The 2016 MLS season opened this past weekend with 35 goals in 10 games, including a 7-goal game, 3 5-goal games, and Orlando City scoring two goals in the final minute of stoppage time for a 2-2 tie against Real Salt Lake. Somewhat less circus-like, the Portland Timbers repeated their MLS Cup final victory against the Columbus Crew, again by a 2-1 margin with some spectacular goals in a generally entertaining game. Oddly, it was not the Crew but instead FC Dallas who produced a choreographed rowing celebration for Fabian Castillo’s goal.
All of this is good news for a league that had the 9th highest average attendance among football leagues, finishing behind only the big five European leagues, Mexico’s Liga MX, and the Indian and Chinese Super Leagues. In fact, MLS average attendance is effectively the same as that of Ligue 1 and Serie A. People in Europe–or, at any rate, in the US-facing English media–are actually talking about MLS without snickering (in public). Prospects have never seemed brighter.
And yet, less than a week earlier, four MLS sides went out of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals to Mexican opponents. Indeed, of the four second-leg ties, only Real Salt Lake was able to make a go of it, scoring first against Monterrey-based Tigres UANL to pull within one on aggregate. RSL generated more chances throughout, including a saved penalty effort, until a 90′ counterattack from André-Pierre Gignac ensured that Tigres would advance. The combined aggregate score for the 8 games (home and away) was 15-5 in favor of Liga MX.
Nor was this a one-off. Since the introduction of the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008, only one MLS side has beaten a Mexican opponent in the knockout stage: the Seattle Sounders beat Tigres in the 2013 quarterfinals before losing to runners-up Santos Laguna in the next round. The Champions Cup that preceded this competition was no different: the Kansas City Wizards’ 2002 quarterfinal victory over Santos Laguna (before losing to Morelia in the next round) is the only MLS victory in that era. (The Los Angeles Galaxy won the Champions Cup in 2000 without facing Mexican opposition, and they also beat Santos Laguna 4-1 in a qualifying play-off game in 1997, but lost to Cruz Azul, their first Mexican opponents, in the final.)
It’s not hard to understand this dominance. While pundits talk about unfavorable scheduling (the quarterfinals starting before MLS teams are match fit) and the failure of the league to offer financial incentives for Champions League success, these are attempts to get around the basic stumbling block of salary. A study of football salaries from 2014 showed the average Liga MX salary was virtually twice that of the average MLS salary: £265,625 to £135,945.
Moreover, those averages underestimate the true difference between the leagues. The combination of a salary cap with the aggressive use of designated player exceptions in MLS has created a league where the top ten players, less than 2% of MLS’s 560 players according to this infographic published in Issue 9 of Howler Magazine, accounted for just over 35% of the total wage bill in 2015. By contrast, the ten most expensive players in Liga MX in 2014 earned only $15.7 million (compared with $56.8 for the top ten MLS players in 2015), less than 4% of the total wage bill. This means that if you dropped the top ten earners from each league (only a half-player per team) the wage difference would be substantially greater.
Though it’s possible that 2015 MLS salaries have slightly narrowed the gap, it’s also possible that the growth of Liga MX has been greater than that of MLS. Either way, the basic discrepancy remains, especially once you adjust for the top-heavy salary structure of MLS. And that’s leaving aside the near-certainty that MLS is overpaying for its largely over-age pool of superstars at a higher rate than Mexico, notwithstanding Ronaldinho’s presence (last year) at Querétaro.
Even more disturbing for MLS as a league is the possibility that non-retiree European prospects may be recognizing the difference. If the name of Tigres’ player Gignac rang a bell, it should. Last season, the 30 year-old scored 23 goals and 2 assists in 38 games for Olympique de Marseille.Embed from Getty Images
The two most notable examples of major mid-career, non-American signings in MLS are 29 year-old Sebastian Giovinco and 26 year-old Giovani Dos Santos, signed in 2015 by Toronto FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy respectively. Giovinco scored 11 goals in 42 games for Juventus in 2013-14, only 2 in 11 appearances the following season. Dos Santos scored 12 goals and 8 assists in 34 games for Villarreal in 2013-14, and only 6 goals and 7 assists in 41 games the season after that. It’s pretty clear which league has done the better job of recruiting real mid-career talent.
This is not to say that MLS is misguided in their tight control of salary. First and foremost, the league must survive in a nation that offers many other more fully developed sports options. But until the league is willing to compete on the free market for role players with Liga MX, it will not substantially improve its CONCACAF Champions League performance. And MLS fans need to stop trying to compare themselves to European leagues they consider better than Liga MX.