It was the kind of day fans dread, and truth be told, it isn’t a fun one for team officials either.
Across Major League Soccer, long-serving players saw their tenures ended, disappearing underneath the wave of roster compliance announcements that delivered a harsh reminder of the realities of a salary cap league.
Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips bid farewell to the New York Red Bulls, Miguel Ibarra moved on from his long-time home at Minnesota United, Kyle Beckerman’s contract has run out at Real Salt Lake, Seth Sinovic said goodbye to Sporting Kansas City and Roman Torres bid adieu to the MLS Cup-winning Seattle Sounders.
Other long-serving stars are still in talks with their teams for possible returns, such as Diego Valeri in Portland and Michael Bradley at Toronto FC, who could still potentially move on from the clubs they helped lead to MLS Cup titles.
Long-serving players leaving teams isn’t some phenomenon unique to MLS, but this offseason feels like it’s been more filled with departures. The Red Bulls exodus is particularly painful for a fanbase that saw the team reach new heights with Robles and Wright-Phillips leading the way for the better part of a decade.
As Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett rightly pointed, his approach to building his squad can’t be driven by sentiment and emotion, but rather by hard truths and tough decisions.
As much as Luis Robles is still a top goalkeeper, the Red Bulls had to weight the option of keeping him to the alternative of turning to talented understudy Ryan Meara while using the savings to improve other areas on the field. That doesn’t mean the decision was a no-brainer, but it does mean there was some understandable logic behind it. Of course that won’t stop Hamlett and the Red Bulls from being roasted if Meara doesn’t thrive as a starter, and if Robles goes elsewhere in MLS and shines.
The Wright-Phillips departure is the type we have seen before, and with the same club. A decade ago, the Red Bulls had the tough decision of whether to sign Juan Pablo Angel to a new contract knowing there was a chance he was past his best, and knowing they could wind up overpaying for past results rather than future production.
Back then, the Red Bulls said goodbye to Angel, and doing so eventually allowed the team to bolster its squad with DP signings such as Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill (and the bust that was Rafa Marquez). This time around, the Red Bulls let Wright-Phillips leave, knowing that signing him to a new deal could be tying the team to a sizable contract for a player who would be hard-pressed to recapture his club-record levels of productivity.
Portland finds itself in a similar situation with Valeri, the beloved playmaker who is still very much a fan favorite, but who the Timbers were reportedly trying to sign to a new deal that would move him out of his previous Designated Player status. The Timbers have had to navigate the dangerous dance of trying to play hardball with the face of their franchise, taking the risk because the alternative was diving into a new DP contract with a player who may no longer be able to play at his same high level.
In the end, teams have to make hard choices, because the alternative is keeping players longer than they should, and keeping teams together too long, resulting in inevitable crashes. The MLS salary cap has long made it difficult for champions to keep their rosters intact, but as the league has increased spending, it has allowed teams to have more freedom to try and keep groups together.
This winter’s plethora of painful player exits suggests teams are increasingly aware of the need to avoid overpaying for nostalgia. That will continue to create a dilemma that every top MLS player will face as they push toward their mid-30s, and teams find themselves wondering if it’s sustainable to keep paying them at the same level.
The answer is almost always no, but that doesn’t stop players from objecting to hefty pay cuts, even more when they can conceivably find other teams willing to pay them. Rest assured, it won’t be too often when you will find players willing to take massive pay cuts in order to stay with the same team.
In some cases, like with San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski, the team and star work out a deal that allows for their marriages to stay intact until the end of their careers, but it’s starting to feel like that will be an increasingly rare arrangement.
That means this won’t be the last winter filled with transactions that MLS fans find painful, and it won’t be the last offseason where fans will be left feeling like they are having to say goodbye to their favorite players sooner than they feel they should have to.