With a team that was overwhelmingly the same as last year, with only one significant foreign signing and a raft of Homegrown and Super Draft signings, there was precious little to surprise Rapids fans about the release of 2017 MLS salaries that came out Tuesday from the MLS Players Union. Still, it gives us at Burgundy Wave a moment to reflect on the composition of the 2017 roster, and whether individual players are providing relative bang for their buck.
We’ll do this by breaking it down into three sections: ‘bargains’, ‘sunk costs’, and ‘things of note’. A bargain is, of course, a player that gives value far in excess of what you would imagine at that price point. Simply put, a player making below $100,000 a year that either starts or comes of the bench for you is a bargain. A player in the MLS mid-range, between $200,000 and 400,000, needs to be an everyday starter that would be in the top-half of all MLS players at his position. DP-level players (players making more than $480,625 a year) need to generate double digit goals or assists, or be in the conversation for MLS All-Stars, in order to be ‘bargains.’
Sunk Costs are not ‘busts’. Six games into 2017, nobody is a ‘bust’. Even if a player is in year three of a contract, the question still stands: what does their salary mean we expect of them this year? A player on a $65,000 contract has different expectations than a player on a $1.1 million dollar contract. We’re still in the expectations phase, even if in the previous seasons that player did or did not live up to those expectations.
Lastly, some people have a tendency to see these numbers and flip out: “We paid $1 million for THAT?!?” Nah, bro. You paid $26 for a seat in section 128. Stan and Josh Kroenke paid $1 million for ‘that’. More importantly, the total sum of all Rapids player salaries is $8,040,619.75*. The salary cap for the league is $3.845 million this year. The concept that the Rapids are ‘wasting money’ isn’t the problem: the problem is, under the cap, you only get $3.8 million to assemble your team. You spend too much on an unproductive player or a bunch of unproductive players, you’re going to have less to go around, and the overall quality of the team could suffer.
The DPs are going to only be a hit of $480,625 on the Rapids salary cap, no matter what. Whether Tim Howard makes $500,000 or $5 million for 2017 makes absolutely no difference to the team. Zero. It’s just Stan Kroenke’s money. Stan’s worth billions. He can light a stack of cash on fire every night for a week equal to the cost of the entire Rapids roster and not even notice it. He’ll be fine.
But if your DPs aren’t producing and your TAM players aren’t producing and your mid-salary players aren’t even good enough to make the game day roster of 18 players, you got problems.
With all that as prologue, here’s the salary deets.
Dominique Badji ($65,000), Kortne Ford ($76,996), Eric Miller ($86,553.75), Axel Sjoberg ($123,350), Jared Watts ($75,000)
All of these five players are below the MLS median salary of $135,002 (thanks American Soccer Analysis!). Using the median for MLS salaries is much more instructive than using the average, since the DP rule makes the top salaries very very high, while most of each roster is getting paid a lot less.
Miller, Sjoberg, and Watts comprise three-fourths of the Rapids starting backline from 2016 that was so very effective. The cohesive and intelligent play of these three players was a big reason the Rapids conceded only 32 goals in 2016; the fewest in the league. The three players together will cost $284,903 this season. Add to it Mekeil Williams’ salary** of $115,000, and you’ve got $399,903.
The second and third best defenses in 2016 were the LA Galaxy and Toronto FC. The LA Galaxy back-four this year of Ashley Cole, Jelle Van Damme, Daniel Steres and Dave Romney will cost them $1,218,337. Toronto’s defenders Steven Beitashour, Drew Moor, Eriq Zabaleta, and Nick Hagglund hit the cap for $768,833.*** By comparison, the Rapids are getting a champagne defense on a beer budget.
Moreover, Axel Sjoberg finished third in the voting for best defender in MLS in 2016. On this list, he is the 110th highest-paid defender and 330th highest-paid player. Axel made $81,000 in 2016, and was given a $42,350 pay raise for 2017. That was well deserved, and we can only hope the Rapids hang onto him for some time.
But wait! There’s more good stuff!
The Rapids signed Kortne Ford to a Homegrown contract at the conclusion of his career at the University of Denver. His almost $77,000 is a little high for a rookie, clearly demonstrating that the club values him highly. But he’s been good in his two games with the Rapids, so it looks like it was a shrewd move. Whether Kort moves into a full-time starting position this year remains to be seen, but he’s shown that Colorado is deep, and cheap, with its options at defender.
Senegalese forward Dom Badji has 2 goals in six games this season for Colorado, to go with 6 goals in 2016 and 2 goals in 2015. He also has started in all six games this year. For a guy making the non-rookie minimum salary of $65,000, he’s been a steal; he’s earned $32,500 per goal this year already. David Villa, by comparison, has 5 goals this year on a salary of $5,610,000. If he were to earn $32,500 per goal, Villa would need to score 177 goals this year to be as valuable as Badji has been already. That said, Cyle Larin will probably score 20 goals this year, and he’s only making $192,000. Still, Badji’s a good deal.
