BODYARMOR Sports Drink today announced a multi-year partnership with Inter Miami CF, establishing the brand as the team’s “Official Sports Drink” starting this upcoming 2020 Major League Soccer season. Details about this new agreement can be found on Inter Miami Hoy by clicking on the link below or by going to intermiamihoy.com.
“BODYARMOR is America’s new leader in sports hydration and they are a great fit for Major League Soccer – the League for a new North America,” said MLS senior VP of Business Development Carter Ladd in statement.
“BODYARMOR believes in the future of Major League Soccer and is committed to joining us in our ongoing efforts to elevate soccer’s popularity to even higher levels in North America. BODYARMOR’s rise and momentum mirrors that of MLS, and we are excited to kick off the partnership at the Leagues Cup final and look forward to working with them for many years to come.”
A premium sports drink with potassium-packed electrolytes, antioxidants and coconut water made with no artificial flavors, sweeteners and no colors from artificial sources, BODYARMOR is now the No. 2 sports drink sold in US convenience stores nationwide and on track to eclipse $700 million in retail sales by the end of 2019.
With negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement (” CBA”) ongoing between the MLSPA and the league, it seems like a good time to compare salaries in MLS in relation to other North American sports leagues and, perhaps more relevant, to other football leagues in the world.
As a preface before going into this discussion, it must be pointed out that salaries have risen in MLS. Even statistics displayed on the MLSPA’s web site demonstrate that players’ salaries have consistently risen in the league over the past five years.
Before going further, it must be noted that the research upon which this piece is based first appeared in an article by Jared Young of American Soccer Analysis, who did extensive research and published a detailed study on this subject in Spring 2019.
With that as a backdrop, how do salaries in MLS look when compared with other professional athletes (non-soccer) in North America? What about how MLS players are paid relative to their football playing peers in Europe? These are the questions no doubt MLS players and their union should be examining.
Comparison To The Other Four Major North American Sports
In the four main North American professional sports (American/Canadian Football, Basketball, Hockey and Baseball) player compensation is tightly tied to league revenue. Essentially, the players unions are negotiating as to how much of that revenue the players should receive in the form of salaries.
Note: A discussion of the data sources and compilation decisions is located after the conclusion.
Using data from 2017, it was revealed that MLS spent $271 million on player compensation that year, a figure that includes net income via transfer fees, and had an estimated revenue of $963 million. Thus, net player spending was 28% of revenue in 2017.
The four major domestic leagues range between 37% and 46% using the data compiled, 9% to 18% higher than in MLS. If MLS players were paid between 37% and 46% of league revenue, this would mean $87 million to $174 million in higher compensation, or $150,000 to $300,000 more per player in order to approach what their fellow athletes earn in competing domestic sports.
No one, and certainly not the MLS Players Association, is arguing for such an increase. For one things, despite experiencing rapid expansion over the last few years, MLS will field 26 teams in 2020. That number will increase to 30 by 2022. Moreover, MLS was only began playing in 1996 and is still considered a young league. Owner/operators are still investing in infrastructure, with shiny new training centres, academies, and soccer specific stadiums. At the end of the day, to the defense of the owners, there is only so much revenue to spend. The league also is still growing fans and has a lower media rights deals than the other major sports. Over time, these factors will be less of an impediment to providing players with a higher percentage of league revenue in the form of salaries.
Comparison To The Other Major Football Leagues
Taking a look at where MLS stands relative to other football leagues in terms of revenue, the numbers are more encouraging.
As of 2017, MLS finds itself ranked sixth in the survey of fourteen major football leagues. In fact, MLS sits comfortably just behind the “Big Five” leagues: The Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1, and barely behind the Brasilierão. That a league that is about to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary season has already climbed inside the top ten best revenue generating leagues is certainly a credit to its owner/investors and the league’s management.
Despite its high rank in revenue compared to the world’s biggest football leagues, a comparison of the ratio of salaries to revenue demonstrates that MLS ranks lower than other leagues.
The above chart shows that other leagues have a range of 52 % to 72% of revenue going into salaries.
As shown in the above graphic, the English Championship, the second tier of English football, showed a figure of close to 99% of revenue being spent on player compensation. The most logical explanation for this extreme figure is the impact that promotion and relegation have on the Championship, where the financial benefits of being promoted to the Premier League give clubs an incentive to spend greatly on players’ wages in order to give themselves the best chance at promotion. It also could demonstrate why financial problems have often been associated with the lower divisions.
