Welcome to Week 13 of our staff column collecting news, insights, and highlights from around Major League Soccer.
MLS player salary release day has become something of a celebrated holiday for the league’s roster rules and regulations nerds. And with good reason: it’s a day that provides the only real look into how teams construct the rosters; a naturally interesting topic for fans of the league, and for the people who cover it.
MLS itself does not make salary and budget information publicly available. The salary release comes from the MLS Players’ Association (MLSPA), but a player’s total budget charge (which may include transfer fees and other considerations) can only be estimated based on the MLSPA numbers and publicly available information about those fees. Teams operate with unknown amounts of allocation money, which is functionally cap space.
Takeaways from the MLS player salaries release
Opaqueness in this area is an interesting strategy from MLS, to say the least.
In a competition for eyeballs, the league operates in two different marketplaces. The first is the global soccer landscape, in which MLS still falls short of top European leagues in terms of quality of play. The second is the American sports scene, where it must find ways to capture the attention of fans with loyalties in American football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
In those other sports, it’s often off-field storylines that drive attention and conversation. The most popular coverage of the NFL is the draft. In baseball, hot stove action is hugely popular. The NBA trade market is massive, and many media companies have created trade tools to drive that conversation.
Those narratives are available in part because of those respective leagues’ approach to transparency. A quick visit to the website Spotrac allows any user to see how much cap space each NFL team has down to the penny. They can do the same for the NBA.
MLS is the only league that builds walls to keep its fans out of those discussions.
It’s not for lack of interest. I essentially built my MLS journalism career around embracing the weirdness that is MLS roster rules. For a while, we had a semi-popular, extremely-niche podcast called Allocation Disorder just to placate fans who crave that information. That audience would surely grow and latch on to MLS if they felt they had a chance to play shadow GM.
“The more transparent we can be about the system, the better off we’re going to be,” Atlanta United president Garth Lagerwey said to my colleague Felipe Cardenas in an interview in February. “What we want to do is grow the fanbase, especially between now and (The 2026 FIFA World Cup). So what do we need to do? We need to be as successful as we can be. We need people to second-guess us. We need people to say ‘I can do it better than they’re doing it.’”
Which MLS are underperforming their contracts? We pick a starting XI
MLS likes to push back on people that call its rules arcane by pointing to the MLB Rule 5 draft or NBA’s complex set of rules and exemptions. But the complexity of those rules is easier to stomach in part because those leagues provide enough information to overlook the most complex parts, or perhaps to help understand them with time.
In MLS, even the simple rules are complicated. There are different types of designated players, and some DPs take up different designations in the same year. There are discovery signings and special discovery players, U-22 initiative signings and homegrown players who use different types of roster spots. The rules are difficult to navigate even when you work in the league. For fans, only a surface-level understanding is possible because there is no access to see how they practically impact team budgets.
More concerning, however, is that a league that needs and wants to grow its audience is actively cutting off conversation by hiding the information.
“I don’t think it’s down to one rule or regulation or something that’s restricting us,” Lagerwey told Cárdenas. “Everybody has their parity, balancing type things. You can argue about too little or too much. Those are opinions. But I think what’s not debatable is that we need to be more transparent and that we need to open the league up and that we need to be more accessible. Because if more people can understand the league and more people can relate to the league, more people are going to participate in the league. That’s what we want and that’s what we need.”
We are now in a stretch of months which is often the low point in interest around MLS. The freshness around every team is gone, and the stakes are as low as they’ve ever been. Last-place teams are a win or two away from being in ninth place and back in the playoffs. What is making us tune in and care?
Imagine how much more interest there would be in the upcoming summer transfer window if fans and media could actually discuss how teams can get better. It would drive conversation and interest around every team.
Right now, any transfer and trade coverage is essentially guesswork.
The lack of information also leads to a lack of accountability. We know generally which teams are mismanaging their teams — but only generally. The ability to see each teams’ budgets, allocation money warchests and player pool would force teams to improve how they approach trade and transfer windows.
So why hasn’t MLS opened things up? Originally, there was pushback from some team’s chief soccer officers, who thought it would make life more difficult if agents knew exactly how much money they had to work with. Multiple people around the league also said that MLS has not had an up-to-date centralized system that would make it easy to make the information publicly available. For many years, it required phone calls to league employees and spreadsheets that were being updated manually for teams to get information. This stands in stark contrast to MLB, for example, which has a computer system called eBIS that manages salary cap information for the entire league, with an ever-expanding database of contracts that teams can work off of for research and roster management.