Bismark Adjei-Boateng ($331,246), Kevin Doyle ($1,045,000), Tim Howard ($2,457,500), Dillon Powers ($325,000), Shkelzen Gashi ($1,668,750)
Two of our three Rapids millionaires are counted on the roster as Designated Players. Our third Rapids millionaire, Kevin Doyle, has his contract paid down with TAM to make it hit the roster for only the contract max of $480,625. Juan Ramirez occupies the third DP slot, while abroad with Taleres in Argentina, where he is presumably making breathtaking runs into the final third, falling down, and throwing up his hands hoping for a foul and not getting one.
Regarding the spending of truckloads of cash on our DP-level players; fine, whatever. The bigger issue is not *how much* they make, but *whether* they are DP/TAM player-caliber producers for the team, since whether you pay them $1 million or $100 million each, you can only have three DPs and one or two TAM players (each MLS team gets $1.2 million in TAM for 2017). The answer for the question ‘are our DP/TAM players worth it?’ is: not yet, and there are mixed good/bad signs all over the place that should make fans worried.
Howard was good to start the season; however, he got himself suspended for three games for engaging with SKC fans inappropriately. Later this year, he’ll miss some time with the USMNT. Howard is, of course, as much a marketing coup as he is a effective keeper for Colorado. He’s a highly paid keeper because he is the Secretary of Defense and a national treasure. Rumors abound that the Rapids kit sponsorship deal was delivered on the promise of the Rapids signing a big name player. Tim still needs to be an above-average GK to be worthy of almost $2.5 million bucks. One could argue that, as the highest paid GK in MLS, Tim should win Goalkeeper of the Year and make the All-Star team to show that he’s worth his high price.
Shkelzen Gashi hasn’t been fully healthy yet this season, so we’re still waiting to see what’s up with that. He did peg the MLS Goal of the Year last year and overall the Albania international had 10 goals****, 4 assists in 2016. If he can duplicate those numbers or even improve on them, he’s been worth it. But with an ankle injury to start the year, an undisclosed illness keepeing him out for the last two games, and the Rapids off to a shaky start, there are concerns. To be honest, I didn’t even have him on this list at first because it seemed pretty clear that $1 million for a 10 goal scorer is a fair price. And I assumed that Gashi would get at least that many goals again in 2017. But I’m starting to worry.
Kevin Doyle wasn’t worth the $1 million we paid him in 2015 for his pedestrian 5 goals in 20 games. He wasn’t worth $1 million in 2016 for 7 goals. This year he has 2 goals in just 5 games! He had a fantastic diving headed goal against RSL a few weeks back! He’s on pace for 13.6 goals this season! That’d be really really good! I might be able to finally write nice things about him! Of course, anything less than 10 goals this year and he will have not been worth his salary in 2017. Again. History doesn’t look great for Doyle - the last time he broke double digit goals in a season was 2008-09 for Reading in the English Championship, when he had 18 goals. That’s a lot of goals! That was also a long time ago.
This also has an ancillary effect upon what position the Rapids might go for to upgrade over the summer. If Doyle is starting at striker, and scoring goals, and earning a million dollars, then you can pretty much bet the team won’t be spending more money at the striker position. For those of you clamoring for #ChicharitoToCOL, the persistence of Kevin Doyle on the Rapids makes that less likely.
Bismark Adjei-Boateng started two games and got hurt. We saw some nice passing and good defensive awareness. But really, there’s not enough data to go on. His salary of $331,246 is just fine for this year, even if he’s hurt for an extended period and takes the rest of the season to start adjusting to life in MLS. It will, however, build expectation for next year. The real number that would help clarify whether Nana is a good investment is the transfer fee the Rapids paid to Manchester City. If it was $3 million, then he would be expected to become an above-average MLS midfielder. If he was bought for $15 million, then he better make the All-Star team.
Dillon Powers made $300,000 in 2016, and will make $325,000 this year. Powers is 26 years old. He has 109 starts for the Colorado Rapids, with 14 goals and 25 assists. That’s 0.357 G+A/PGS. Here’s four comparable players, both in terms of position (box-to-boxish/creative midfielder types) and in terms of salary:
- Justin Meram will make $328,750 in 2017. He is 28 years old. He has started 110 matches for Columbus Crew SC, with 28 goals and 28 assists. That’s 0.509 G+A/PGS.
- Cristian Techera will make $377,000 in 2017. He is 24 years old. He has started 41 games for Vancouver Whitecaps, with 10 goals and 8 assists. That’s 0.439 G+A/PGS.
