By Ridge Mahoney
One can debate, and perhaps even ridicule, a listing that puts MLS as seventh-best league in the world, but there's no question it is at or near the top in one critical category.
A report by World Soccer that listed MLS at No. 7 among the league’s top soccer leagues, one place below its Mexican rival, sparked discussion of the league’s merits or lack thereof. The track record of a league’s teams meeting its financial obligations to players didn’t noticeably impact the ranking process.
Critics lambaste MLS for its standard of play, single-entity system, tight budgets, refereeing, a bizarre array of player designations, etc., and in some cases the criticism is deserved. Its failure to beat Liga MX teams head-to-head sparks passionate cries for change and reform, which translates to much bigger payrolls that are anathema to its financial strictures.
Yet the league’s record is nearly unsurpassed, even by leagues much richer and more famous, when it comes to paychecks. What players in MLS take for granted -- payment on time and for the full amount -- is the exception in many parts of the world.
Unlike their foreign counterparts, MLS teams don’t miss paydays. Many foreign players in MLS arrived in the wake of a former club, or clubs, reneging on a contract. It has taken some time for this message to disseminate, but it’s common knowledge around the world that the league that signed David Beckham to a monster contract in 2007 has a nearly unblemished record, before and since, of paying its players on time no matter how famous or how unheralded.
After a few months of playing in MLS, former D.C. United attacker Christian Gomez remarked how much he appreciated getting his paycheck on time and for the specified amount. The reaction spoke vividly of what is the norm for players in many parts of the world.
“He played at Independiente, which is a pretty big club,” said Toronto FC president Kevin Payne, who during his long tenure at D.C. United helped seal the Argentine’s signing in 2004. “Everybody on our team laughed, but they don't realize how big a problem it is in Central and South America, or even in Europe.
“A lot of times when a player moves it’s because the club has a younger player who can do the same job almost as well for a lot less money, but there’s also times when the club can’t or won’t pay the player what it owes him. I think our league can benefit from that. The word is getting around.
“You might not get paid a lot, but you will get paid on time.”
The MLS Players Union threatened to strike during the tense final days of negotiations in 2010; in many countries, players leave their clubs en masse because they haven’t been paid for months. Three years ago, players threatened to go on strike in Spain, claiming 85 percent of players in the top three divisions aren’t paid on time and/or in full.
Another Argentine, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, commented along the same lines during his stint with the Columbus Crew (2007-10). Barros Schelotto came to MLS as a Boca Juniors legend, and also as the father of three children. Money issues didn’t drive him to MLS but he acknowledged how widespread the problems were for other players.
“It is different when you have a wife and children, you can’t just worry about yourself,” he said at the time. “On your own, you can always pack your things and leave and find another team. When you have a family, you don’t want to worry about the money.”
When agents complain about the byzantine, complex methods of MLS -- which they do all the time, by the way -- they seldom mention the financial factor perhaps most appreciated by the people they represent. Like the rest of us, players seldom believe they’re overpaid, but they do expect the money to be there when it’s supposed to be there.
The single-entity system, by which the league absorbs most salary costs, greatly lessens the risk a team won’t fulfill its obligations. In this category at least, MLS passes the test.