MLS in recent years moved to a centralized system, though it is still in early phases and doesn’t update in real time. That is a step toward the possibility of going public with the information, but the league needs to speed up the process.
The league is looking for ways to grow and to engage with fans it hopes will subscribe to its new MLS Season Pass service on Apple. The 2026 World Cup is only three years away. MLS can’t afford to keep policies in place that limit the scope and breadth of coverage and conversations about the league.
A simple step to get on the same page as every other salary-capped professional league in the U.S. is not only necessary, it’s long overdue.
— Paul Tenorio
Toronto is burning
With the additions of Italian wingers Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi last summer and with Bob Bradley at the helm as head coach, Toronto FC was supposed to immediately jump into the upper echelon of MLS clubs starting last season. The thought was Bradley would figure out the rest of the roster and hold down the fort until the Italian cavalry arrived.
That isn’t how it’s happened. Toronto FC has reached a boiling point.
TFC didn’t make the playoffs last year, with Insigne and Bernardechi unable to move the needle midseason. The expectation was that 2023, with a full offseason and preseason for both stars and further reinforcements, would be the year things actually came together. After another loss this weekend against Austin FC, Toronto is bottom of the Eastern Conference, and internal frustration towards Bradley and the coaching staff has now fully been made public.
“I think maybe we need to change something. We need to [have] a little bit more tactics,” Bernardeschi told media Saturday night. “We need an idea of how we play because this is the real problem for me. It’s impossible to play like this when we play without [an] idea. This is the big problem for me.”
Toronto is 2-7-10 (0.68 PPG) in their last 19 matches, spanning the final five of 2022 and the first 14 of this season. Insigne has been in and out of the lineup with different injuries, including missing the most recent loss. Bernardeschi has started all 19 of those games.
“We lose every game,” Bernardeschi said. “We tie, we lose, we tie, we lose. Sometimes we win. But I can’t believe this, sincerely. This is no good for the young players. They need to get better, no? And grow up with an idea of football, and the players with personality, they need to help, help us to understand and follow the idea of football. But we need the idea of football. This is the real situation.”
Toronto have largely gotten rid of or benched most of their younger players, who Bradley decided weren’t up to the task over the last year and a half. Trades have sent homegrowns away: Ralph Priso to Colorado, Luca Petrasso to Orlando and Jacob Shaffelburg to Nashville, while Jayden Nelson was transferred abroad (to Rosenborg in Norway). Just one of TFC’s top 14 players in minutes played this season is under 23 (Kobe Franklin), while six are 30 or older.
Toronto has already been eliminated in the Canadian Championship by CF Montréal earlier this season. They have two pivotal home games against D.C. United and the Chicago Fire next week.
Their season is already on the brink and we’re still in May.
– Tom Bogert
‘Wait… am I going to talk?’
As long as we’re on the subject of bad teams: the LA Galaxy had a very, very bad road trip this past week, following up a 2-0 midweek loss to the Columbus Crew with an even worse defeat at D.C. on Saturday, a 3-0 loss where they rarely looked competitive.
All of D.C.’s goals were helped along by some shambolic defending by the Galaxy, and LA goalkeeper Jonathan Bond had a hand in two of them, cracking under pressure on United’s first of the night and coughing up an easy tap-in on their third.
GET IN KLICHY 🤩 pic.twitter.com/1uLoCrMM1d
— D.C. United (@dcunited) May 21, 2023
It’s already been a long year for Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney and he was understandably frustrated after the match. Towards the tail end of his press conference, he was asked what he needed to do to motivate his team for their upcoming U.S. Open Cup tilt against LAFC.
“It didn’t look like (your players) even had the passion (tonight) to run for some of the balls on defense,” opined Wendy Pintor, who covered the game for AreaSportsNet. “What do you have to tell those fans who are super pissed right now?”
“Are you asking a question?” Vanney said. “Or are you making a statement based on your observations of the team — and therefore I don’t really need to say anything because you’ve expressed your opinions of the team…The team is motivated.”
Vanney offered a frustrated chuckle. Pintor interjected as Vanney began to elaborate on his answer. “Wait,” Vanney said. “Am I going to talk?”
The whole interaction was cut out of the press conference before it was made publicly available, but media relations were far from the biggest problem the Galaxy faced on Saturday. The team is dead last in the league, dead last on goal differential and is entering a summer window where they’re prohibited from bringing in talent from abroad thanks to offseason sanctions for violating MLS roster rules in 2019.
