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For nearly two decades, Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been one of soccer’s most entertaining stars. He has played in Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy (for three teams), Spain, France and England, collecting titles at every stop. He has also proven to be one of the most quotable athletes since Muhammad Ali—when asked what he was getting his wife for her birthday, he replied, “Nothing. She already has Zlatan.”
Now Zlatan is in the United States. In classic Zlatan fashion, he took out a full-page ad in the LA Times reading, “Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome.” Then he made his debut with two wonder goals:
It’s exciting enough almost to make a fan forget Zlatan is 36 and still recovering from severe knee damage. Which is a big reason he took a 95 percent pay cut to come here, going from a reported $27 million per year for Manchester United to $1.4 million.
American soccer has grown tremendously in the last 50 years. Yet Major League Soccer remains a strange mix of past-their-prime icons and players who simply aren’t good enough to make the cut in proper leagues.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With the help of Soccernomics economist Stefan Szymanski, this is what America has to offer (and why we’ve yet to offer it).
A True Land of Plenty
The #1 franchise on the most recent Forbes ranking of the 50 most valuable sports teams is American. (The Dallas Cowboys are worth an estimated $4.2 billion.)
So were the two teams tied for 50th. (The New Orleans Saints and the Anaheim Angels are at $1.75 billion.)
At #2 sit MLB’s New York Yankees ($3.7 billion).
Other teams in the top ten include the New England Patriots ($3.4 billion), the New York Knicks ($3.3 billion), the New York Giants ($3.1 billion), the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Francisco 49ers (both $3 billion), meaning it includes three different American sports from four different states.
In fact, America so dominates it’s easier just to list the foreign franchises because there are only seven on the entire list:
—Manchester United ($3.69 billion)
—Barcelona ($3.64 billion)
—Real Madrid ($3.58 billion)
—Bayern Munich ($2.71 billion)
—Manchester City ($2.083 billion)
—Arsenal ($1.94 billion)
—Chelsea ($1.845 billion)
The top 50 is filled with NFL, MLB and NBA teams. (No one from the NHL made the cut, but they’re still doing pretty well: The New York Rangers are worth $1.5 billion.) Plus they play all over the nation. Florida and Illinois each have three entries, putting them in a tie with all of continental Europe.
Even our MLS teams are surprisingly valuable, with the LA Galaxy the league’s the most successful at $315 million and the Columbus Crew landing at the bottom with $130 million.
Keep in mind there are only nine soccer teams on the entire planet valued at as much as a billion. The English Premier League is the world’s most commercially successful… and the LA Galaxy still has a valuation higher than 13 of their 20 teams.
In terms of tradition and general passion, there are a lot of soccer-loving countries ahead of the United States.
But we have something else: cash. And cash is why Lionel Messi left Argentina for Barcelona and Mohamed Salah departed Egypt for Liverpool.
“Money buys success,” Szymanski says. “There’s absolutely no reason why a nation or a region that had a level of wealth and financial power in order to pay salaries and transfer fees that are competitive with the Europeans couldn’t match Europe by buying the best stars.”
While the NFL is uniquely ours, baseball, basketball and hockey are played professionally all over the world. Yet for the best players, the U.S. is the dream destination.
Could this happen with soccer?
Szymanski doubts it: “I don’t actually see any immediate threat to Europe’s dominance.”
Why not? Largely because we choose not to be competitive: “In the United States, MLS is this bizarre version of the American model in a competitive market.”
We behave like we have a monopoly on top job opportunities in soccer. Unlike with basketball, baseball, hockey and American football, however, we most decidedly do not.
Why Acting Like the Big Boys Makes MLS So Small
The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL all use a salary cap with varying degrees of flexibility. (The NBA’s salary cap is currently $99.1 million, with a sliding “luxury tax” that creates financial penalties for violating it.)
By creating a salary cap, the MLS behaves like those other leagues.
Except those leagues are Bentleys and MLS is a bicycle with a missing seat and a flat tire: Their salary cap is $4,035,000 for the top 20 players on the senior roster.
Over in Europe, Neymar has a salary of roughly $44 million.
Major League Soccer’s cap is decidedly flexible, but it’s hard to disagree with Szymanski’s assertion that current salary restrictions are “keeping MLS at an uncompetitive level in international markets.” After all, the current limit offers barely enough to sign Neymar’s personal assistant, much less the actual Neymar.
