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2021 MLS player salaries revealed: Toronto FC could have the highest payroll

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Taking a look at some of the most notable aspects of this year’s MLS Salary Guide as released by the MLSPA.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Please Note: All money will be referred to in US Dollars in this article, for the sake of simplicity.

Oh it’s Christmas time again... sorry MLS Salary Guide time! Every year (other than last season as a result of the obstacles created by the global pandemic), the MLS Players Association releases a report on the base salary and guaranteed compensation of every player in the league. This is an overview of some of the main pointers to take away from this year’s salary guide, from the perspective of a Toronto FC fan.

Keep in mind that this list is only accurate up to April 15, 2021—which means that players like Dom Dwyer and Yeferson Soteldo are not included on the list. Given TFC’s high team salary (as you’ll see later in the article), the signing of these two individuals could easily put us into the highest salaried team in the league.

Highest Paid Players

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Seattle Sounders FC

In terms of the highest paid players in the league, Carlos Vela tops the list with guaranteed compensation (what the list below is ranked by) making $6.3 million a year, while Chicharito (Javier Hernandez) makes six million a year. If you look at base salary, Hernandez actually tops the list as his base salary is six million a year while Carlos Vela’s is $4.5 million.

Take note that compared to previous years, some of these players are actually making less money than people who have topped the list in the past. For example, in the 2019 MLS Salary guide, Zlatan Ibrahimović made $7.2 million a year which is a significant sum more than Vela’s amount. The average guaranteed compensation of the top 10 players in 2019 is $5.2 million annually, while in 2021 it is $4.3 million. This represents a 21 per cent drop in the pay of the 10 highest-paid players in the league. Hopefully they’ll still be able to afford rent.

Coming back to my previous point, I believe a large part of the reason why these numbers have dropped is because MLS teams are a stronger approach towards signing younger players, as well as solid designated players who are not “big name” players.

For example, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Wayne Rooney bring a lot more fans just based on their brand than Franco Jara does, and they’re paid as such. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, I think it just demonstrates that the league is evolving as it has developed more of a brand and a reputation as being an improved league, and can now afford to sign more players without worrying too much about how many fans they will bring to a game.

Team Payrolls

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Toronto FC

Inter Miami CF tops the list with the highest team payroll in the league at $17.8 million a year.

Toronto FC is in a close second, spending $17 million a year on their team’s payroll, however, given that this salary guide is only up to date as of April 15, 2021, it will not include contracts like Dwyer or Soteldo, meaning that Toronto FC could have a significantly higher team payroll than Miami’s, making them perhaps have the highest payroll in the league.

The third highest payroll in the league is LA Galaxy at $16.8 million annually.

On the other hand, the lowest payroll is Vancouver Whitecaps with an $8.7 million yearly team payroll, while expansion side Austn FC are in second with a $9.1 million annual team payroll. This is kind of interesting given they haven’t appeared to be too “cheap” when making their off season acquisitions, while Nashville appeared to have more fiscal constraint since they began play last year, and yet they’re in the middle of the pack with team salaries.

The third lowest team payroll is the Philadelphia Union at $9.3 million annually, which means that they’ve gotten very good value for money out of their young academy prospects: paying them limited salaries and selling them on (like Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie) for hefty profits.

One could argue that Philadelphia had the best dollar-value for quality in their team last season, and the CCL semifinalists will be looking to continue that this season.

An overview of how salaries have changed in MLS

Every time the MLSPA releases their salary guide, they tend to release some introductory statistics to show you how much standards are improving salary-wise for MLS athletes. It’s largely a piece to demonstrate the reason for having a union for MLS players.

One of the most contentious statistics they mention is that the 2016 Senior roster base salary for non-DPs was $191 505, while in 2021 it is $398 725. While this is a fact, it is also a good demonstration of how it is easy to mislead with facts. In late 2016, MLS created a new form of allocation money, called targeted allocation money (TAM). Every MLS player has a salary cap impact based on their acquisition costs and salary. This form of allocation money is a made up currency only used in MLS that can allow teams to buy down the salary cap impact of their players — but TAM explicitly could only be used to buy down the cap hit of players above the maximum salary budget charge (currently at $612 500).

