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SBI View: Latest CCL failure shows MLS needs to raise salary cap considerably


Embarrassing. Humiliating. Disgraceful.

No, this is not about Sporting Kansas City’s defeat last night. This is not even about the club’s overall series vs. Monterrey. No, this is about MLS’s 11 years of failure in international competition and how the league’s absurdly arcane and limiting salary cap continues to hinder its teams from truly competing.

MLS’s participation in the 2019 Concacaf Champions League came to an ugly end on Thursday night, as Sporting KC was overpowered, 5-2, at home by Liga MX giant Monterrey in the semifinals. The overall defeat in the series, which ended with a remarkable 10-2 aggregate score, was bad in and of itself, but so too was the overall performance from MLS teams.

The league’s clubs played a total of 20 games during this iteration of the tournament, and they finished with a losing record and unfavorable goal differential:

9-10-1, 28 Goals For, 33 Goals Against

Those numbers got substantially worse against Liga MX teams, the historic heavyweights of the region and the biggest opposition MLS teams can face in the Champions League:

3-7-0, 10 Goals For, 22 Goals Against

If you are a fan of MLS or even just one of its clubs, those unflattering figures should bother you. Not only do they demonstrate a clear superiority in Concacaf by Mexican sides (one of which will win the final to keep Liga MX from losing any iteration of the tournament to date), but they also once again underline a major problem that has long been handicapping MLS from a sporting perspective.

The salary cap that MLS forces its teams to use in league play is seriously hindering the ability of teams to compete on a global level. Yes, you can talk about the timing of the Champions League not favoring MLS teams, and, yes, you can talk about MLS still being relatively young in comparison to Liga MX.

Those are all excuses, however. The main reason teams on this side of the border cannot compete consistently (there are always exceptions, like Toronto FC in 2018) is because they do not have as much money invested in them as their Mexican counterparts. Money buys quality and depth in the sport of soccer, and that is a huge reason why a team like Monterrey, whose roster is worth tens of millions, can smack and bully a respectable MLS side like Sporting KC by a 10-2 scoreline.

Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes, as staunch an MLS advocate as anyone, even acknowledged that after last week’s 5-0 shellacking in the first leg down in Mexico.

“I need money to buy quality players,” Vermes told reporters. “This is different. The quality here is much, much more than what we have in the United States right now. Every year we grow a little, but not as fast as we want.”

For years, MLS executives and officials have talked about the growth of the league. That maturity, however, is almost always measured in commercial or business terms, be it league-wide attendance, TV ratings, etc. As far as the sporting side goes, MLS continues to fall short time and again, with its trophy cabinet remaining bare.

Sure, there is parity in league play, but that does little to prepare MLS teams for what they encounter on the global stage. After all, on the international level other clubs do not play by salary caps and funny-named player acquisition mechanisms like GAM and TAM.

The rest of world is free to spend as much as they wish, which is clearly an advantage against MLS teams with base salary “budgets” of $4,240,000. Even if you took an extreme case and tossed in salaries for three expensive Designated Players into consideration, you’d probably be in the $10-15 million range, which is still a fraction of Mexico’s most expensive teams.

It is obviously a pipe dream to think that MLS will simply do away with its salary-cap structure overnight. What the league can and should do to help improve the quality of its games, as well as the performances of its teams in the Champions League, is raise the cap considerably. There is a collective bargaining agreement that needs to be negotiated after this season, too, so it seems like this could be as opportune a time as any to introduce a significant bump.

If there are cheap owners in the league slowing down the process, MLS should feel no sympathy and force them mold to the ambitious owners and clubs and not vice versa. After all, it is not like New England Revolution owner Robert Kraft is so broke that he has stopped investing in the NFL’s Patriots or that Colorado Rapids owner Stan Kroenke is so poor that he is not dedicating plenty of financial resources into the Los Angeles Rams or English power Arsenal.

MLS has long stated that its goal is to be a “top league” in the next decade. To do that and to avoid being another run-of-the-mill league in a global sport like soccer, you have to do more than just grow business metrics. You also have to win games on the field and raise regional trophies like that of the Concacaf Champions League consistently.

It is time MLS puts its money where its mouth is. Literally.