It must be pointed out that the other top leagues do not have salary cap restrictions, beyond rules imposed by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play, which was designed to improve the overall financial health of European club football. Thus, there is an open competitive market to secure the services of the top players, resulting in more spending on wages.
Using the 2017 figures, the MLS ratio of salaries as a percentage of revenue is 28%. Factors that explain this include the single-entity structure of the league, which allows the league to dicate what can be spent on players. In MLS, a player’s contract is entered into between the player and the league, rather than with a particular club. Another factor is the lack of promotion and relegation in US and Canadian soccer, which tends to lessen insecurity around future revenue, and therefore can limit a feeling that there is a need to spend in the short term in order to reap future financial benefits. Another relevant factor is the fact that soccer is not the primary sport in North America, as it is in the other countries where the most profitable leagues are located. The pressure to succeed is simply greater where soccer is the top sport, therefore putting pressure on owners to spend to win.
The compensation to revenue data revealed that MLS’ level of 28% is very close to that of the J League in Japan. The J League has estimated revenues of $650 million in 2017 combined with player expenses of $175 million, resulting in a ratio of 27%. One commonality is that football is also not the top sport in Japan.
Again, the argument that the MLS owner-investors are still investing in infrastructure beyond player salaries is a viable argument given the relatively early stages of the league.
In comparison to the top leagues, MLS players compensation will need continued increases to close the gap. This is one of the main issues for the MLSPA in the next CBA.
Using data from Forbes, for the two years available prior to the current CBA, the league the average was 19%, and since the 2015 CBA was put in place the average has been 25%. It seems reasonable to assume the players should get at least an increase of 6% again, which would put them in the low 30% range or perhaps a little higher.
MLS will soon achieve the $1 billion in revenue milestone. For most other sports leagues that would mean the players are taking roughly $500 million, yet MLS players are barely receiving half of that amount. That may be a necessity for the owners at this relatively early stage of the league, but at some point it seems likely the league could run out of fans willing to pay higher prices to watch a local soccer team. It is easier than ever for fans to watch any number of the best leagues right from their mobile devices, not only their living rooms. Soccer is a world sport and MLS’ real competition is not the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB, but rather the Premier League, La Liga, etc. To achieve the stated goal of becoming one of the top leagues, MLS owners will need to compete with the leagues that are already there. That is why the subject of salaries is a critical issue in the current CBA negotiations.
Notes on the data sources
For MLS information, the Major League Soccer Players Union publicly releases player salaries, but the league also invests in players by way of transfer fees. While these fees are typically not released, transfermarkt.com tracks such fees paid to the extent possible. To attain net wages spent on players, the net transfer fees paid/received in each season was added/subtracted from the total amount of compensation paid to the players.
Revenues were compiled from Forbes annual publications, the best consistent source of these estimates. There is one key issue in the case of Major League Soccer, due to the way the league is structured. While Forbes’ estimates revolve around net team revenues, a good portion of the league revenues never make it to the teams. The media rights agreements are the most important example. Those revenues go to fund the player salaries, which the league funds within a certain budget. So additional research and assumptions needed to be made to get a complete picture of MLS.
These estimates include the television deals, the agreement with Adidas and their other top three league level sponsorship deals. In 2017 these league level agreements reached an estimated total of $150 million, that was added to the Forbes team level estimates for revenue. Similar estimates were made for all of the years in the trend graph that dated back until 2007, the first year that Forbes estimated MLS team revenues. No such additions were made to the other American sports leagues.
For the European soccer leagues Deloitte produces a report that publishes the wages including net transfer fees and revenues for each league. For the data from Brazil a research paper was used.
The American sports leagues analysis used more diverse sources. The American leagues have contractual levels of wage to revenue ratios but those are difficult to match with publicly available data. For example, NHL player wages are tied as precisely as possible to a 50% target, but the reality can often appear different. Still we can use these targets as context to determine if the data available is reasonable. The NFL salaries were taken from here, the MLB from here, the NBA from here, and the NHL from here. From a revenue perspective, all of the data was taken from Forbes and aligned with the season starting in 2017. Not all of the leagues have 2018 data yet, so that is the last point of comparison.
The other leagues either contractually or publicly target a 50% wage to revenue ratio so the discrepancy in this data can come down to a few more factors: 1) Forbes estimates are systematically too high; 2) Some revenues that Forbes includes are not included by the leagues in the official calculation, and 3) There are ancillary expenses, like contract insurance, that the leagues include as wage expenses that publicly available salary databases do not.
