MLS is a league of haves and have-nots and nowhere will this be more clear in 2014 than Toronto.
England striker Jermain Defoe and U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley arrive this season on record deals for the North American soccer league. In Toronto, they will train alongside players like 24-year-old fullback Ryan Richter whose annual salary was listed at $35,125 (U.S.) last season.
Toronto starting goalie Joe Bendik, who has since got a new deal, was on $46,500.
Taking Defoe’s reported weekly salary of almost $150,000, it would take Richter and others at his level more than four years to earn what the England striker collects in seven days.
Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen, a former MLS player who went on to a profitable career in the English Premier League, says the market dictates player salaries.
“When I played (in MLS), I was a minimum salary guy,” the New Zealander said on the eve of the team travelling to a Florida training camp Sunday. “But I hadn’t done anything. If you want to go away and play for some of the best clubs in the world, then market will determine what you get paid.”
MLS teams are allowed three designated players (Brazil’s Gilberto is Toronto’s other DP), with only $390,000 of their respective pay counting against a salary cap that will be around $3.1 million this season. But under the league’s seemingly fluid rules, allocation money can be used to pay down other listed salaries.
It’s like telling someone you only have $40 without adding that that’s only in your left pocket and you have another $25 in your right.
According to salary numbers published by the MLS Players Union, Seattle striker Clint Dempsey topped the league in salary at $508,366.50 last season. Thierry Henry of the New York Red Bulls earned $4.35 million.
Dutch striker Danny Koevermans, whose contract expired after last season, led Toronto at $1.66 million. He was one of 10 TFC players whose salary was listed at more than $100,000 while 18 made under $100,000.
But the Players Union figures only tell part of the story. In reality, the numbers are as clear as mud given allocation money and other rules.
Commissioner Don Garber himself noted during his annual State of the League address in December that MLS needed more transparency.
“As an emerging league, there are times when we are figuring out those rules as we go along,” he said.
As in other leagues, there are perks for the stars.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment reportedly found a home for Defoe’s family as part of his deal. German star Torsten Frings, a former TFC designated player, got a condo at Maple Leaf Square.
Other players are on their own, although the club has a fine reputation for looking after all its talent off the field. Still, the one complaint that many players seem to share is one that Torontonians already know — the city is not cheap to live in.
One can argue that MLS has to overpay to convince a player like Defoe to cross the Atlantic. But Nelsen argues that English Premier League clubs have their own financial issues.
“I came into Premier League clubs where I had 18-, 19-year-olds turning up with Bentleys and Lamborghinis and they hadn’t even played 10 senior games,” he said.
Premier League parking lots are a sight to behold. Canadian international goalie Lars Hirschfeld bucked the trend during his time at Tottenham when he used to drive a used VW Beetle to work.
Crazy money seems the standard for elite English teams. The Sunday Telegraph recently estimated the total cost of Manchester City’s squad at 361.5 million pounds ($596.3 million).
According to Deloitte’s Sports Business Unit, Man City’s 2011-’12 payroll was 202 million pounds (US$333.2). The average Premier League player made 30,000 pounds ($49,485) a week that season.
TFC’s parking lot has traditionally been a modest affair although past designated players have added class when it comes to wheels. Canadian midfielder Julien de Guzman had some flash rides, with license plates to match, and Frings, who was accorded the honour of his own room on the road, drove a Mercedes.
When the team trained at BMO Field, several players biked to work. Others walked from nearby Liberty Village. Reporters getting out of the streetcar en route to practice often found themselves trailing players.
These days Nelsen and other front office members drive KIAs to the team’s KIA Training Centre, with one assistant coach sporting a stylish Merc. The team helps bus players to the venue in the north part of the city with public transport also an option.
With Defoe not scheduled to show up until March and the team holding only a few closed-door sessions before heading to Florida, the look of this year’s parking lot remains a mystery to most.
Nelsen suggests the marquee players will wear their wealth well.
“It’s not like they’re turning up in Lamborghinis ... They’re humble guys, they understand the situations themselves,” he said. “It’s life, it’s the way it is.
“A lot of companies it’s the same. The CEOs don’t get paid the same as middle managers or workers.”
Nelsen, 36, made the most of his playing days. He always moved on free transfers, something that would undoubtedly have resulted in a beefed-up salary as teams looked to sweeten the deal to get him.
He owns real estate around the world, from New Zealand to England.
And for those players on modest salaries, life is still good in MLS. They train around breakfast and lunch provided for them in a well-appointed cafeteria. A well-stocked gym is nearby. The dress code is very relaxed and beating rush hour home is not usually a problem.
And yet MLS remains a league that counts its pennies.
Veteran Toronto FC players are prized for more than their loyalty. Their status on Air Canada means the team does not have to pay for their baggage on road trips.