Before he was in Major League Soccer, Zach Scott worked in accounting, as a coach and as a substitute teacher to pay the bills while he played in pro soccer's lower division.
Scott now plays before crowds of more than 60,000 fans in Seattle with Sounders teammate Clint Dempsey, who made $6.7-million (U.S.) last year. Scott has started 67 games in six MLS seasons, yet he has never made more than $52,500 a year.
The gap between players such as Scott and their superstar teammates is among the biggest in sports. The low minimum salary is one of the reasons MLS players may strike this season, which starts Friday.
"As a player if you love to do it, you find other ways to make ends meet or your spouse works a lot. You're definitely not supporting your family as a professional soccer player in the U.S. making minimum salary," Scott said. "Yes, it's frustrating but … you love to do it and you hope you are around long enough that something like this next [collective bargaining agreement] comes along and that minimum gets raised."
Of the 572 players in the league last September, according to the players' union salary report, 297 – or 52 per cent – made less than $100,000. Of those 297 players, nearly half made less than $50,000.
Now, the MLS players may go on strike if a new deal with the league isn't reached. They are fighting for free agency, but a raise in the minimum salary is also on the table as they negotiate a labour contract to replace the agreement that expired on Jan. 31.
"That's what we've been talking about all last year and obviously the beginning of this year. We've had a lot of meetings and stuff and just had everyone on the same page," Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil said. "We're trying to find a way to benefit for everybody. Obviously, some guys make more than others, but we've got to stay strong with this."
Players from the U.S. national team such as Dempsey and aging stars who move from Europe to the MLS get millions. But to fill out its rosters, MLS clubs have paid paltry salaries to the others. The minimum salary for players at the bottom of rosters is $36,500.
With the league now approaching its 20th season, MLS players want an agreement that closes some of that salary inequity.
"You've seen in our last CBA that's gotten smaller and our minimum keeps going up. That's going to keep improving," Real Salt Lake and U.S. national team midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "Of course, that's always the goal, to get not so much of a gap, but we understand things take time."
MLS has made a splash in recent seasons with the number of notable names signed to the league as designated players with salaries that would be competitive even in top European leagues. Michael Bradley left Italy and was listed at $6.5-million last year with Toronto FC and Kaka's signing with expansion club Orlando City SC landed him nearly $7.2-million guaranteed last year.
As of last fall, 15 players in MLS earned more than $1-million. And some of those players have been the loudest voices in trying to raise the minimums and get better pay for more of the league.
"Clint is one of the first guys to speak up and say, 'I played in some of the biggest leagues in the world and this is the way it should be and we should be going after,'" Scott said. "He's 100 per cent. Even if he's okay financially, he's still absolutely looking out for everybody else."
Scott's been able to chase his dream of playing professional soccer in part because his wife operates a successful structural engineering firm, but it's not just a blanket decision that he plays every year. It's a family discussion with the couple having two young children and trying to balance two careers, albeit one as a professional athlete.
"She's definitely the one for a long time that supported the family and it was a two-way street," Scott said. "I would always make sure she was happy and the kids were happy and if there was ever a point where that wasn't the case – I mean, soccer is soccer. That's going to go away at some point and she had done a lot for me to be able to get me to play for the past 13 years, so if next year she said now it's too hard, I'm working too much to try and support the family, then that's it."