By Ridge Mahoney
Eight points encompassing as many teams. Seven conference foes that have to face Clint Dempseyat least once.
That’s where the Western race stands heading into final one-third of the season.
Real Salt Lake tops the West with 38 points, and only eight points away in eighth are the Earthquakes, who by toppling Chivas USA, 2-0, Saturday night have moved to within three points of a playoff spot. The balance of power in the conference has been radically shaken by the blockbuster purchase of U.S. internationalClint Dempsey by Seattle, yet the Sounders' 3-0 defeat of FC Dallas witnessed by an utterly delirious crowd – and in CenturyLink Field, that’s saying something – still leaves them short of a playoff spot. But barely short.
While followers of the Rave Green can smugly relish the largesse of their ownership group, fans in several other Western Conference cities can only fret and hope for the best. The relatively modest signing of U.S. defender Clarence Goodson paid immediate dividends for the Quakes against Chivas USA, whose own recent U.S. signing, Carlos Bocanegra, got dismissed for barging into a rough tackle that uprooted San Jose winger Shea Salinas.
Paired with Honduran man-beast Victor Bernardez, Goodson helped the Quakes pitch just their third shutout of the season and earn the win on goals by the Quakes’ only DP, Chris Wondolowski. Wondo’s contract pays him $600,000, which is more than anyone else on his team as well as many others, but nothing close to the biggest earners around MLS.
Dempsey’s annual salary of reportedly $8 million could jibe with a $4 million figure also cited, since the former would be the gross salary and the latter the net amount paid to Dempsey after taxes, as is customary for most highly paid players. In any case, that’s a lot of dosh, easily more than the previous top mark paid to David Beckham ($6.5 million). It will certainly be incorporated into negotiations whenOmar Gonzalez as well as DPs Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane start discussing their contract status with the Galaxy. (There aren’t enough retention funds in the entire league to keep them in MLS.)
A stark case of contrasting market fortunes is in play. To cite one example, the Rapids, according to a source with knowledge of the deal, had scraped together about $700,000 to acquire Panamanian striker Gabriel Torres from Venezuelan club Zamora FC. Though the transfer fee reportedly dropped from $750,000 to $500,000, Torres had requested a DP-esque salary of $500,000, which would leave Colorado a few hundred grand short to complete a deal.
French second division club Auxerre had also been bidding for Torres, and there’s also an unspecified Mexican team supposedly in the mix, so the price is unlikely to drop very much. Colorado is discussing a contract with Uruguayan forward Vicente Sanchez, who showed up for Rapids’ training Friday despite not having concluded negotiations. Thus, the Rapids smartly didn’t put all their eggs into the Torres’ basket.
If somehow the Sounders miss the playoffs despite forking out more than $4 million earlier this year for Obafemi Martins (salary: $1.725 million) and a reported $9 million transfer fee for Dempsey, a winter of discontent in Seattle will be especially long and bitter. How the cost of doing business changes will require another season or two to properly evaluate.
Spending a lot in pro sports isn’t a guarantee of anything except staggering expenses. Just ask the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Lakers, Marlins, Sabres, Red Bulls, etc., which all have outspent rivals only to finish behind most of them in recent seasons.
Of course, big payrolls have out worked well for Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Juventus, not to mention the Galaxy and so far in 2013, at least, the Red Bulls. More modest payrolls can work, too, as in the case of Real Salt Lake, which has received great value for DPs Javier Moralesand Alvaro Saborio, or Portland, with Diego Valeri. They all earn less than Wondolowski.
So it’s not surprising that Vancouver DP Kenny Miller (salary of $1.13 million) takes much of the criticism, rightly or wrongly, if the ‘Caps don’t win a particular game. Dempsey’s remarkable accomplishments for the Revs and USA as well as in England will grant him a substantial grace period, but there ain’t a lot of season left.
Yet as demonstrated by the pumped-up crowd that roared when Dempsey stood at midfield brandishing a Sounders' scarf, then celebrated as Seattle's clearly rattled opponent conceded two first-half goals, the bar in the West has been raised yet again. The Quakes are the only Western Conference foe that has finished its season series against the Sounders, who have more games to play, 14, than any other team.
(Something to keep an eye on as the season winds down: the first tiebreaker for teams tied on points is wins, not goals scored as was the case last year. The second tiebreaker is goals scored.)
This is what the Western Conference playoff race looks like Day One A.D. (After Dempsey):
PTS TEAM (W-L-T) GR
38 Real Salt Lake (11-7-5) 11
35 Colorado (9-7-8) 10
35 Portland(8-3-11) 12
33 Los Angeles (10-9-3) 12
33 Vancouver (9-7-6) 12
32 FC Dallas (8-6-8) 12
31 Seattle(9-7-4) 14
30 San Jose (8-9-6) 11
17 Chivas USA (4-13-5) 12