In MLS, successful teams either spend big or develop well

November 9, 2018

Late last month, the MLS Players Association released its biannual listing of the salaries of every player in Major League Soccer. Its a player-driven shred of transparency for a famously tight-lipped league, and the data helps show whos spending, whos not, and what the pathway to MLS success might be.

It should be noted that, when compared to other American pro sports, MLS salaries are pocket change. Bryce Harpers new contract, whoever he signs with, will likely pay him more per year than the entire roster of any MLS team, and probably the same as the bottom four teams combined. Toronto, the biggest spenders, have a payroll of nearly $27 million, and are the only team above $17.5 million. Houston, at the bottom, clocks in at just under $6 million.

At first glance, its tempting to say that money doesnt do much in MLS. The three biggest spenders Toronto, the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Chicago all missed the playoffs. The New York Red Bulls put together the best season in league history despite having the fourth-lowest payroll in the league.

Go deeper, though, and youll see that while spending big money isnt a guarantee of success, not spending money isnt that much better. As an example, look at the last five expansion teams, which havent had time to build up extensive youth-development systems. Atlanta, New York City FC and Los Angeles FC are all in the top eight in the league in payroll, and all three made the playoffs this year (LAFC in its first year in the league). Orlando and Minnesota were both in the bottom 10, and neither came anywhere near a playoff spot.

The low-payroll success of teams like the Red Bulls, FC Dallas, and Real Salt Lake speaks to another method of team-building via extensive, successful youth systems. All three are famous for developing solid players and profiting, either by selling those players to teams from overseas or by filling out their lineups with those home-grown players.

Money can buy top-end talent and roster depth, but teams that can bring in young players to fill those roles save big on payroll. Top-notch young players such as Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams or Real Salt Lake defender Justen Glad didnt have to be plucked from a South American league for a huge transfer fee. They were developed by their current clubs. Both are making less than $300,000 this year.

It stands to reason that the only way for a club to get better players is either to spend money or develop talent on its own. Either one can work. Doing neither, however, is a great way to end up at the bottom of the standings. Eight teams finished nine or more points out of a playoff spot this year. Chicago and Toronto spent big and still flopped, but the other six share a common thread: Low payrolls and unsuccessful, or near-nonexistent, youth academies.

If teams like the Red Bulls have proved anything, its that dominance doesnt always go hand-in-hand with spending in MLS. But without spending, it requires diligent, decades-long work to develop players. Overspending isnt a panacea, but neither is it a risky move, especially given the low salaries in the league. The only thing that guarantees failure is doing nothing at all.

Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. jmarthaler@gmail.com

Online: startribune.com/soccer

Update hourly