It’s worth remembering that the defining event in American soccer remains a decision to spend money wildly, with (for a time) very happy returns.
The Call of the Cosmos
In 1975, Pelé joined the New York Cosmos and entered what The Guardian termed a “football wasteland.”
Why did the pride of Brazil come? Because the Cosmos had wealthy ownership who wanted to jumpstart the North American Soccer League and, as general manager Clive Toye noted, Pelé was “ the only player anyone in this country ever heard of.”
So they signed him for a then unprecedented $2.8 million over three years.
It didn’t stop there: Soon they added Carlos Alberto (the Brazilian who captained one of Pelé’s World Cup winners) and Germany’s Franz “Der Kaiser” Beckenbauer, who had captained a World Cup winner as well and generally dominated Europe with Bayern Munich.
New York Cosmos saw their attendance grow from 3,578 in 1974 to 47,856 in 1978, while the Cosmos themselves partied like a Jet team made up entirely of Broadway Joes.
Soon other franchises got in on the fun, adding Johan Cruyff from the Netherlands (who is credited with inventing total football), Germany’s Gerd Müller (who once scored 67 goals in a season), Eusebio (the Portuguese legend who was Cristiano Ronaldo before Cristiano Ronaldo, only a better performer in World Cups) and George Best (the Northern Irish icon who inspired the saying, “Maradona good Pelé better George Best”).
These players have solid cases for being among the ten greatest of all-time (and any top ten without Pelé and Beckenbauer is laughable).
Of course, the NASL ultimately flamed out.
Why? For one, the stars didn’t tend to have much left by the time they reached the U.S. These men had all reached soccer’s highest levels as teenagers and didn’t play in America until they were at least 30.
More importantly, the NASL was not one for careful, well-planned expansion. In 1973, there were nine teams. By 1975, there were 20. By 1977, they had shrunk down to 18. By 1978, they expanded to 24. By 1984, they ceased to exist.
MLS has grown far more gradually, featuring 10 teams during its inaugural season in 1996 and 23 today.
While more prudent than the original NASL, the MLS also recognizes the importance of star power. That’s why there was so much excitement when the LA Galaxy added David Beckham in 2007.
The Pressure to Be Pelé
In an attempt to make the biggest splash possible, Beckham’s contract was announced as a five-year deal for $250 million. (This included projections of commercial endorsements. His actual salary was $6.5 million—we’ll explain how his pay exceeded the entire salary cap momentarily.)
The world may never agree on exactly how good Beckham was. George Best famously said of him: “He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn’t score many goals.” (Adding, “Apart from that he’s all right.”)
However, Beckham had been runner-up for the World Player of the Year and collected a tremendous amount of titles with one of the biggest teams in the world (Manchester United) before winning La Liga with one that was even bigger (Real Madrid).
Beyond this, Becks was simply a superstar—witness the movie Bend It Like Beckham, with its title celebrating his free kicks. (The one part of his game even critics would concede was great.)
Like his celebrated predecessors from the NASL, Beckham was over 30 when he arrived. He wound up playing for the Galaxy for six seasons, scoring a total of 20 goals—Messi scored 91 goals during the 2012 calendar year alone. Beckham’s low points included a feud with teammate Landon Donovan who said Beckham simply “wasn’t committed” to the Galaxy.
(In fairness to Beckham, Donovan later apologized. In fairness to Donovan, Beckham actually missed Galaxy games to play in Italy for A.C. Milan, meaning even the MLS player who was paid to be the face of the league couldn’t be bothered to show up for the league.)
Yet Beckham had already changed MLS. In order to accommodate his salary yet still preserve their salary cap, they allowed for up to three “designated players.”
A Lasting Loophole
Designated players could be signed by a team and only have a fraction of their salaries count against the cap. The Galaxy won the MLS Cup in Beckham’s final two seasons, thanks largely to the efforts of the arrival of another “designated” European star, Ireland’s Robbie Keane. (He scored 27 goals over those two years, while Beckham had 10 and Donovan, who also became a designated player, had 28.)
Keane and Donovan then won another title sans Becks, with Keane becoming an MVP before moving on to play in India.
Even California-born Donovan has left for Mexico after 15 years in MLS. His career, by far the most impressive in MLS history, also seems to confirm the league’s limits.
