How Superrich Stars Are Killing American Soccer
The league is spending more money and recruiting better talent. But is expansion a double-edged sword?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because America does not do it better.
When soccer fans flood the stands of Chicago’s Soldier Field for the Major League Soccer All-Star Game on August 2, there’s a good chance some of the on-pitch talent won’t be making much more than they do.
The six highest-paid MLS players make more than the entire payrolls of four clubs — Montreal, D.C., Houston and Minnesota — combined.
The breakdown looks like this: Kaká ($7.2 million) leads the way for the third straight season, followed by Sebastian Giovinco ($7.1 million), Michael Bradley ($6.5 million), Andrea Pirlo ($5.9 million), David Villa ($5.6 million) and Giovani dos Santos ($5.5 million). Compared with the MLS median salary of $117,000, the top earners are in a league of their own. And unlike much of the rest of the league, most of the highest-paid footballers in America are aging foreign stars, brought stateside to raise the profile of the young league.
The recent addition of two expansion teams meant openings for more talent, but the rosters were filled by mainly foreign players.
Some homegrown American stars, like Bradley and Jozy Altidore, have lined their pockets of late, but many MLS top athletes are in the States on visas. The 22-year-old league is finally gaining popularity, but growth means higher paychecks for deserving talent — when it comes to player development, U.S. soccer still can’t compete.
To separate itself from such strong dependency on older foreign stars, MLS has emphasized the development of young, local talent while also signing younger foreign stars. At $3.9 million, the league salary cap is hardly a recruiting tool. Luckily, each club can sign three designated players outside the cap. Established in 2007, the “David Beckham Rule” is how we end up with the aforementioned foreign stars, drawn away from La Liga and the English Premier League toward the end of their careers. Recently, though, that has been changing. MLS inked 13 designated players this off-season. NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez, 30, was the oldest.
Here’s where the threat to U.S. soccer comes in. The recent addition of two expansion teams, Atlanta and Minnesota, meant openings for more talent — which sounds like increased opportunity for U.S. players, but the rosters were filled mainly by foreign players. Since 2014, despite the addition of four new franchises, the percentage of American athletes in MLS has dropped from 51.2 percent to 42.1. “Expansion years are a good measuring stick for assessing the state of American players,” said former MLS All-Star Taylor Twellman, on an early-season ESPN broadcast. “When expansion comes, maybe in the short term it’s got to come at the expense of American players.” Should this trend continue, more American players will be driven into the second-tier United Soccer League, or some low division overseas, meaning that the majority of athletes competing for a U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team roster spot will be ill-prepared to face top-level international competition.
The strength of U.S. soccer is not the primary concern of MLS, but there is a partnership. Presently, both MLS and the USMNT are trending toward global competitiveness. But one need only observe the recent fall of the Three Lions, England’s national football program, to see how a decrease of nationals in the English Premier League disrupted England’s international standing. “I find the EPL really concerning,” Twellman said. England hasn’t won a major international tournament since 1996, while the Premier League has become “arguably the best league in the world.”
For the sake of next year’s World Cup watch parties, let’s hope the USMNT can compete with MLS expansion.