Part I: The biggest thing that will happen this off-season
Right now, fans of MLS clubs are getting ready for the coming season, the league’s 25th anniversary year. New teams like Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC are now less than 60 days away from their first real matches. The primary MLS transfer window opens on February 12th, and the European winter transfer window is now open and runs until January 31st in the UK, Spain, France, Italy and Germany, among other countries. There will be countless discussions about player signings and trades, and MLS will have its Superdraft along with other roster management as teams try to gear up for next season.
That said, the biggest story of this MLS off-season is one that soccer fans in the US and Canada are probably not paying attention to: the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the MLSPA (the players union) and the league.
The CBA affects every player from every team in MLS. On January 31, the league’s existing collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between MLS and the MLS Players Association will expire. The goal of course is to come to agreement on a new deal. In fact, both sides have been engaged in negotiations for months already. As with any negotiations between a union and management, if an agreement can’t be struck before the start of the season, the league faces the prospect of a work stoppage.
The fallout from whatever the new CBA looks like will have lasting implications for the league.
Back on December 5th, MLS commissioner Don Garber spoke to reporters following the third and final MLS Board of Governors meeting. As was the case at the SoccerEx USA 2019 Conference I attended in late November, the commissioner was questioned about the status of the negotiations.
Garber has declined to get into any specifics regarding CBA negotiations between the league and the MLS Players Association. He did, however, confirm on both occasions that the sides are currently engaged in talks and were meeting. Regarding the nature of those discussions, here’s what he had to say:
“You know, I think there’s a desire from both parties to reach an agreement. I don’t think any league or players’ union goes into a negotiation without the hope and the expectation that you’re going to reach a deal and then start the season on time. All CBA negotiations are difficult, but with us, it’s not about taking things away, it’s how do we manage collectively as a league and as a player group to be able to provide more resources in a wide variety of areas that are manageable for ownership and acceptable to the players. I’ve been through it many times before. … It’s not the most fun part of the job, but I’ve got hope and confidence that we’ll be able to reach a new deal.”
What’s The Backdrop To The Discussions?
The negotiations for a new CBA are also set against the backdrop of the exponential growth MLS has experienced since the the last CBA was executed in 2015. At that time, the league had 20 teams. MLS will begin next season with 26, with another four (Austin, Charlotte, Sacramento and Saint Louis) set to join in the following two years. MLS expansion fees are now at least $200 million. Investor/Owners are making sizable commitments to build new soccer-specific stadiums. Off the field, they are also spending large sums to build state-of-the-art training facilities. Player salaries have also risen, in part due to the implementation of targeted allocation money (“TAM”) having the effect of increasing the salary budget for each team by $4 million a year. These factors have led to the average MLS team being worth around $313 million according to Forbes, an increase of 30 % since 2017 alone.
The league now has 24 partners, and signed new deals in 2019 with Captain Morgan, Headspace and MGM Resorts International. In addition, while the next CBA is in effect, MLS will be approving a new media rights deal that is expected to be worth substantially more than what the league recrives from its existing media rights partners. This commercial growth is a factor in the CBA negotiations – the MLSPA is given full transparency into the league’s business deals. “We have made detailed proposals to the league on how to deal with that [media rights] issue,” said MLSPA executive director Bob Foose.
With the league in growth mode, a failure to agree to a new CBA could result in a work stoppage. This scenario is one which both sides wish to avoid.
Here are the main issues for the league and its players to decide.
Issues For MLSPA
The core issues for the players association heading into the 2020 season include higher wages for players, a reworking of the current free agency system that creates a more open market free agency system consistent with other North American professional sports leagues, and more charter flights for teams. The MLSPA believes that the benefits of the league’s growth and the increased investment should naturally flow in part to the players.
Take the aforementioned media rights deal for example. The existing contracts that MLS has with its national broadcast partners ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision bring MLS $90 million a year. The current deal will expire at the end of 2022, meaning a new media rights deal will be approved in the middle of any new CBA. It is expected that the next media rights deal for the 2023 season will be worth significantly more. This is a complicated topic to factor into a new CBA, but something the union is eager to do.
The issue also came up at the last negotions prior to the current CBA. Simply stated, the union seeks more free agency. In the 2015 negotiations, the players won a small amount of free agency, and as a result, under the current CBA, players who are at least 28 years old and who have played in the league at least eight years can be free agents when their contracts expire. They can also receive raises of only between 15% and 25%, depending on their salary level.
Under the current free agency rules, many players in MLS never qualify for free agency. The union wants both the age and time of service requirements to be lowered and wants the cap on salary increases removed or at least raised considerably.
Salary Budget Rules
Anyone who has studied the salary budget rules would likely agree that they are complex; one practically needs a law degree to decipher them. The MLSPA aims to have MLS’ salary budget rules simplified.