  1. Well, as I have been advocating for years, raise the salary cap considerably and do away with all the complexity. If they want to keep the DP category, allow the teams the flexibility to take a set amount of that money and add it to their salary cap it they want to. Then add another DP slot. Thus, set a figure of $5 million per DP. Thus, instead of a DP, a team could add $5 million to their salary cap for every DP they don’t use. You can get a lot of quality players for a million and 5 for one star. Set the cap to $10 million, with another $20 million available to use for DP’s or alternatives and then you can field some competitive teams. This way you can have a team where every starter is going to making at least half a million or more. Finally, negotiate a better TV deal since we are getting close to the expiration of the old one. It’s the TV money that really drives the team budgets.

  2. I think for me. I would like to see a minimum as well as a maximum to be spent by teams, if you are going to regulate ( and I think they should regulate )
    The article, as all these articles do states the “rest of the world”. Almost all the rest of the world is a joke. BM won how many in a row? Juve 3 or 4 more in a row. Spain two teams win almost 100% for decades. Since MLS was formed, 4 times one of those two teams didn’t win. The English league has a few teams battling now, but you know full well that isn’t sustainable. That is what we want? NO. NO. NO.
    So just cut the rest of the world crap. MLS will do it better, the only question is…how?
    Two things to consider one, if MLS had gone out like the 70s and 80s NASL, it wouldn’t be here today. They played it safe, it worked. The second thing is money is coming in and MLS is reaching a point where it should be watched over much of the worlds soccer. The money growth will only continue if people realize the talent level is good….and they can’t realize that if it doesn’t keep growing. Are they afraid to take the next step and be in a position to take over? That will be decided soon.

  3. Lazy article.
    Copy and paste from hundreds of others like it.
    Let’s talk about how Monterrey started four players form it’s academies for this series and none of them looked out of place against MLS’ best team.
    Monterrey is not even the best at it in Mexico and no MLS team comes anywhere close to developing this kind of talent.
    Mexican teams win because they have a better system, not just better players.

    • “Mexican teams win because they have a better system, not just better players.”


      Go anywhere in the world and look at any league. Roster spending translates directly to wins. It is patently absurd to suggest that a team spending 3-4 times what its opponent spends on talent will not be a major determinant of outcomes in their contests.

      I can’t even believe I have to argue this.

  4. Salary cap is part of the reason. MLS teams in the first few weeks of their season playing MX clubs in mid-season form is another.

  5. That may be true as far as it goes, but a higher salary cap alone would probably not be sufficient.
    MLS also needs to stop its ridiculously overambitious expansion drive until it can improve the competitive quality, and thereby the fan interest and the resources to pay higher salaries, of the teams it already has.
    Additional teams, whether they are modest starters like Minnesota (not that I don’t admire Darwin Quintero) or strong new teams like Atlanta (until the exodus) or LAFC that in turn weaken other long-existing teams, will not help — particularly not while some existing teams even in large cities are playing to empty seats, which only leads to the USMNT playing to empty seats as well. Imagine if the same resources had instead been directed toward strengthening existing teams, PR, and fan bases.
    Adding yet more teams would only make sense along with promotion and relegation, which in turn could help improve the quality of play that is ultimately necessary in order to attract more fans, better international players, and more media interest and airtime in the supersaturated world of US sports broadcasting.
    All those elements play a role. Introducing more quality into any part of the cycle could help make it more virtuous than vicious. Introducing more quantity alone, however, only thins out the positive effect on the league of the still relatively few existing top players. Raising enough money to improve the league nationwide will depend on more factors than a few deep-pocketed owners buying a few more good players.

  6. Same crap different year. This is why I don’t watch and support MLS anymore. They put profit over performance. It’s a Ponzi scam. Period.

    • Joe from El Paso doesn’t watch MLS but has been posting as the expert on it for at least 5 years now. Including, I believe, predictions that the league would fail ? Isn’t that true El Paso ?

      • However, Bayern, Juve, Barca, and Real Madrid all compete for CL titles every year. The point of the article was if you want to win continental titles you are going to have to give up parity. That Orlando vs Atlanta is a closer match than Bayern vs Hannover doesn’t make Atlanta better than Tigres. Looking over the last 5 years the Cup winners have all been big spending teams, and almost all of the semifinalists in those years have been top 10 spenders.

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