Prior to addition of TAM, players making over the maximum salary budget charge were always deemed as DPs—and there were only three—which limited how many higher-paid players can be on a team to a much smaller number than with TAM. With TAM, teams can have more than three players over the maximum salary budget charge, effectively having players make DP wages without taking up a DP slot.

My long-winded point here is that yes, the average base salary for non-designated players has doubled, but many of these ‘non-DP’ players are actually making DP wages, but have their cap impact bought down with TAM. This rule didn’t exist in 2016, which made it so that player salaries were lower in large part due to this.

That being said, while the MLSPA have amplified an inflated statistic, salaries have no doubt increased a lot for almost every player in Major League Soccer. Looking at the Senior roster slots (1-18), there has been an average growth of 12.5 per cent for each roster slot for the average annual growth in base salaries from 2016-2021. This season also marks the tenth consecutive year that the average base salary has increased for senior roster non-DPs, according to the report.

Salaries for non-DPs will continue to increase, given that the 2021 CBA states that the Senior Minimum Salary will be $125 875 in 2027, up from $81 375 in 2021.

MLS Salary Guide & Toronto FC

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC

Salaries are not as high for Toronto FC compared to previous years. Not so much with regards to what most players make, but what our designated players make.

Back even a few years ago, when Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco were playing on their first contracts, they were all making between $5-7 million a year for each individual player. That has taken a bit of a hit for the past few years, which is probably good for the pocketbook of MLSE, as long as they continue to bring in the fans of course.

Some things I want to note here is some of the major cuts certain players have taken over the years with their salaries.

Altidore has cut is salary by about three million dollars annually (was originally making $6 332 250) with his new contract, and Michael Bradley (as many of us know) took a five million dollar cut (originally $6 500 000) annually with his contract that he signed at the start of 2020.

Even Eriq Zavaleta has taken a decent pay cut, going from roughly $300 000 a year to only $84 219 annually since he resigned this off season, while Justin Morrow also falls under that same umbrella.

Given that we now know his new contract salary, their decision to re-sign both players make a lot more sense.

You can find the rest of Toronto FC’s salaries here.

Surprising Contracts Around the League

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Orlando City SC
  • Fredy Montero (F, Seattle Sounders FC): While he hasn’t been the greatest for the past few years, it came to my great surprise that Fredy Montero went from being on of Vancouver’s designated players to now being paid the Senior Minimum Salary of $81 375.
  • Alexandre Pato (F, Orlando City SC): At the age of 31 years-old, it absolutely amazes me that Orlando City SC were able to secure a former AC Milan, Chelsea and Villarreal striker to a $272 727 annual salary, let alone on a free contract.
  • Ryan Shawcross (D, Inter Miami CF): Yeah, Ryan Shawcross is 33 years-old, but he was a starting Premier League defender for a mid-table side just a few years ago, and is only making $307 500 a year! Must’ve been because of Phil Neville.
  • Jeremy Ebobisse (F, Portland Timbers): Ebobisse is clearly a talented player, and he has proven that when gets the opportunities. Which makes me wonder why Portland Timbers would give him a $691 250 contract, and proceed to sign two other (Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Felipe Mora) high-paid strikers in his position!
  • Ali Adnan (D, Vancouver Whitecaps FC): I don’t know too much about Ali Adnan, but it is quite unusual for any MLS side to drop $1 227 496 on a left back! That makes him one of the highest earning players on a team that that spends the least on salaries in the league—and makes Richie Laryea look like an absolute bargain. A weird way to allocate limited funds.
  • Blaise Matuidi (M, Inter Miami CF): He was a starting midfielder for PSG just a few season back, and now he’s making $1 500 000 annually. A bit of a sneaky steal from Inter Miami—well maybe not so much sneaky as they’re still undergoing an investigation for his contract last season.
  • Lucas Zelarayan (M, Columbus SC): Arguably the best player on MLS’ reigning champions, it is quite notable that he’s only making $1 985 000 a year, while his transfer fee was north of $7 million, according to reports.

Every year, the MLS Salary Guide comes up with it’s share of surprises and interesting facts, showing how Major League Soccer is changing and evolving into a different kind of a league year-by-year.

The amount of changes that have happened in just the past few years are unfathomable: from having MLS teams rely on old stars to help them win championships to now the league’s young stars getting signed by the best teams in Europe. MLS has evolved, and is still evolving into it’s next version of itself.

I can’t wait to see what kind of league we’ll have even five short years from now.