While the owners have increased player salaries during the existing CBA, which is viewed by the union as a positive, the MLSPA has always been troubled by the introduction of targeted allocation money (“TAM”) in 2015.
Indeed, it seems that TAM may be the biggest issue, and perhaps the hardest one to agree on, in the current contract negotiations. This type of allocation money is given by the league to clubs and can only be used to help cover salaries for players making between $530,000 and $1.5 million. As a result, using TAM cannot be used for the majority of MLS players, who are categorised by MLS’ salary budget rules into senior, supplemental and reserve roster ‘slots’ that have specific limits on what those players can make. According to salary data made available by the MLSPA, 37.4% of the players make annual salaries under $100,000.
The union has a completely negative view of TAM and wants the league to allow its teams greater autonomy in terms of how they build their rosters, rather than have rules dictated by league headquarters. “We should stop being a league where you design a competitive football league in a boardroom. It should be done by the people who know the game,” said Foose.
”The impact of TAM, a made-up set of restrictions done from a central office to try and dictate to all of our franchises how they build their rosters, in my estimation didn’t really add anything to this league,” Foose said. ”And it’s certainly frustrated and angered both the players association and our players.”
“In the simplest terms, TAM is silly. It’s not necessary to try and tell our front offices how to sign players; they’re perfectly capable of doing that themselves. And frankly, if they’re not, then they should suffer the consequences, and that’s the kind of accountability that we want to see happen.”
Bob Foose, Executive Director, MLSPA
The union’s argument is that simplifying the rules would lead to more of a meritocracy: players’ earnings would be a reflection of how they have performed on the pitch.
The union seeks increased spending on charter flights. At present, the vast majority of teams fly commercially, which can lead to long travel days, especially when teams are flying through multiple time zones. Teams are allowed only four discretionary charter flights a year, but there is no mandate that they have to use them. Take one case as an example:
The Philadelphia Union’s journey back and forth from Vancouver was an odyssey that lasted all day Thursday and Sunday. The Union took 10 hours to get out to Vancouver through commercial flights, while they woke up at 4:45 a.m. Pacific Time on Sunday to start a journey back to Philadelphia, via Toronto, that didn’t bring the team back home until 8 p.m. Eastern Time.
Alejandro Bedoya, who is captain and a winger on the Philadelphia Union, has been one of the players who has spoken out about the lack of charter flights in the league. Bedoya recalled how his team didn’t use a single charter flight during the regular season. According to the players association, at the end of 2018, only about half of the available charter flights were used.
Professional athletes place rigorous demands on their bodies. Being stuffed into an economy seat on a long flight can hamper a player’s physical recovery. With MLS spanning the continent across two countries, travel conditions can also increase the risk of a player being more susceptible to injury. Moreover, frequent flight delays and cancellations disrupt both training and post-game recovery.
“We’re at a time where I think we need to take the training wheels off,” Bedoya said. “The league has moved on so far.”
Bedoya said the charter flight issue is one he’s going to voice his opinion on. “I’m going to be a part of it,” Bedoya said. “I’m going to voice my opinions and what I think. We’re united. We’re having meetings here and there so that’s good. For me, this is one of the crucial things we need to get to the next level.”
The players feel very strongly about this issue. It’s difficult to imagine this being a “hill to die on” issue for the MLSPA, but Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said, “This is one piece of the pie for us, a very important piece, a commonsense piece, but one that we’re taking very seriously.”
“It’s unfortunate that this is discussed in a CBA context, because this isn’t a CBA issue,” Bob Foose said. “It isn’t in other sports and shouldn’t be in ours. It is an infrastructure issue and is tied to player performance.”
MLSPA Executive Director Bob Foose delivered an end-of-the-season video message on November 9, 2019. He thanked fans for their support and talked about the coming off-season, highlighting the importance of the collective bargaining agreement negotiations with MLS and explaining players’ priorities. He said he hoped that a work stoppage would not happen, but left that as a possibility.
Issues For MLS
From the league’s perspective, their primary objective is a familiar one: a level of cost certainty as it pertains to player expenses. This is something the league has effectively managed through it single-entity limited liability company structure, whereby player contracts are actually entered into between the player and the league rather than with an individual club. Furthermore, in most instances teams retain the MLS rights of players even after that player has been transferred or his contract has expired.
