aren't necessarily the wealthiest, or the most occupied with soccer (see Clark Hunt and Robert Kraft as examples), so the salary cap keeps the playing field for the league mainly level. There is an extreme level of parity in the league, and the Designated Player rule doesn't change anything about that. While MLS teams may not have the depth in their squads that Liga MX sides do, the salary cap doesn't change why Seattle and LA were both bounced. They were bounced for reasons on the pitch, not in the front office.

The only way the salary cap in MLS will drastically increase is if there is a massive influx of cash into the leagues, whether it be from new TV deals or new owners investing in the league. The league is also structured in a way where the teams don't control as much the money as the league does with the single entity structure. When the salary cap was introduced in the NFL for 1994, the ceiling was $34.608 million. Now, it's $123 million. That rapid increase didn't happen overnight, and when the money rolled in, the salary cap went up with it. Just ask some NHL owners what they think of the cap floor and ceiling now. MLS is nowhere near that level of growth yet, and while the league and game are both growing well, the salary cap won't drastically shoot up unless the cash is there, which right now it isn't.

What would MLS teams do with a salary cap increase to $4 or $5 million per team? Probably invest in their own players so that they don't jump abroad when the chance comes. Would they invest in depth players from other leagues? Certainly, but even then would MLS match up with the depth of Liga MX squads with more money at that stage? Probably not. Liga MX has been around in one form or another since 1943. MLS has been around since 1996. The amount of growth MLS has experienced since 1996 has been remarkable, but progress comes slowly, and time where the 2 major leagues of CONCACAF will be equals is not here yet, but will be soon. Don't forget, Liga MX has a much easier time developing homegrown talent as compared to MLS, which has the complications of the SuperDraft, playing college soccer, and teams own academies. MLS will get closer to Liga MX when the level of homegrown talent gets closer to being even, not by signing slightly better depth players from around the world.

MLS, while still having some convoluted player movement methods, has grown from nearly folding in 2002, to becoming an attractive option for players around the world. Look to the likes of Obafemi Martins, Robbie Keane, and David Beckham coming to MLS when they are/were still quality international players. That competition, including some from other international players, has forced MLS and US Soccer to make American players better, and that is seen in the national team, where every player that stepped on the field at Azteca last month played in MLS at one point. As a newcomer to the league, MLS continues to impress with the level of quality on a technical and physical level. It can still improve, and it will continue to improve. But winning CONCACAF Champions League won't just come from increasing the salary cap. It will come from improvements everywhere else in the league first.

Matthew Doyle of the MLS official website said it best: "20 years ago they said it wouldn't happen. 15 years ago they said it wouldn't last. 10 years ago they said it wouldn't grow. 5 years ago, the stadiums would never be full. Now they're saying MLS teams will never win a CONCACAF Champions League title. Let them."

5 years from now, MLS detractors will find something new to complain about. This whole mess is just another phase.

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