MLS Data Dive: A look at bang per buck for player pay

By on August 3, 2016

Ever since the “David Beckham” designated player rule was introduced to Major League Soccer in 2007, glamorous European stars have dominated the headlines of American soccer. Three-time MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy have proved the impact that designated player signings can have on the pitch and in the stands, yet big spenders don’t always win. Looking at the current season, we ask what has mattered more in Major League Soccer – big name designated players, overall roster pay, or is wage not even statistically relevant at all?

As it turns out, success this season has proven a much finer balancing act than it may have seemed on opening day, or as it often is in major European leagues. We scanned the official salary figures data provided recently by the MLS Players’ Union (total 2016 player comp) to assess the link between payouts and performance on the pitch.

In the first chart below, which depicts average club comp against the Supporters’ Shield position, we see that while money has indeed played a role this season, there are many caveats.  Two of the three top spenders (NYCFC and LA Galaxy) are third and fourth in the league table; however, the league leader FC Dallas is proving once again that money isn’t everything.  Additionally, there is a huge group of clubs with very comparable payrolls but widely varying success – another measure of the league’s infamous (“anyone can win on any day”) parity.

FC Dallas and its sophisticated academy system and increasingly successful ground roots program are proving a role model for owners of clubs with weaker budgets but high aspirations.

Our second chart helps explain that Dallas’ monetary investments may still play a part in their success, just in more nuanced ways.

As it would turn out, Dallas’ median player compensation is one of the highest in the league, essentially meaning that their wage bill is more evenly invested across the team, with much less reliance on DPs and more cash left to spread all across the pitch.

In stark contrast to Dallas, there are the Seattle Sounders, whose median wage is easily the lowest in the league. The Sounders have numerous players earning at or near the league’s minimum salary, and perhaps the imbalance between these players and DPs such as Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris has been reflected in the team’s inconsistency this season, as the club endures one of its worst years to date.

Our final chart provides an idea how each and every club takes a different approach when it comes to designated players, to varying levels of success.

As this chart again depicts, it’s less about how much money is spent and more about how smartly it is invested and distributed. New York City FC, for example, had an ignominious inaugural season in the league despite the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard in their squad yet have gone on to light up the league without changing their big-name players.

Money talks in Major League Soccer, but at least in 2016 it has not proven to be the defining metric of success – very much as the MLS leadership would have it.

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About Alex Morgan

Alex Morgan, founder of Football Every Day, lives and breaths football from the West Coast of the United States in California. Aside from founding Football Every Day in January of 2013, Alex has also launched his own journalism career and hopes to help others do the same with FBED. He covers the San Jose Earthquakes as a beat reporter for and his work has also been featured in the BBC's Match of the Day Magazine.