In Riqui Puig, the Galaxy have maybe the most exciting young player in the league, but he can only do so much — Puig looked frustrated and out-of-sorts against D.C. And who could blame him? At least he’s already mastered the art of shading MLS via his social media (No red card was given for this tackle on Gaston Brugman).
😂 MLS… pic.twitter.com/mu0sbRGu5d
— Riqui Puig (@RiquiPuig) May 18, 2023
– Pablo Maurer
He’s on a walkabout
Is there anything more nerve-wracking to watch than a goalkeeper at the halfway line?
On Wednesday, D.C. United netminder Tyler Miller found himself in no-man’s-land against Philadelphia, charging toward Union forward Joaquín Torres for a loose ball some 50 yards from goal. Miller went to ground, got a piece of the ball, and was very, very fortunate not to give up the game’s first goal on the ensuing deflection:
lol https://t.co/IUBNE8QsCh pic.twitter.com/XscAfGMYUy
— Pablo Iglesias Maurer (@MLSist) May 18, 2023
A few minutes later, the former LAFC ‘keeper was at it again, charging out to the far sideline to involve himself in a play that his left back Gaoussou Samaké had already covered pretty well. Both interventions felt a little unnecessary, especially given the fact that both took place in the first 10 minutes of the match, hardly the time to take risks.
Miller has been doing this all year. And to Wayne Rooney, it’s a feature, not a flaw. Rooney has pushed Miller to play higher, to involve himself as an option out of the back a bit more than most other goalkeepers in MLS. Rooney has always wanted that option — last year, he pushed then-starting ‘keeper Rafael Romo to do the same, with sometimes disastrous results. Miller, though, is a far more capable player, and he’s proven a valuable piece in United’s buildup.
Miller leads all MLS goalkeepers in touches per 90 minutes — he has 57, far more than the second and third-highest ‘keepers, NYCFC’s Luis Barraza and Austin FC’s Brad Stuver. While Miller hasn’t directly contributed to a United goal, his 35% completion rate of passes into the attacking third is the most among regular starters in the league and his total number of passes into that area of the field is well above the league average.
My colleague Jeff Rueter notes the following when it comes to Miller’s overall effectiveness: using American Soccer Analysis’ g+ metric, no GK comes anywhere near adding more passing value than Miller, having added nearly a goal over all of his starts — Stuver is a distant second.
Unsurprisingly, Miller’s target of choice when it comes to his trips down Route 1 is United forward Christian Benteke. That sweet spot just above the 18 you see in the graphic below is Benteke’s domain.
Graphic by Jeff Rueter
Miller was looking for Benteke in that area on Saturday night against the Galaxy. A few touches later, United had their second goal of the match.
Dajo’s first goal in Black-and-Red 😍 pic.twitter.com/Bo9JwpbwIy
— D.C. United (@dcunited) May 21, 2023
Miller isn’t the only one looking for Benteke. D.C. has regeared itself after a slow start, becoming more direct and centering most of their attack around finding the former Crystal Palace standout. Benteke has six goals in 2023 and has been indispensable in hold-up play — and even on defense, where his work rate has been a pleasant surprise to many. As a whole, United have been much more enjoyable to watch since they made that shift, and they’ve pulled themselves out of the basement.
Still, you can’t help but wonder when Miller is going to get chipped. It’s bound to happen. No less than three Galaxy players tried their hand at a long-distance, looping attempt on Saturday, all of them hopelessly misguided. Midway through the second half, I turned to a colleague in the press box and we started taking wagers on when it’ll actually happen. The over/under is at 10. I took the under.
Rooney, who has pushed his goalkeepers to be more involved in attacking play, would probably happily make him pay for his efforts. But even if Miller gets nailed once, the data says his frequent walkabouts are certainly a net positive.
– Pablo Maurer
Columbus and Canada
Two members of the Columbus Crew have come into focus for their links to Canada’s men’s national team.
First, midfielder Aidan Morris: the talented and athletic 21-year-old was a recent surprise inclusion in Canada’s preliminary roster for June’s Nations League Finals. Morris’s father is Canadian, making him eligible.
The Athletic understands from sources who were briefed on the matter but were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly that Morris was targeted by Canada as far back as their pre-World Cup friendly against Bahrain in November. They were close to getting him to commit to the program then, but passport issues hampered the process. Having played for United States youth teams, the American-born Morris then opted to make his senior international debut for the United States in a January friendly against Serbia.
This is a challenge Canada continually faces when recruiting dual nationals: other countries often have more developed youth national teams set-ups and training camps.