In addition to maintaining cost certainty with respect to player expenses, MLS also wants control over where that money goes. The introduction of TAM is evidence of this, whereby teams may spend more on players only within a specific salary range. The league maintains TAM allows teams to attract new and retain current players. They feel that TAM has been successful, and MLS wants to retain that discretionary control as to where investments are made. Whether the league could have gotten to where it is without TAM is unknown, and the league doesn’t sound as if it is ready to find out.
In December 2017, Major League Soccer announced a substantial increase in TAM, touting the influx of millions of dollars into the league’s roster spending. What’s noteworthy is that the increase was unanimously approved by the MLS Board of Governors. There is genuine debate about whether a divide is growing between owners who want to increase spending and those who want to slow down. Owners now entering the league are doing so by undertaking a considerable investment – the Charlotte bid, headed by Carolina Panthers owner and billionaire David Tepper, paid a reported $325 million entry fee, by far the most of any team in league history. Sacramento paid $200 million. This is a considerable risk and in addition to the expansion fee itself come salaries and hundreds of millions to build a training facility and stadium. Miami’s planned Freedom Park and Soccer Village will be a billion dollar investment, on top of the millions being spent on its training facility and temporary stadium thirty-five miles to the north in Fort Lauderdale.
With owners committing what can be a half a billion dollars or more before their team so much as kicks a ball, there is the expectation of seeing a return on that investment, and some believe the league must increase expenditures in its on-field product in order to drive higher revenues. But other owners are more cautious – they believe there is no proof higher spending will lead to those higher revenues. Instead, these owners would prefer to pursue “strategic growth.” What the eventual CBA looks like will tell us something about which group of owners has more influence.
“There are a variety of different areas that will be the subject of discussion as to where we should be making investments, whether it’s the senior team, whether it’s player development, whether it’s on other benefits,” MLS president and deputy commissioner Marc Abbott told ESPN. “And in the CBA what we’re seeking to do is within the limits of what we’re able to spend that we ensure that we’re allocating those expenditures in the areas that are most likely to have the most impact.”
The charter flight issue comes down to money. Don Garber has previously indicated there is room for negotiation in this area. It won’t come cheap. The biggest reason why MLS doesn’t use more charter flights comes down to cost. It has been estimated that it would cost $20 million per year for the league, and roughly $1 million per team. The cost of flying an entire team on a charter flight, plus the price of fuel, can quickly add up. Each flight could cost a team upwards of $150,000 per charter.
Will an agreement be reached or will there be a work stoppage?
Historically, the union and the league have been able to avoid a work stoppage, although the last time Major League Soccer negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with its union, both sides braced for a work stoppage just 72 hours before the 2015 season was scheduled to begin. Professional mediators were also needed to help the two sides hash out an agreement. The league wouldn’t budge from its final offer, one the union insisted it would not accept. The players voted against the offer and a strike appeared imminent. It was averted only because the union surrendered.
“The league isn’t seeking to have a work stoppage, and based on the discussions we’ve been having with the union, we don’t think they are either,” said Mark Abbott. “I think both we and the union are working in good faith to reach an agreement to extend the CBA. That being said, we certainly recognize that you can’t eliminate entirely the possibility of work stoppage and we’ve been working with our teams over the course of the last year to ensure that they’re prepared and that we’re prepared in case that happened. Again, it’s not something that we’re seeking.”
”We and our players are focused on doing everything possible to reach an agreement that’ll make sense for ownership and makes sense for the players,” Garber told The Associated Press in November.
Despite the difficult CBA negotiations, the MLSPA is confident an agreement will be reached. There are 130 players now a part of the MLSPA, representing about 20% of the league.
The MLS Players Association leadership insists players are serious and ready to strike if demands aren’t met.
“We’ve been talking about and preparing for work stoppage for two and a half years now,” Foose said. “At this point, talking about the details of what that would look like and how we would proceed, and how we would all work together, the players are very serious when they say they’re ready to do what’s best for the full player pool and the future of the [players’ association] and the league.”
Resolving or at least improving the charter flights situation for players is but one piece of a larger equation, according to the MLSPA, and there will not be an agreement if other requests by the union are shoved aside.
A strike however obviously would harm the players more than owners. After all, MLS’ billionaire owners can withstand losing revenue to a much greater degree than players can cope with missing paychecks. According to the latest data available (2018) the MLSPA has total assets of $10.5 million, a figure considered low in comparison to the other major North American sports reflection of not only how relatively young the union is. Compared that figure to the National Basketball Players Association, which has total assets of more than $200 million.
