Tim Howard, Frank Rost, and MLS' Abandonment of the Average American Player / by Bill Reno

By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)

The offseason is a truly wonderful time for every backup player. Will this be the offseason their hard work is rewarded? Perhaps they'll receive a new contract with their current club. Maybe they will move up the depth chart or see greener pastures with a new team. The winter break changes teams’ concerns from what players have done last season to what the players could do next year. For backups and fringe starters, the starting of a new season offers hope in a variety of ways.

As ASA’s resident goalkeeper dude, the offseason carousel is truly a righteous ride. Each new year holds the potential of a Tim Melia: a goalkeeper who was passed on by every team in the league only to become the best. And then there are the Sean Johnsons and Joe Bendiks, players whose careers are finally ready for a positive turn with a new team. But don’t forget about the youngsters, like Alex Bono and Zack Steffen, who are given a chance to take the reins despite being a little green. With all these positive strides in the league, I was curious about the most important position’s payment for their services.

At the end of 2017, 95 players in the league were making at least $500,000 in guaranteed compensation, but only two goalkeepers in MLS history have ever earned more than half a million in a season. Tim Howard signed with the Rapids on a DP contract in 2016 for over two million, and Frank Rost was signed by the Red Bulls in 2011 for $545,460.00, despite only playing in eleven games. While Brad Guzan (he earned $400,000 for playing half of last season) and potentially Iker Casillas could join the list soon, goalkeepers have struggled to keep pace with their peers’ top-end contracts.

Like most leagues, MLS teams rely on domestic talent for filling their goalkeeper position. The Bundesliga uses German goalkeepers, La Liga uses Spanish goalkeepers, and it feels like the only English players in the Premier League are goalkeepers. So to some degree, it’s not a huge surprise that goalkeepers’ wages don’t match up with the foreign players coming in at a higher price. However, goalkeeper salaries have stagnated since 2011.

To assess how the league pays goalkeepers, I calculated the median salary for both starting and backup goalkeepers from 2004 to 2018, depending on the number of teams in the league. For example, in 2017 there were 19 teams in MLS, so the median goalkeeper starter is the 10th highest paid and the backup is the 29th highest paid. Though the highest paid players aren't always starters, this method saved me a ton of time from deciding which goalkeeper was actually a starter or how to deal with injuries or mid-season trades. It’s not a perfect metric, but it’s a consistent one that is marginally affected by contracts like Howard, Rost, or Guzan coming into the league.

Note: for the 2018 stats, I extrapolated the average over the last five years and extended it to 2018. This is specifically aimed towards the next graph.

It’s easy to see the median MLS player salary has gone up over time, doubling between 2004 and 2008, and jumping $20,000 in the last two years. But as the median MLS player’s salary has risen, only minimal increases have been seen by goalkeepers. The median MLS player’s salary has jumped over $40,000 since 2014, while goalkeeping starter and backup salaries moved only $7,500 and $9,500, respectively.

It’s hard to tell how much salaries should be increasing with the growth of the league. Of course expansion teams can change the financial landscape to some degree, but the real game-changer has been Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). Along with the new collective bargaining agreement made in early 2015, TAM was introduced by the league as a tool to introduce allocated money at any time. TAM is a wonderful asset to help teams obtain higher profile players by marking down how much salaries count against the salary cap, but there have been some unintended effects.

When you take the same numbers from the previous graph and divide them by the total salary cap and available TAM per team, it’s easy to see why grumblings about the new CBA have started. Think of the second graph as a yearly gauge on available money - essentially a slice of the pie - for each respective category.

This graph shows the average wage of the the median MLS salary, median starting 'keeper salary, and median backup 'keeper as a portion of total Salary Cap plus TAM. Note: this graph does not count GAM. I wasn’t sure on the exact numbers per year. MLS is quick to make adjustments to allocation money and hasn't made GAM numbers publicly available. But adding GAM would only make the graph’s trajectories fall sharper than they already do.

This graph shows the average wage of the the median MLS salary, median starting 'keeper salary, and median backup 'keeper as a portion of total Salary Cap plus TAM.

Note: this graph does not count GAM. I wasn’t sure on the exact numbers per year. MLS is quick to make adjustments to allocation money and hasn't made GAM numbers publicly available. But adding GAM would only make the graph’s trajectories fall sharper than they already do.

In comparison to 2013 when they accounted for 6.6% of total salaries, starting goalkeepers are on pace to earn only 2.4% in 2018 of the sum of available cap + TAM. The backups’ slice has been cut in half as well, dropping from 2.3% to 1.1% in the same time period. More worrisome is that the median MLS player's salary has dipped as well, set to drop to an all-time low in 2018 of 1.8%.

The goalkeeping side of me is quick to demand that goalkeepers’ salaries return to their former levels, but my pragmatic side is more concerned about the median American Joe MLS player who hears conflicting narratives. On one hand, the league is clearly growing with expansion teams knocking at the door, minimum salaries rising, attendance growing, and the league continually injecting more money into the league every year. Yet in spite of all of this, the average MLS player is getting a smaller and smaller slice of the pie each season. If there is enough money to give every team $4,000,000 in TAM to sign more players making more than $500,000 per year, then why can’t they afford to take care of American Joe as well?

MLS has an issue in underpaying their goalkeepers, that much is certain. But a more unsettling problem is the league throwing money at the top players but leaving little for everyone else. The salary cap is growing at a faster rate than the salary of the median player, so the league’s highest paid players are getting paid more and more while the lower and middle tier players are only getting nominal wage increases. All of this arrives on the heels of many pointing fingers at MLS for the USMNT’s World Cup Qualifying failure. While MLS is certainly not solely responsible for developing the American player, it’s clear the average American player is a lower priority than bringing in expensive (usually foreign) top-level talent.