For a young adult on their own for the first time, a $50,000 salary is nothing to sneeze at (roughly €45,000 or £32,000, for non-Americans). Especially without a college degree, this salary would feel like an unexpected windfall as a personal trainer, retail general manager, crane operator, or flight attendant.
However, for a young Major League Soccer player, $50,000 is the bottom of the salary barrel. After many years of academy and club practices, driving to and from games, and giving up collegiate weekends to train, a $50,000 contract seems like paltry reward, especially compared to the median league salary of $95,000 (for reference throughout this article, all MLS player salary information is available at the MLS Players Union website). Until last year, it was even lower ($36,500). In 2007, it was $12,900, at most an entertaining side job.
So who are these young players swimming in the (deepening) shallow end of MLS’s financial wave pool? Let’s meet the $50,000 men.
To start, who is even allowed to make the minimum salary?
The MLS Salary & Budget rules state that “Any player making $50,000 must be under the age of 25 (does not turn 25 or older in 2015).” The minimum salary for older players is $60,000.
Until the recent wage increase, many older players also made less than $50,000; in 2014, 38% of all players made less than $60,000, so many veteran MLSers benefited from the wage hike.
The $50,000 earners, MLS’s lowest paid players, come from a variety of backgrounds but they all have one thing in common: they are a lottery ticket. Any international appearances, professional experience, or even one US National Team appearance warrants higher pay. Like the last few picks in a fantasy football draft, a $50,000 contract is a low-risk, high-reward proposition for a professional sports franchise. Management hearts won’t be broken if a young player turns down the deal.
In an interview with Buzzfeed in 2013, then-LA Galaxy rookie center back Kofi Opare described the “take it or leave it” nature of his signing. “I just want to prove to the coaches that I am worth a new contract,” Opare said. These are players who badly want to play, not in-demand prospects.
He was good enough in the end, but many others are judged surplus to requirements after their first or second season.
Some $50,000 signings are straight from MLS academies, young players who return from college careers and are quickly snapped up by the clubs that groomed them. Vancouver Whitecaps’ Ben McKendry and Marco Bustos, Real Salt Lake’s Phanuel Kavita, Chicago Fire’s Patrick Doody, and New England Revolution’s Sean Okoli all were ineligible for the MLS SuperDraft and were immediately signed by their parent clubs. This pipelining is part of a broader effort by MLS to lock in bright young talent.
Life as a “homegrown player,” as this system is known, is not always a glorious one. As former Columbus Crew defender Ross Friedman described to NPR Boston, many young players’ opportunities are curbed by the homegrown rule. “A lot of my youth teammates, who went on to play at big schools like UNC [University of North Carolina] and Akron, they could have played for any team they wanted to and had a lot of negotiation power, yet the Crew had first rights to them.” Some homegrown players live with their parents, not yet financially or logistically independent.
There are some homegrown success stories, though the homegrown system has come under fire for inconsistent rules: the Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes has become an exciting US National Team prospect, as was the Revolution’s Juan Agudelo before him. Bill Hamid of DC United and New England’s Diego Fagundez also are star homegrown performers. DeAndre Yedlin, raised at Seattle Sounders and now with Sunderland (on loan from Tottenham Hotspur) in the Premier League, achieved an overseas move to a big club.
However, many homegrown players only last one or two seasons, like Friedman, and then end their playing careers after contract options are not picked up. Such is the way of professional sports.
The second tier of the MLS SuperDraft is another source of these minimum-salary players. Although most first-round picks, especially Generation Adidas players (a program between MLS and U.S. Soccer that cultivates top young players), command an extra pay bump, the third and fourth rounds see players whose primary challenge is making the team. Orlando City’s Sidney Rivera (4th), Red Bulls’ Shawn McLaws (3rd) and Manolo Sanchez (4th), Seattle Sounders’ Charlie Lyon (4th), Colorado Rapids’ Dominique Badji (4th) and LA Galaxy’s Andrew Wolverton (4th) all came out of college as the cream of the crop, but after falling to the second, third or fourth rounds, they hardly had financial leverage.
Really, though, the $50,000 deal is the best-case scenario for 4th-round draftees who want a life in professional soccer. MLS clubs may roster 28 players for the regular season, but the spots “up for grabs” by new players tend to be Supplemental Roster slots, eight reserve-like positions that do not count against the salary cap. No matter their salary, Generation Adidas players are also eligible for these slots, and usually have the inside track. New MLS-ers also have to compete with trialists (of which clubs often have many) and lower-earning veterans.
