By Paul Kennedy
So who had money on the two faces of the MLS playoffs, coming out of the
conference semifinals, being 20-year-old Mexican-American goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez
and Generation adidas signing Walker
Gonzalez, who didn't play his first MLS game until three months ago, stopped two penalty kicks as FC Dallas knocked off the Seattle Sounders in a shootout to move into
the Western Conference final. Zimmerman, who has never started more than 10 games in a season in his three-year career out of Furman, scored in stoppage time to give FC Dallas the 2-1 win in the
second leg that tied the series, 3-3, on aggregate and scored the clinching penalty kick.
The first two and half weeks of the MLS playoffs certainly produced their share of drama, if not
many surprises, as both conference No. 1 seeds, one conference No. 2 seed and one conference No. 3 seed advanced.
Here's how the landscape looks as MLS takes a two-week break for the FIFA
Seattle's loss on penalty kicks in Sunday's Western Conference semifinals eliminated the last of MLS's big-spending clubs from the playoffs. Five clubs had
payrolls of more than $11 million, almost $5 million more than the next highest payroll, and none made it past the final eight: TEAM 2015
PAYROLL 1 Toronto FC
$22,136,512 2 LA Galaxy
$21,267,575 3 New
$17,414,268 4 Seattle
$13,288,444 5 Orlando City
$11,290,004 Source: Denver Post
On the other end of the spectrum, the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, the two conference regular-season winners, ranked 19th and 20th, respectively, in terms of their overall player payroll.
They'll be joined in the conference finals by Portland and Columbus, 9th and 12th, respectively. TEAM 2015 PAYROLL 9 Portland
$6,052,908 12 Columbus
$5,745,122 19 NY Red Bulls
$4,229,936 20 FC Dallas
There are, of course, other measures of spending -- notably, transfer fees and player development expenses -- that serve as
equalizers. The Timbers and Red Bulls invested heavily in the summer signing of Argentines Lucas Melano
(for a reported $5 million) and Gonzalo Veron
($2.2 million), respectively.
If there is one thread to each of the four conference finalists, different from the five highest-spending
teams, it was their mid-season commitment to bolster their roster with Argentines. Columbus signed center back Gaston Sauro
, now suspended for the first leg of
the Eastern Conference final against the Red Bulls, and FC Dallas reached a loan deal with River Plate for Ezequiel Cirigliano
, who filled in at central
midfield for Kellyn Acosta
until the U.S. U-20's return from injury on Sunday. Melano, Veron and Sauro are classified as all Designated Players, though only
Melano and Sauro are on DP salaries.
What also separates the four remaining teams from the big five is that they have advanced without relying on players on huge salaries. The top 18
highest-paid players in MLS have been eliminated and just two of the 23 players making $1 million or more in the league are still in the playoffs: Federico
(Columbus) and Liam Ridgewell
(Portland). Indeed, there were just as many starters on Sunday's four winning teams making less than $100,000 a
year as on DP salaries (more than $436,500): nine apiece.
In probably the best case of salary management, Columbus has filled out its starting lineup with every player making a minimum of
$142,500 in guaranteed compensation. But FC Dallas had five starters (including Gonzalez and Acosta) making less than $100,000, the Red Bulls had three and the Timbers had one, according to MLS Players' Union salary figures
The four conference finalists each has
added its own touch to lineup building. Is FC Dallas just cheap or simply better at developing young academy players like Gonzalez or Acosta or Victor Ulloa
signing young foreigners like Mauro Diaz
and Fabian Castillo
? What about all the reclamation projects who have made it
with the Red Bulls, players from the scrap heap of English soccer like Bradley Wright-Phillips
, Lloyd Sam
and Mike Grella
-- we'll even dare throw Ronald Zubar
into the mix? And what about Portland, which within hours of the trade
window opening last December completed their offseason moves, after failing to make the 2014 playoffs, with the rapid-fire signings of Adam Kwarasey
, Nat Borchers
and Dairon Asprilla
? Is one way better than another?
On the surface, it would seem that the five big
spenders have overspent. But have they? It depends on how you look at it. For one, they rank as the top five teams in average attendance
, again by a comfortable margin. They include Seattle, which
has never won MLS Cup, and Toronto FC, which never made the playoffs in its first eight seasons. The Galaxy has won five MLS Cups and jumped at the chance to sign Giovani dos Santos
when he became available. Did all their moves pan out? Of course not, but they had the money to spend.
Would NYCFC or Orlando City have created the buzz
-- in their markets or around MLS -- that they did in Year 1 if they had not signed the likes of David Villa
, Andrea Pirlo
? Probably not. Indeed, it isn't always easy to say what is the right or wrong way
But for now, the Red Bulls, FC Dallas, Crew and Timbers get first dibs at tooting their own horn about how their way is the right way to make it in MLS.