It remains to be seen where Morris lands, but Canada has made it clear it values him and his potential. The federation has presented him with an outlook of where he fits in the program long-term. There’s plenty of turnover expected in Canada’s midfield soon: Atiba Hutchinson will likely retire from international play this season and only Stephen Eustaquio, Ismael Kone and Jonthan Osorio have genuine claims on spots in the central midfield. Morris would be a boon to the program and could be able to start logging minutes in serious competition immediately.
Then there’s right back and 2023 All-Budget Team selection Mo Farsi, who has featured in every match for the Crew this season just two years after playing in the CPL for Cavalry FC. The 23-year-old has become one of the league’s best values, earning just $74,735 in guaranteed compensation while also providing three assists in 13 appearances.
Given his play and his previous appearances for Canada’s national U-23 side, he’s drawn interest for John Herdman’s side. The Athletic has learned Farsi declined an invitation for Canada’s Nations League squad. Farsi is interested in possibly playing for Canada but is also eligible to play for Algeria.
Had Farsi committed to Canada, he might have been low down the team’s depth chart and only featured for limited minutes in the team’s Gold Cup squad. So it’s likely Farsi continues to practice patience, add different elements to his game before making a decision on his international future.
– Joshua Kloke
One good read
If you haven’t yet, make some time for Jeff Rueter’s excellent story about Javier Cano, an assistant coach at North Texas FC, FC Dallas’ MLS Next Pro side. On May 6th, Cano joined an increasingly-long list of people who have been present at a mass shooting in the United States, this time as he shopped at an outlet mall in suburban Dallas with his wife.
“Imagine you hear the shots,” Cano said. “Do you just run away? You don’t know what happened, how many people are outside. You know absolutely nothing. When you are hiding, you still listen (to) the shootings. You just need to wait there and pray and try to think it’s not coming to you.”
We generally keep this column focused on soccer, and we will continue to. But this story is a sober reminder of things that are much more important.
North Texas SC coach survives mass shooting: ‘You try to think it’s not coming to you’
St. Louis dominate SKC in inaugural match
St. Louis dismantled Sporting KC 4-0 in the first MLS matchup between the two cities. It wasn’t much of a contest.
Nico Gioacchini, a Kansas City native, particularly relished his starring role in the win.
“I came to this game to do what I do best and take no prisoners,” Gioacchini said after the match. “You know, they had a chance to take me on when I was young and they didn’t, so it felt pretty good.”
SKC head coach Peter Vermes admitted he was “vengeful” after SKC won their second game of the season last weekend. After this latest loss, SKC has the second-fewest points in MLS, ahead of only the LA Galaxy.
Cincy extends Shield lead in wild derby
A thrilling 3-2 win for FC Cincinnati over Columbus Crew in the Hell is Real derby extended its lead atop the Supporters’ Shield standings and means they are a perfect 8-0-0 at home to start 2023.
This is the same team, if you need reminding, that finished dead last in MLS each of their first three seasons in the league. It went from historically bad to legit contenders in less than 18 months. That’s not supposed to happen this fast even in a league with as much parity.
Columbus is a legitimately good team, but they’re not great; at least not yet. That makes them a whole lot of fun to watch, the sweet spot of watchability for a neutral because anything can happen.
- For better: Cucho Hernandez and Lucas Zelarayan are must-watch when they’re cooking, Wilfried Nancy’s dedication to playing beautiful from the back and freedom in attack.
- For worse: Defensive frailties, wide-open games and Wilfried Nancy’s dedication to playing beautiful even when it isn’t pragmatic.
Injuries pile up for New England
New England captain and talisman Carles Gil exited the Revs’ 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union in the 35th minute with an injury. New England was cagey with details after the match.
“We’ll know more after we get an MRI,” is all head coach Bruce Arena said.
Stalwart right back Brandon Bye left the game late injured as well. Colombia international attacker Dylan Borrero is already out injured for the season, starting center back Henry Kessler out another three months, DP forward Gustavo Bou has been limited to just six appearances and expected starting winger Nacho Gil is yet to make his 2023 debut.
“Tonight was a tough one,” DeJuan Jones said. “We always have that ‘next man up’ mentality but we are missing some key players now and the list is adding up.”
– Tom Bogert
One weird thing
There’s being proud of your slightly strange local cuisine, and then there’s this.
Enjoy your T-Ravs, St. Louis. You earned ’em this week.
(Lead image: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports; Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports)
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