If there was a work stoppage, that $10.5 million would disappear pretty quickly. Foose pointed out that union funds are not the only resource players can tap into should there be a work stoppage. He says the players have been preparing on their own as well. “We obviously don’t have the luxury that some of the other [players’ associations] have with an extra zero in [their] resources,” Foose told ESPN. “But we certainly have plenty of money to do what needs to be done on the [players’ association] side of things.”
The union has also had multiple conversations with other major sports leagues on a variety of topics to help prepare for this round of negotiations.
Foose had stated previously that the league has been fully transparent in terms of its financials at the league, team and SUM [Soccer United Marketing] level. He has no doubt that MLS is leveling with the union on this topic. He added, “We also have a common understanding with them on the cost of various proposals, so we’re clear on what the changes that we’re seeking are going to cost.”
Despite the very clear issues and differences, it is in both sides’ best interest to find workable solutions and a new CBA each side can live with. “We understand exactly where the business is, and I think we have a very good feel for where it’s going,” Foose said. “And we have no incentive to damage that.” With a 25th anniversary season approaching, there’s a lot at stake.
What’s the timeline?
The ideal time to reach agreement on a new CBA is this month.
Teams are putting their rosters together and training camps are opening soon. Sporting Directors and GMs need to know if there will be roster rules changes that will affect how they assemble their teams.
The Concacaf Champions League round of 16 begins on February 18-19, and the MLS teams competing in that tournament (Atlanta United, Los Angeles Football Club, New York City FC, Seattle Sounders, and the Montréal Impact) could potentially have their games affected.
The hard deadline for a new CBA is the start of the MLS season, which will take place on the weekend of February 29-March 1st.
“If things don’t move more quickly and [the league] takes the same approach that was taken the last time through, the odds of a stoppage skyrocket, so hopefully that won’t be the case,” says Foose. “A strategy to run out the clock is not going to be looked upon favourably by the player pool or the [players’ association].”
What happens now?
Both sides are certainly being very hush about progress. The issues and the parties’ respective positions on them have been laid out. According to reports there have been proposals exchanged.
With January here, it’s time to get serious. Before a ball is even kicked, the next few weeks could be the most important ones of 2020.
With the Expansion Draft in the rearview mirror and every MLS team announcing its roster moves this week, we can now take stock on where all 26 MLS teams stand heading into the winter.
Bradley Wright-Phillips, Miguel Ibarra and Roman Torres are just some of the players in search of new clubs next season after leaving their MLS clubs this winter.
Some players have already made big offseason moves, including Luis Robles moving to Inter Miami, Sacha Kljestan returning home to join the LA Galaxy, and Brooks Lennon heading to Atlanta United to name a few.
We have also seen some big-name veterans signing new deals with their long-time clubs, including Diego Valeri in Portland and Michael Bradley with Toronto FC.
Among the most recent moves were, the New England Revolution signed Polish striker Adam Buksa as a new designated player, while the Columbus Crew landed their playmaker in Argentine playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and the Vancouver Whitecaps added a top striker in Lucas Cavallini.
With a busy offseason continuing to push forward this week, here’s an updated look at every MLS team’s current roster heading into 2020, and every player currently under contract for the upcoming season.
Rumours of his hiring had been circulating for days and the club made an official announcement via its Twitter account at 11:01 a.m. EST morning.
Alonso arrives in Vice City with an already impressive list of trophies and accomplishments which he will certainly be looking to add to with the Rosanegro
For starters, Alonso is the only person to have coached two different teams to Concacaf titles and he’s now the second coach in MLS to have won that tournament before.
“In Diego we found a manager that fits our culture and has a strong desire to build a winning club for our fans. He brings a lot of experience and championship-winning mentality as we begin our drive to be among the best clubs in the Americas,” Inter Miami sporting director Paul McDonough said. “We have big aspirations for our club and believe Diego has the right drive, passion and leadership to accomplish our goals.”
Clubs approach to its USL Championship club seen as a model
MIAMI, Fla. (December 18, 2019) —
Real Monarchs SLC, the second team of MLS club Real Salt Lake, recently won the USL Championship with an impressive 3-1 away victory over Louisville City FC. That result was unexpected, both because of Louisville’s impressive record at home and the fact that they were the two-time defending champions of the USL Championship. They are also one of the most successful independent teams in the USL Championship, with highly engaged fans, active community involvement and a metro government that fully supports the club. In all respects, Louisville has been a model market and team for USL.
By way of a little further background, the USL is comprised both of independent clubs and clubs owned by or affiliated with MLS clubs. The future of the so-called “MLS2” sides in the USL Championship, which constitutes the second division of US Soccer, is currently very much unclear.
