Could you live on £7,000 a season? If so, and you can also play a bit, you could be a star in the MLS, writes Mike Woitalla

David Beckham’s Major League Soccer salary – not including his endorsement deals – pays him more in one day than MLS players such as Kevin Souter earn annually. Souter hails from Portsoy, Scotland. He was drawn to America by Graceland – not the Elvis estate but a small Iowa university with an ambitious soccer programme. At age 24, Souter attended a two-day open tryout with 200 other hopefuls and won a contract with the Kansas City Wizards that pays him $12,900 (£7,000) for the season. And a Wizard he must be to live on that.

Souter’s first 27 minutes of league action included the thrill of being on the field with the Galaxy’s Beckham – “He’s a big, big idol of mine” – and a goal against Toronto FC. The happy Scotsman is one of more than a hundred players in the 14-team league who earn $33,000 (£18,000) or less per year. 

Such are the economics of MLS, whose owners have opened their chequebooks for stadium construction and a handful of stars while managers fill out rosters by searching for rhinestones in the rough. An independent study by Forbes Magazine on the financial health of MLS indicates the formula of frugality on the player market has been good for the league’s bottom line. Between the sidelines is another story.

Aside from Beckham, who is being paid $6.5 ­million a year in salary and many millions more from his cut on income he has created for the Galaxy – such as the 300,000 replica jerseys sold – only three other MLS players earn more than a million dollars per year. They are Chicago’s Mexican attacker Cuauhtemoc Blanco ($2.67m), DC United’s Argentine midfielder Marcelo Gallardo ($1.87m) and New York’s Argentine striker Juan Pablo Angel ($1.59m).

These millionaires came into the league in the past two seasons via the designated player rule, which was created to let Beckham in. The DPR is a loophole in MLS’s single-entity structure, a form of soccer socialism that prevents teams from spending as much as they want on whomever they want. Each team is allowed one DP and only $400,000 of his salary counts against the club’s payroll limit of $2.4m. That’s right, an entire team’s salary cap is about what a ­single Premier League player earns.

Such a strict limit on the squad payroll means that MLS can’t hold on to a player such as Clint Dempsey, who was a crowd-pleaser for the New England Revolution and now struggles for playing time at Fulham. And young Americans with great potential have been shunning the low-paying US league to play in Scandinavia, where they shiver away while earning four times as much as they would in MLS.

Although MLS has of late done a better job in luring Latin American talent, the players it lands are ones that European and Mexican clubs have passed on. That’s not to say MLS teams don’t put some decent soccer on the field, but once injuries or national-team call-ups hit, the rosters prove as deep as Beckham’s tattoos.

Then there’s the piling on of other competitions. The SuperLiga (with Mexican clubs), the Concacaf Champions League and the US Open Cup (a wannabe FA Cup that won’t ever be) force MLS clubs to put the back end of the roster on the field, shining an even brighter light on the league’s personnel problems. MLS teams have recently suffered Champions League losses to competition from Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, Costa Rica and Panama.

While they spend sparingly on players, MLS owners have invested in soccer-­specific stadiums: eight teams now have fine grounds and enjoy the increased revenue that comes with being landlords instead of tenants. How the Wall Street collapse affects the plans of several other stadium-construction plans remains to be seen. But so far, it’s been the real-estate success and the Beckham hype that have made MLS an enticing investment even amid the nation’s economic woes.

The Forbes study concluded that three teams show an operating profit and that the average franchise is worth $37m, with Beckham’s Galaxy on top at $100m. Seattle and Philadelphia each agreed to pay $30m to join MLS in 2009 and 2010, respectively. That might not sound like much in England, where $30m buys one Luka Modric, but it’s three times what Toronto FC paid three years ago to join the league, and Forbes figures Toronto are now worth $44m.

So great news on the growth of the league. But if MLS struggles to field enough talent for 14 clubs, how can it expect to put good quality soccer on the field with more teams? Ironically, as Americans finally comprehend the perils of unfettered capitalism, the USA’s soccer league must start giving its owners much more freedom on the free market. 

From WSC 261 November 2008

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