MLS's big spenders and misers, who came out better?

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 Zimmerman?

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 international calendar:

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:

1 Toronto FC $22,136,512
2 LA Galaxy $21,267,575
3 New York City $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.

9 Portland $6,052,908
12 Columbus $5,745,122
19 NY Red Bulls $4,229,936
20 FC Dallas $4,098,292

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 Higuain (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 or 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, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and Kaka? Probably not. Indeed, it isn't always easy to say what is the right or wrong way in MLS.

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.
4 comments about "MLS's big spenders and misers, who came out better?".
  1. Eric R., November 9, 2015 at 11:46 p.m.

    Seems really silly to repentedly see talking points in the media referíng to NYRB and Dallas as low-spending teams. I mean the transfer fees for Klejsten and Zubar aren't even disclosed and that's in addition to the 2.2 million mentioned above. Klejsten didn't come cheap. What about Dallas?

    What you have instead are teams that spent $ on ticket sales and teams that spent on undervalued players.

    The team easily overlooked here is DC United, composed of undervalued MLS players. But of course, when you factor that in it breaks down the argument that teams that didn't spend much money were more competitive. It's simply not true. Money buys talent.

  2. Gus Keri, November 10, 2015 at 12:09 p.m.

    Of course, money can buy titles, but not all the times. LA Galaxy with their big money signing won 3 of the last 5 MLS cups. But there is always chance that other non-big-money-clubs win titles. Look what Atletico Madrid did 2 years ago. MLS needs all the big stars it can get to help grow the league. They attract crowds, sponsors, TV revenues, international attention and more. But eventually, the product on the field is the determinant factor on which teams win.

  3. beautiful game, November 10, 2015 at 12:42 p.m.

    Spending money on DP players is a high risk investment; i.e., Giovinco is a highly talented and proven commodity, but mix him into a squad that has an overall mediocre soccer IQ and what happens. As for Klejsten, good player, nothing outstanding, but surrounded with a team concept that has a much higher soccer IQ than Toronto FC. Spending big bucks is only succesful when a solid mix of players complement each other.

  4. Daniel Clifton, November 12, 2015 at 11:32 a.m.

    I must admit that I admire the way Dallas has built their team with the development of young players. It is hard to argue with the financial success of teams like Seattle, LA, NYCFC, and Orlando, relying on high priced players with great reputations. This year none of those teams are in the final four.

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