The Monarchs’ title took place just a few months after a report circulated that the USL was looking into repositioning all of the MLS-affiliated clubs (colloquially known as “2” teams) out of the Championship and into USL League One, the third division of US Soccer, as soon as 2021. Indeed, the two newest MLS2 teams for next season, New England Revolution 2 and Inter Miami CF 2, will be starting play in USL One.
One of the biggest factors where the disparity between MLS2 teams and independent clubs is on full display is match attendance. Nine of the 10 lowest-drawing sides are MLS-owned. When New York Red Bulls II hosted fellow playoff contender Saint Louis FC in early August, the announced attendance was just 756 fans, which was not far off their season average of 852. The Monarchs’ relatively low 1,983 fans per game made them the second-highest drawing affiliate club (28th in the USL Championship).
Putting attendance aside, naturally, independent clubs organise themselves somewhat differently from MLS owned clubs. But even within the category of MLS2 clubs, there are different philosophies. The Real Salt Lake approach its MLS2 team exhibits more of a hybrid approach. What follows is a discussion of their approach.
The Real Salt Lake Approach To The MLS2 Team
The approach Real Salt Lake takes with its MLS2 side, Real Monarchs could be considered a model of how to organise an MLS2 side, and a “best case” scenario for other MLS2 clubs to borrow from.
The main differentiator is that the first and second teams work in tandem with one another, with plenty of cohesion in training and in style. At other clubs, the MLS and USL sides often train at separate times. Not so in Salt Lake City. By working together every day and having greater movement of players between the two sides, the club ensures that its players have a more cohesive understanding of Real Salt Lake’s philosophy on the pitch at all levels. Midfielder Justin Portillo was a prime example of this, making the RSL matchday roster for 19 matches and the Monarchs’ squad on 16 occasions during the 2019 season.
The results on the pitch suggest that this type of approach to training and having players who can rotate between the MLS and USL sides benefits both squads. Case in point: In MLS, Real Salt Lake finished third in the Western Conference despite firing their coach and their general manager midseason, and they won their first playoff match, against Portland. One rung below in the USL Championship, the Monarchs finished fourth in the conference, then beat top-seed Phoenix Rising, El Paso and then Louisville City to take the title.
While most affiliates have underwhelmed by second-division standards, the Monarchs are among the league’s best clubs — 2 team or otherwise.
“We’re a fully professional second division team,” RSL assistant GM Dan Egner said in an interview before the USL Championship match. Egner serves as the general manager of the USL side. “We have 30 guys on our MLS roster and we have 20 guys on our USL roster. We view that as having one roster of 50 guys — I think that’s a little different than how a lot of people look at it. When that report came out, it was concerning because we think being in the Championship is of the utmost importance for what we’re trying to do. It’s not to say that League One can’t get there; we just don’t feel that it’s there right now. We’re extremely happy with what the Championship provides us.”
Secondly, Real Salt Lake sees Real Monarchs as being a place to develop promising players and to obtain a benefit if or when those players are later transferred. An example of this also happened this last season. Stanley Okumu, a 21-year old centre back who had signed with the Monarchs midway through the 2018 season, was really finding his form in 2019 and was gaining key minutes in the starting eleven for the Monarchs.
Okumu’s good form caught the attention of the selectors of his national team, and he was called up to the Kenya roster for the 2019 African Cup of Nations. He started all three group-stage matches in a group that featured eventual champions Algeria and tournament favourites Senegal. His performance did not go unnoticed. In late August, Okumu secured a transfer to Swedish Allsvenskan side IF Elfsborg. Real Monarchs collected a $200,000 fee as part of the transaction, which was a nice profit — Real Salt Lake had signed him in 2018 on a free transfer from NPSL club AFC Ann Arbor. The club saw the deal as a validation of their ability to develop promising players — even those who do not come through the RSL Academy.
Real Salt Lake could have just moved Okumu up to the first team, since it was clear he was capable of playing at a higher level than the USL Championship. But RSL was already strong at the centre back position, with four capable players on the senior team: Homegrown former U.S. youth international Justen Glad, former Queens Park Rangers anchor Nedum Onuoha, Marcelo Silva and homegrown Erik Holt.
It was at this point that the closeness of the MLS and USL technical staffs resulted in a decision that benefitted both Okumu as well as Real Salt Lake. “After AFCON, we talked to the first-team coaching staff about where we saw Stanley falling in the next six months, even 18 months,” Egner said. “Realistically, his best-case scenario had him as the MLS team’s third centre back. Is that good for Stanley financially? Obviously, an MLS deal is better than his Monarchs’ (deal). But the playing time doesn’t really change because, inevitably, you’re playing the same USL games (on loan from the MLS side). If we could move him somewhere else, that’s going to benefit him and us. He performed very well at AFCON — he was arguably Kenya’s best player, and they were in the toughest group. When the Sweden move became tangible, we acted on it. For us, that move and the news that it made, and the (club) record (transfer fee), the history that it made was more significant for us than him becoming our third centre back.”
