COLUMN: FROM THE BENCH – the MLS must be willing to raise the salary cap to grow
Major League Soccer (MLS) has a long way to go before it can be considered a premier soccer league. According to FiveThirtyEight, the best MLS team, LAFC, ranks No. 136 in the world soccer rankings, a far cry from a recognizable world soccer power.
But the league has goals of advancing, first to surpass the dominant league in the continent, Mexico’s Liga MX, before looking toward the rest of the world.
The number of MLS teams has grown from 10 to 26 and further expansion plans would see that number increase to 30 teams. Since David Beckham’s arrival to LA Galaxy in 2007, more world-class players have joined the league, such as Javier Hernández who signed with LA Galaxy Jan. 21.
Signs of a healthy, prospering league are evident, and the MLS can survive keeping things as they are. But the league must change if it wants to fulfill its vision of becoming one of the best soccer leagues on the planet.
It all starts with the salary cap.
The MLS’s salary cap rose to $5.3 million per team for the 2020 season, but this figure pales in comparison to leagues in Europe. Chelsea F.C. paid $73 million just to acquire U.S. international Christian Pulisic. Pulisic earns just under $10 million a season, almost twice an MLS team’s player payroll.
For the MLS to become competitive, teams will ultimately need that salary cap to be removed.
Removing the cap entirely right now would be foolish, however, as clubs would have to overspend considerably to acquire serious talent. Such a scenario exists currently in China, where teams are paying astronomical fees to acquire world-class players. Letting this happen in the MLS could lead to the collapse of franchises within the league.
Currently, the MLS has a designated player rule that allows for three players purchased by funds that exceed the salary cap. Older world-class players seeking inferior competition and high wages will often come to the MLS toward the end of their career to earn a massive paycheck that they would likely not receive from a European team.
Unfortunately, this issue has caused the MLS to be dubbed by some as a “retirement league.”
This all ties back to the salary cap problem. An increased salary cap will entice top players to come to the league, which can in turn increase the competitiveness in the league both internally and internationally.
European teams will always attract better players due to having more funds available. Real Madrid spent over $300 million on new players over the summer, and Manchester City has a squad valued approximately at $1 billion. Competing with smaller funds is possible, but with such a gap it is unrealistic to think about MLS teams competing globally.
But MLS teams struggle to even maintain dominance on their continent. No MLS team has won an international tournament since the early 2000s, consistently losing to the best teams in Mexico. To face the world’s elite teams, MLS teams need to establish dominance over the rest of CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football).
Some MLS owners may have little to no incentive to raise their level of competition because they can stay in the MLS and continue generating revenue. A promotion and relegation system could fix that by creating a tiered system of leagues with mobility between them every season, forcing owners to open up their deep pockets.
But until owners decide to spend like top clubs, nothing will change.
Randle is a sports reporter. Follow him on Twitter.