The Donovan Dilemma
You know you’re good when a league names their MVP trophy after you. Landon Donovan is, unquestionably, the most accomplished male American soccer player ever. He won six MLS Cups and leads MLS in both career goals and assists. Beyond this, he is tied for the U.S. Men’s National Team lead in goals scored. He played for the 2002 team that reached the World Cup quarterfinals, scoring two goals. (One of them is below.)
Donovan also played in Germany’s Bundesliga (16 appearances, zero goals), England’s Premier League (22 appearances, two goals) and now Mexico’s Liga MX (thus far six appearances, zero goals).
This isn’t to belittle Donovan’s achievements, but just to note that when your greatest legend can’t seem to get traction elsewhere, it may be time for a rethink.
What Does It Mean to Be MLS?
The highest paid player in MLS last season was Kaká, who earned $7.17 million for Orlando City. The Brazilian has had a remarkable career, winning World Player of the Year, the Champions League and a World Cup. (Of course, he also obeys America’s unspoken tradition of only bringing in icons who are over the hill, as he just turned 36 and all of these things happened over a decade ago.)
Kaká’s salary dwarfed his teammates’ pay. No one else earned as much a million. He played three seasons with Cyle Larin, who actually outscored him during that time, 44 goals to 25. In his final season with Orlando City, Larin earned $192,000. (Meaning Kaká generated roughly half as many goals for about 37 times the money.)
There are 11 soccer players on the field at a time. In theory, any MLS team can break the bank for three of them. The question: Why would any elite soccer player put himself in that situation? Would Tom Brady want to team up with Gronk, Julian Edelman and a bunch of dudes willing to play for the minimum? (Granted, this is kind of what the Patriots do already, but still…)
Talented players like to play with other talented players. LeBron left Cleveland so he could join Wade and Bosh. (And only returned when the Cavs got Irving and Love.) Ronaldo gets most of the hype for Real Madrid, but he has five teammates making at least $200,000 per week. (And yes, that is more than Cyle Larin used to pocket in a season.)
MLS has become the equivalent of the Champions Tour in golf: a place aging stars go because they struggle to hack it, but aren’t ready to quit cashing checks altogether.
Yet it’s also supposed to be where American talent is developed to take on the world. (Why else would there be so many rules limiting foreign players?)
Is it working? With the U.S. missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986, it’s hard to see how.
What MLS Could Be
Top prospects certainly want something better. Christian Pulisic, generally cited as our brightest hope, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Germany’s Borussia Dortmund at 15, even though the Philadelphia Union are less than two hours away.
Pulisic has blasted the way America develops talent: “In the US system, too often the best player on an under-17 team will be treated like a ‘star’—not having to work for the ball, being the focus of the offense at all times, etc—at a time when they should be having to fight tooth and nail for their spot. In Europe, on the other hand, the average level of ability around you is just so much higher. It’s a pool of players where everyone has been ‘the best player,’ and everyone is fighting for a spot—truly week in and week out. Which makes the intensity and humility that you need to bring to the field every day—both from a mental and physical perspective—just unlike anything that you can really experience in US developmental soccer.”
It’s unlikely MLS will ever reach the level of the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL, where foreign athletes fight tooth and nail for the privilege of coming here. But maybe we can at least reach the level where our own elite soccer players can justify staying. Quite simply, we need to get the talent level to the point if a star in their prime plays in MLS, it won’t feel like Mike Trout being forced to participate in his local beer league.
To do this, we need to let teams spend. And spend without endless restrictions. Instead of signing one Kaká at $7 million to boost attendance, the future would be a lot brighter if teams could acquire four $1.75 million prospects with the potential to be a Kaká.
Will spending freely mean an aggressive owner might shell out more than his competitors and wind up with a team that’s—if you can imagine—better than everyone else’s?
Yes, but dominance happens even in sports with solid salary caps. (I say this as a New York Jets fan forced to share a division with the Patriots. I also note that Washington’s Daniel Snyder has never been tight with the purse strings during his nearly two decades owning the team, yet the odds of them winning a Super Bowl next season are slightly worse than Tom Brady still playing at 60.)
While it doesn’t lend itself to a Hoosiers-type story, the fact is that American soccer has come as far as it has because in the 1970s we opened up our checkbooks and spent recklessly, inspiring a generation to notice soccer and even play it.
And for anyone who feels this somehow violates the spirit of sportsmanship, may we remember the immortal words of Shaquille O’Neal: “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.”