The ones that get signed are lucky. The 4th-round picks mentioned above were the only 2015 SuperDraft fourth-rounders to sign pro contracts: five out of twenty-two. The third round? Eight out of twenty, all of whom also earn the minimum $50,000
The remainder of the $50,000 men come from a variety of places. A few successful trialists make the team: Anatole Abang and Marius Obekop came to the United States after being seen by Red Bulls scouts in Cameroon, and both made the team. Travis Worra and Luke Mishu signed DC United contracts despite being overlooked in the MLS SuperDraft. Some, like Estrela and Rafael Ramos, are historical oddities, signed by Orlando City from partner team Benfica before the Florida club entered MLS. A few, like Andy Craven and Anthony Manning, were signed after success in the United Soccer League (USL).
So what happens to these players?
Do most of them sit around making sure the bench stays warm and dry? In most cases, no. MLS clubs want to see these guys play, to tell if their lottery ticket has a good chance of coming up gold.
In a few rare cases, this means first-team action, usually through a combination of talent and opportunity. 18-year-old Philadelphia Union trialist Eric Ayuk signed a minimum contract in March, and has since started 11 games, clocked over 1,000 minutes, and tallied two goals and two assists for the Union. He is a highly talented young player, but injuries to many of the Union’s top offensive players (C.J. Sapong, Conor Casey, and Cristian Maidana) put him in the picture.
Another Union youngster, John McCarthy, started 11 games in goal for Philadelphia after one goalkeeper was loaned out, another had knee surgery, and a third was benched for poor play. Make no mistake, McCarthy lit up USL in 2014 by winning both Rookie of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year, but good fortune played its part.
Sporting KC’s Amadou Dia (1st round of SuperDraft) and Houston’s Rob Lovejoy have also made impacts for their team in their first year.
However, most of these guys get to explore the growing web of developmental teams in USL. Many young players are loaned out to an affiliated USL team, where their parent club can keep an eye on players’ growth, and eventually, when the time is right, recall them to the “A” team. To maintain consistent style and development, many MLS clubs have bought rights to USL teams. Toronto FC II, LA Galaxy II, Whitecaps FC 2, Seattle Sounders 2 and Portland Timbers 2 kicked off in 2014, and Red Bulls II followed in 2015. The nepotism is unabashed: the roster consists of Red Bulls loanees, academy prospects, and players signed to Red Bulls 2. No transplants here.
Even if the names are disguised, every MLS club actually has a USL affiliate club (though not all have such strict roster policies). Some are nearby – think Richmond Kickers to DC United or Arizona United to FC Dallas – while some are a bit of a stretch. Louisville City shares little with Orlando City; similarly Colombus Crew with Austin Aztex.
More important than distance, though, is a place for young players to develop. According to Sports Illustrated’s Liviu Bird, the USL-MLS partnership “encourages MLS teams to invest more resources in their academies and take more chances” on Homegrown and young players. Time will tell whether these partnerships produce star players, but the deal means more opportunities for our heroes.
In the end, many of them will go the way of former Crew defender Friedman, either choosing to hang up their cleats or else give USL a try. Others, like Gale Agbossoumonde, will not make the cut when their age (25) necessitate a bump up to $60,000, and will end up in the North American Soccer League (NASL) or elsewhere.
Some will get a few national team caps, either for the United States or another country, or log a few solid years in the league and warrant a bump to at least $60,000 before the 25-year-old threshold. Opare, after establishing himself as a reliable Galaxy backup (making 12 appearances), was traded to DC United, where he just signed a new multi-year contract.
Although minimum salary players rarely jump right into a luxurious contract, performances on the field do pay dividends. Union center-back Raymon Gaddis established himself in the starting team in 2014 (his 3rd year) and soon earned a $79,000 raise. Ethan Finlay turned the corner in 2015 (he leads the league in assists), and got a $77,000 boost. It is possible.
A $50,000 MLS contract is far from a sure thing. It’s a ticket for the players to live the life for a season; to share a locker room with international stars and to live their childhood dream. It’s a ticket for the club, a low-risk way of scoping out a player’s talent. Both parties would prefer signing that big-money contract in a couple years, but sometimes things just don’t work out.