America at Large: MLS salary structure not paying off for most

San Jose squad earn less than new LA Galaxy star and ex-Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard

Twenty-four-year-old Thomas McNamara grew up 40 minutes north of Yankee Stadium where he currently patrols midfield for New York City FC. With enough Irish in him to have dabbled in Gaelic football as a teen, he has a masters in statistics and earns a league minimum of $60,000 a year.

He probably won't need his degree to figure out why he'll soon be playing alongside Frank Lampard, somebody who will be paid twice McNamara's annual salary each week.

Welcome to Major League Soccer where the dollar amounts don't always make sense.

When the players’ union recently released details of members’ wages, a wonderfully transparent gesture, the numbers (before bonuses) revealed even more curious and disturbing anomalies than usual.

Rookie outfit Orlando City are paying Kaka $6.6 million while the 30 other players battling to start alongside the Brazilian, including Ireland's Sean St Ledger (fast becoming a fan favourite in Florida) on $125,000, receive a total of $4 million between them.

Athlone Town may want to do further research before they hold MLS up as a business model for the League of Ireland to emulate.

Entire squad

Steven Gerrard’s first Los Angeles Galaxy goal last weekend came against the San Jose Earthquakes whose entire squad earn almost $1.5million less than the $6.2m the former Liverpool captain is getting in Hollywood.

Indeed, 14 other clubs boast wage bills similarly dwarfed by Gerrard's pay packet. Throw in Robbie Keane on $4.5million (widely acknowledged as the best value foreign import ever), and the arrival of Mexican international Giovanni Dos Santos ($4 million) and it's easy to see why the Galaxy are hugely-resented and also hotly-favoured to make it three titles in a row and four in five years.

Total MLS salaries have more than trebled over the past decade, an impressive statistic that would appear to indicate a booming league. Under closer scrutiny though, the figures portray a seriously imbalanced pay structure and an increasingly lop-sided competition.

Just 21 of the 566 pros earn more than a million per season, from Kaka and Italy's Sebastian Giovinco at the upper end of the seven figures scale to the likes of Kevin Doyle ($1.125 million), Shaun Maloney ($1.55 million) and Liam Ridgewell ($1 million) at the other.

More than half the players in MLS take home less than $100,000 per annum. Not paltry sums until compared with the stratospheric earnings of a few of their accented team-mates. Aside from making for potentially awkward situations in locker-rooms, a penthouse/outhouse divide if ever there was one, the disparity impacts on the field too.

Almost all the star players are midfielders and strikers, overloading teams with attacking flair while neglecting the quality of defences on whom clubs spend just a fraction of their budgets.

Every MLS highlight reel goal comes franked with the suspicion it may have been scored against a back four and a goalie who are journeymen, earning the league’s minimum wage.

Even if MLS’s recruitment policy (Didier Drogba is the name being bandied about this week) sometimes seems to be operated by a giddy teenage boy playing FIFA 09 on his X-Box, the signings are impacting positively at the gate.

Despite having the distasteful feel of a "just add water" insta-club, New York City FC and David Villa already have a core fan-base of around 28,000 while Orlando are drawing 34,000 for home games.

Nationally, attendances are up 10 per cent on last year with the league average now over 21,000. If you sign enough superannuated footballers, it appears, the fans will come.

That certainly seems to be the principle governing how the league conducts itself. Witness commissioner Don Garber’s decision to parachute Lampard and Gerrard into the MLS X1 for next Wednesday’s All-Star game against Spurs in Colorado, before they’d even made their debuts for their clubs.

Marquee names

In American sport, the All-Star game is, traditionally, a way of recognising those who have played best during a campaign.

Garber has blatantly demonstrated that the selling of marquee names is far more important than acknowledging actual form.

The way the needs of the box office trump all other considerations is worryingly reminiscent of the 1970s heyday of the North American Soccer League, the last time so many of the world’s best players gravitated to the US.

If, in its 20th season, MLS appears built on sounder foundations than its predecessor, there are still causes for concern. Aside from the fact so many imports are coming for lifestyle rather than genuine sporting reasons, the single-entity structure, where investors own a stake in the league as well as an individual club, continues to attract criticism.

As the American soccer fan becomes more educated, the calls for some sort of pyramid system, allowing promotion and relegation like in other countries rather than MLS charging clubs $100million for entry to its closed shop, grow louder.

Also, nobody seems quite sure how the league decides which teams get first dibs on the glamorous foreigners once they start looking stateside, something to consider given Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo have both indicated they want to spend their dotage in these parts.

There are other, more familiar issues too. When Tottenham Hotspur signed Seattle Sounders’ prospect Deandre Yedlin in January, MLS received $4 million. Crossfire, the youth club where Yedlin made his name, claim they are entitled to $100,000 for playing a part in his development. MLS refuses to pay.

Saving dollars in an all too typical way like that makes little sense.

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