A third different way of managing is that the USL Monarchs deploy academy graduates alongside more experienced players in the starting lineup. This is something not widely done on MLS2 sides. After Okumu left for Sweden, homegrown defender Erik Holt made the most of his opportunities, scoring the conference-clinching goal against El Paso Locomotive. Next to him were a pair of USL veterans: 27-year-old Konrad Plewa (formerly of Red Bulls II and Saint Louis FC) and 28-year-old Kalen Ryden (Oklahoma City Energy and the NASL’s Jacksonville Armada).
Fourth, Real Salt Lake and Monarchs work together when an MLS veteran needs playing time to regain form and view it as an opportunity for the younger players on the USL side to interact and see how the older veteran structures his training and carries himself as a professional footballer. This past season, veteran RSL midfielder Luke Mulholland is an example. At 31, he’s the team’s eldest field player by a comfortable margin.
“Naturally, I would have preferred to play a lot of games with the first team,” Mulholland said. “Opportunities were very slim. We’re only happy when you’re playing, you know. It’s an RSL family all under one roof, so I have the ability to make the first team roster one week and drop down to play a game with the Monarchs in the next. I’m in a good position to get some games under my belt and get back into a rhythm of grinding for 90 minutes. That’s what I missed the most.” Mulholland not only regained form but was a key contributor for the Monarchs. He played 12 games for the Monarchs including their postseason run. Their record: 11 wins, one draw, zero defeats. He put in a man-of-the-match-caliber performance in Louisville.
The 31-year-old Englishman had been a fixture in Major League Soccer over the past few years, having made 123 MLS appearances, 97 of them starts. However, the midfielder only had two first team appearances in 2018, and it was Mulholland himself who asked to be placed on the Monarchs. The USL side had the room and since Mulholland would not be preventing a younger player at that position from getting playing time, they agreed. It paid dividends for the Real Monarchs. “I constantly kept asking my coaching staff [to play with the Monarchs],” said Mulholland. “The only way I can help the first team is if I can gain some form and rhythm with the Monarchs so every three weeks or so I’d ask to go down and play for them. And then, I just started to get in a good rhythm with the Monarchs, so it felt great. It always feels good to get 90 minutes under your belt and continuously playing week-in, week-out.” Mulholland was a key contributor for the Monarchs in the USL Championship Playoffs, playing all but 15 minutes as the side navigated its way past Orange County SC, Regular Season Title-Winner Phoenix Rising FC and El Paso Locomotive FC to earn a place in the final.
Fifth, the Monarchs’ approach is to split the minutes between veterans and academy graduates. MLS2 sides have a reputation for sacrificing quality in order to develop younger talent, and the Monarchs’ approach is a contrasting one. In their estimation, splitting the minutes can help accomplish quicker development. They believe it is the best of both philosophies in the USL.
“I don’t say this in a negative way, but we don’t really compare ourselves to other 2 clubs because we feel we’re the only MLS club taking this approach,” Egner said. “That’s not to say that anyone’s approach is right or wrong, but we’re the only one taking the approach that we are. It’s not really fair for us to compare ourselves to them, because they have different motives, a different model. When it comes to independent clubs, we want to beat them. For us, the measuring stick is the independent clubs and how our guys stack up to them. In the last few years, we’re right up there with them.”
Real Monarch players are made aware right off the bat that the club has three objectives, each with equal importance. The first is to help the players get to the first team. The second, should a player not make the MLS roster, is to help them earn another professional contract in a good situation. The third is to win — no matter the opponent or setting.
The first point of the club’s vision shows that while they take a balanced approach, is doesn’t come at the expense of the developmental component. Even in this title-winning season, homegrown players like Holt, U.S. U-20 goalkeeper David Ochoa, and 22-year-old striker Douglas Martínez, an international for Honduras, all played leading roles. Competing against Championship opponents has helped all three to grow in 2019, and each could take on a key role for RSL in the future.
Success is usually emulated, so if Real Monarchs can continue to achieve in the USL Championship, expect more MLS clubs to take notice and set up their MLS2 sides in similar fashion, whether those sides ultimately reside in the second or third division.
(Cover Photo: David R. Lutman/Special To Courier Journal)