Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Sometime after Adam Cristman attended an event last year for a charity that a friend was involved in, we checked the MLS Players Union’s list of 2010 salaries and were shocked that the 25-year old area native was only making $40,000. Forty thousand ain’t much to live on for a professional athlete with a family, but it’s a marked improvement over how things used to be just four years ago.

In 2007, Rod Dyachenko was being paid a $17,700 annual salary to play in the midfield for United. Current United defender Daniel Woolard was making $12,900 on the Chicago Fire – Woolard makes $50,000 this season for DCU.

A year later, Greg Janicki (another of my favorite United players that supporters slated unfairly) was earning $12,900 to play center half for D.C. United – he earns $45,000 this year for Vancouver.

The Players Union’s salary reporting is not ideal for cross-season comparisons, as each is a snapshot of rosters at different parts of various seasons – 2007’s reported salaries are from the end of August; 2008, early October; 2009, mid-March; 2010, mid-June; and 2011, the beginning of May.

But I like numbers and a breakdown of these amounts, for D.C. United, tells an interesting story.

Total salaries on United’s roster have fluctuated dramatically over the last five years, from a low of $2.3 million in 2007 to a high of $4.9 million the next year:

2007 = $2,276,390.00
2008 = $4,884,668.85
2009 = $3,233,676.28
2010 = $2,759,648.28
2011 = $3,322,518.57

These substantial fluctuations, however, mask the fact that a couple of high-value contracts drive the differentials. The massive change in salaries from 2007 to 2008 illustrates this point.

In 2007, when cumulative salaries were the lowest, no one on the team made more than $300k. Total team salary more than doubled in 2008, but virtually all of that increase can be attributed to the addition of Marcelo Gallardo (who made $1.9 million that season) and a large increase in Luciano Emilio’s salary. The $2.4 million increase in salary allocated to these two players was more than the entire team of 27 players made in 2007 ($2.3 million).

The decline in team salary from 2008 ($4.9 million) to 2009 ($3.2 million) corresponds to United taking Gallardo’s $1.9 million salary off the books. Similarly, the decline in team salary in 2010 ($2.8 million) can be attributed solely to a $500k decline in Emilio’s annual salary. As in 2007, in 2010, no one on United made more than $300k.

The total roster size has varied from 24 (2009) to 31 players (2008) and the club’s per-player average salaries have fluctuated significantly as well:

2007 = $84,310.74
2008 = $157,569.96
2009 = $134,736.51
2010 = $102,209.20
2011 = $114,569.61

But the small number of high value contracts drives the average – the highest per-player average salaries in 2008 were driven by Gallardo’s large salary. And when Gallardo was making millions, 11 players on United earned less than $20,000. That’s not a professional league.

To get a sense of how far the MLS has come, looking at what the bottom 15 guys on the roster make is instructive. Average salaries over the five years for the 15 guys with the lowest salaries:

2007 = $23,576.00
2008 = $19,635.24
2009 = $50,180.80
2010 = $54,354.16
2011 = $53,159.26

Now, fifty grand is not exactly lifestyles of the rich and famous, but it is a living wage.

And the real story, I think, told by the Union’s release of 2011 player salaries is the further confirmation of how far the league has come since David Beckham decided to move to the United States.

The average salary of D.C. United’s 15 lowest players fell slightly in 2011, but United’s roster size has steadily increased from 24 in 2009 to 27 in 2010 to 29 in 2011.

Limiting the analysis only to the bottom ten on the roster shows how much salaries have come up:

2007 = $18,990.00
2008 = $14,340.00
2009 = $35,395.80
2010 = $43,235.65
2011 = $45,354.51

And maintaining the high average amounts even with roster expansion is remarkable. This season, the league expanded by two teams and expanded rosters from 26 to 30 players – increasing the total number of players potentially under contract in the MLS by thirty percent in one season (from 416 to 540) – and yet none of those players made less than $32,600. That’s almost a three-fold increase from minimum salaries in 2007 despite the significant increase in employees.

United’s salary amounts are fairly representative of the MLS overall. For the Portland Timbers, their bottom 15 make on average $51,897.48 (DCU = $53,159.26) and their bottom 10 make $42,171.23 (DCU = $45,354.51). Vancouver ($44,083.61 and $38,440.01) and Seattle ($46,650.00 and $37,712.90) are lower, but still substantially above where salaries were in 2008, before they joined the league.

The increase in income for marginal players on MLS rosters creates a significant number of additional opportunities for talented American athletes to pursue careers in soccer and this expansion, in turn, creates a deeper talent pool that overseas leagues can tap into.

(As to MLS players going overseas, Josh Wicks – who made $42,000 for D.C. United in 2009 – had a tougher time of it in IFK Mariehamn's second league match, which ended in a 3-3 tie).

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