- Felipe will make $305,000 in 2017. He is 26 years old. He has 161 MLS starts for NYRB and Montreal Impact, with 20 goals and 38 assists. That’s 0.360 G+A/PGS.
- Ilie Sanchez will make $305,000 in 2017. He is 26 years old. He has 7 starts for Sporting KC, with 0 goals and 0 assists. For you math wizards out there, that’s 0.000 G+A/PGS.
What does all this tell us? Well, that Justin Meram is good. But could that really be due to the fact that the players around him are good? Using basic counting stats likes goals and assists is slightly disingenuine in that it pretends soccer players are not deeply dependent on the play of their teammates. Nothing is independent - players get more assists when the strikers in front of them are really good. Players get more goals when the guys around them make great passes. Columbus has had good players around Meram, like Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay, and good defenders getting takeaways frequently, like Wil Trapp. Still, Meram has been the best at his price point. Vancouver’s Cristian Techera has been nearly as good, for about the same price as Meram and Powers.
I was pretty shocked to learn that NYRB’s midfield metronome Felipe has almost identical numbers to Dillon Powers, I guess because I thought of NYRB as a better team over the past few years than the Rapids. With Bradley Wright-Phillips up top, and with Sacha Kljestan now alongside him, I’d have thought Felipe would have much bigger numbers than Dillon Powers. Turns out, not so much. This is either a version of praise for Dillon Powers, or mild damnation of Felipe. Lastly, Ilie’s numbers either tell you nothing because he’s played just 7 games; or something, because, well, he’s recorded no assists or goals and he’s paid as much as guys that get assists and goals. In the context of Dillon Powers, Ilie’s numbers tell us: it could always be worse.
Dillon Powers feels a little expensive, and it feels like he should get more goals and assists. But for the price, Powers is actually just fine; maybe a tick under what we’d want (like say, a 0.400 to 0.450 G+A/PGS ratio) but still pretty good. The reality is that Powers has produced at an adequate rate for a relatively inexpensive guy, in a position that is stocked with the most expensive players in MLS. Consider the salaries of the top 5 midfielders in MLS: Kaka ($7.2 million), Michael Bradley ($6.5 million), Bastian Schweinsteiger ($5.4 million), Diego Valeri ($2.6 million), and Miguel Almiron ($2.3 million). Their stats on assists and goals are all more impressive than Powers. And if Powers was averaging a goal or assist per game, well, we’d have to pay him $5 million a year too. This is a problem I’d like to have. But for $300K a year, Powers produces about what you’d expect.
Things of Note
- I mentioned before that Axel Sjöberg got a raise. Yay for players being rewarded for their successes! Micheal Azira also got a well-deserved raise, from close-to the veteran minimum of $65,000 in 2016 to $116,625 this year. From the streets of Kampala, playing with a wad of plastic bags for a ball, to six-figures, livin’ large and in charge for the Rapids. Bravo.
- New Rapid Mohammed Saeid also earned a significant raise from 2016 to 2017, going from $120,000 to $170,000.
- Also of note/a reminder: yes, Joshua Gatt is an expensive bench piece. But Minnesota is paying some or most of his salary.
Always good business to build a team and make someone else pay for it.
- Several Rapids - Ricardo Perez, Mike da Fonte, Sam Hamilton, and Marlon Hairston - have $4 appended to their contracts. Kort Ford is $4 shy of a flat $77K. I found that odd.
- Lastly and maybe most importantly, the totals of the Rapids players that occupy the 20 roster spots that count against the cap account for a total cost of $5.8 million, while the total amount of the MLS salary cap, plus MLS disclosed TAM and GAM, is $5.3 million. Therefore some additional TAM and GAM that the Rapids have acquired has certainly been applied to get the Rapids under the cap, and some of those other amounts like a significant amount of Josh Gatt and Mohammed Saeid’s salaries might actually be charged to Minnesota. What that means is that this salary data release doesn’t reveal in any way the financial room the Rapids have to make moves at the transfer window. We may still have TAM And GAM. I just can’t say how much. Unloading Juan Ramirez in July will open a DP spot. But that’s another article for another time.
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* And seventy-five cents? Someone instructed their agent ‘Yo, get me an extra 75¢ or the deal is off’. Really?
** Why didn’t I include Mekeil Williams under ‘Bargains’? For one, he wasn’t a regular starter in 2016, and so it is hard to assess whether he deserves equal credit for MLS’ best defense in 2016 as those other guys. And on another note, based on team results this year and my observations of Williams over his time in MLS, I’m just not entirely sold on the guy. He might turn out to be the right guy to help this team, but I’m really not sure right now.
*** Toronto play a 3-5-2, so they don’t *actually* play four defenders; you could either look at it as three or five. But for looking at roster cost, just picking four guys that start sometimes seemed to be logical.
**** All goal totals include playoff goals.