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MLSPA salary release takeaways: The league’s all-time highest paid players and more

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Both agents and MLS club executives always know what day the Players Association releases salary data. It’s the one time these two groups can come together in total agreement. It’s a day they both kind of dread.

In discussions with agents and technical staffers this week, the central joke was they needed to prepare mentally for 2 p.m. ET on Thursday when the numbers were released. Multiple jokingly called it the worst day of the year.

Players, agents and technical staffers devour the numbers, just like us. They debate the numbers, just like us. But for agents and GMs, those debates are followed by another step, because the release of these numbers sparks immediate contract renegotiation requests.

A center back finds a comparable player making much more than them on another team and immediately calls their agent. That agent has to relay the message to the front office and act on their client’s behalf. Over a few salary release cycles (or even just one, depending how little patience the player has), a change in representation can happen, hence the agents feeling the same as GMs.

For everyone else, MLSPA salary data dump day is a fun one. In a league where transparency hasn’t always been a strong suit, it’s a valuable view into the salary sheets club-to-club.

It’s fun to find out new deals, new signings and just any general tidbits to glean. It’s fun to debate these numbers. It’s fun to play armchair GM with friends.

That being said, just be careful not to get too carried away with guaranteed player salary spend as a be-all, end-all data point into every club’s total spend. It is simply salary spend on a roster and, with teams having the same constraints and parameters, it really just shows how much every team spends on salaries on their designated players.

The difference between the sixth-highest salary spend (FC Cincinnati, $18m) to the bottom spending team in MLS on salary (St. Louis, $12m) isn’t very wide. If St. Louis signed a new, expensive DP — let’s say someone like Emil Forsberg, who is on $6m in his debut season with the New York Red Bulls — they’d shoot up from dead last to the top eight.

The bottom teams in salary spend also aren’t necessarily the bottom in total discretionary spend on the first team. Real Salt Lake has the third-lowest salary spend, but these figures don’t factor in upwards of $15 million in transfer fees ($6 million for Chicho Arango, around $3.5 million for Andres Gomez, $2.5 million for Braian Ojeda, $2 million for Nelson Palacio). 

Nashville finds itself in the top four, but it can afford to be a bit more lavish and reward individual performances with new deals. Hany Mukhtar was acquired ahead of its expansion season for just under $3 million. He’s been one of the very best players in MLS during that time and his new contract puts him at $5.2 million. Walker Zimmerman signed a new deal two years ago, making him a rare DP center back.

Both of those players have been at the club since their debut match in 2020. That’s two DP spots with a total acquisition cost under $3 million, leaving more discretionary spending to put toward their salaries rather than selling and buying new DPs.

The more complete picture for discretionary spend includes transfer fees. Salary data is important and it’s great the MLSPA releases it twice a year, but just be careful taking grandiose takeaways without considering the context. With that said, here’s what we can glean from this release. 

—Tom Bogert

It pays to be an MLS player these days

Ask any player from MLS’ first 10 to 15 years about their time in the league, and they’ll inevitably crack a joke about how little they earned for their toiling. 

Until David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy in 2007 to usher in the designated player rule, playing in the league was not an opulent profession. The 2006 season saw just five players earn at least $500,000 guaranteed — 1.6% of the league’s 320 players at the time). Only one player crested a million dollars: Juan Francisco Palencia of Chivas USA, with a guaranteed compensation of $1.36M. Even Landon Donovan, the face of U.S. soccer, in his prime at that point and with three MLS Cup titles to his name, took home $900,000. 

Through a myriad of milestone moments, the landscape has changed. In 2024, 302 players (or 34.6% of the league) takes home at least $500,000 and 115 players will earn at least $1 million. Rather than reserving seven-figure salaries for notable international signings, proven domestic players like Nashville’s Sean Davis, New England’s Henry Kessler and Dallas’ Paxton Pomykal all fit a player profile that justifies that salary outlay to their clubs. 

When Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007, he netted a record-shattering guaranteed compensation of $6.5 million, or $9.55 million when adjusted for inflation. It’s a healthy total, to be sure, but still well behind what Insigne is collecting from Toronto. Two years ago, Xherdan Shaqiri set an MLS milestone as the league’s first player to earn $8 million in a season; now, he’s the league’s fourth highest-paid player rather than an aberration.

As such, the list of MLS’ top all-time earners carries an undeniable recency bias. Messi and Insigne are skyrocketing up the leaderboard on eight-figure income, two of four players actively on MLS rosters to make the top 16 earners since 2024.

In just two seasons, Messi has out-earned all but three players in MLS history to date. That, of course, doesn’t factor for the non-salary incentives that helped lure him stateside, including contributions from league partners Apple and Adidas. Toronto FC is well represented at the top of this opulence ranking, with the top three earners and four of the top seven (counting Sebastian Giovinco) spending at least most of their MLS careers with the Reds. 

Curiously, two players ahead of Messi continue to show up in the MLSPA salary releases despite being without clubs. Jozy Altidore is listed as being contracted to MLS on a healthy $2.24 guaranteed compensation; Altidore last played an MLS game on June 3, 2023 for New England, and has played just over 1,500 minutes since the start of the 2021 season. 

Altidore’s longtime teammate for club and country, Bradley, also earns $725,000 this season despite announcing his retirement from the game last fall. That total also helps keep him atop the all-time leaderboard for one more season; if not for the post-retirement payday, Insigne would have overtaken him as the league’s best-paid player to date.

— Jeff Rueter

Biggest risers and fallers from 2023

Inevitably, an offseason provides the best window for a team to radically shake up its wage bill. The January-to-December term of player contracts leave many teams with tough decisions throughout the roster, and players who feel hard done by past wages may enter a winter of their discontent as they await a fresh pact.

Following Thursday’s official release, we now know that six teams saw their total salary outlay change by at least 20% when compared to last fall’s salary drop — four that increased, and a pair that decreased.

Orlando finished 2023 with MLS’ lowest wage bill, listing a $9,642,918 outlay that was over a million dollars thriftier than the next roster on the list. That figure has risen just above $15 million this year, a mammoth 56.2% increase from year to year. It’s pretty easy to see how that happened: the Lions gave new forward Luis Muriel a healthy $4.3 million wage upon leaving Atalanta this winter, while several players from last year’s second-place finish got sizable raises; among those players are Facundo Torres (who earned a 82.5% raise to $1.8 million) and Robin Jansson (50% to $946,667).

The New York Red Bulls (up 51%) surprised many by spending big on Emil Forsberg, with the Swede adding over $6 million to their wage bill by himself. FC Cincinnati was active in fortifying its already strong defense and midfield, increasing its salary outlay by just over 30% despite losing striker Brandon Vazquez. Nashville increased its salary spend by 25.9% in part due to raises for Hany Mukhtar, Sean Davis, and Walker Zimmerman, while the Chicago Fire added a second high-wage forward (Hugo Cuypers) to the roster.

On the reverse side, both clubs in LA decreased their salary spend by over 20% year-to-year. That’s largely due to the departures of Javier Hernández for the LA Galaxy and Carlos Vela for Los Angeles FC, of course. LAFC is bound to raise their figure again following Olivier Giroud’s arrival this summer. The Galaxy opted for younger and (relatively) thriftier replacements at forward with Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec, whose combined guaranteed compensation of $5.8 million is still far less than the $7.4 million that Chicharito made on his own in 2023.

It’s still too early to find a definitive correlation between salary spend changes and on-field success, and the second semi-annual release (following the summer window) will be more instructive to that end. In total, 17 clubs have had an increase from their 2023 salary spending, while 12 have decreased their outlay year-to-year. Following Wednesday’s matches, 10 of the 17 risers are in playoff positions (58.9%), while eight of the 12 fallers (75%) are above the postseason cutoff line.

As always in MLS: it’s not all about how much you spend, but how wisely you invest those funds.

Rueter

(Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

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