MLS: A Melting Pot of Talent From All Over the World

MLS boasts that it is the most diverse league in the world.  According to the most recent salary information provided by the MLS Player’s Union, there are 314 American born players and 259 players born outside of the US that received a salary from a MLS team in 2013.

Every MLS fan watches closely as their team cuts ties with players and signs new talent.  While some teams have already begun to retool their squad in major ways, many supporters are hoping their team spends more money than other teams to sign proven talent from outside of the United States to give their team the edge.  Here at Business of Soccer, many contributors assembled data to examine the price of players from all over the world.  Using 2013 salary information from the MLS Players Union, as well as the birthplace of every player provided by MLS, fans and pundits can now see not only where MLS players originate from, but also the financial impact on MLS by region.

To start, it’s important to understand that the basis of criteria is a player’s birth nation rather than the country they grew up in or represent internationally.  This is done primarily because not every player in MLS has represented a national team and may be eligible for more than one nation.  If a player was born in one nation but lived primarily in another, it would be impossible to determine what had the greatest impact on their development.

Below are charts of the number of players from each region and the total salaries of MLS players from these regions.

It’s no surprise that South America has the greatest presence outside of North America.  South America makes up almost 14% of all salaries in MLS, but even though it has the 2nd most players of any region, Europe commands the number 2 spot for salaries, representing 21% of the total, behind North America at 47.6%.  Only 11 players were born in Asia/Oceania and make up the smallest portion of all MLS salaries with almost 5%.

It is important to consider that because of the large range of players that descend from each region, the median salary will paint a better picture of how players from each region are compensated.  The median will equivalize large contracts from players such as Tim Cahill from Australia or Obafemi Martins from Nigeria. Their large contracts act as outliers compared to other players from their region and skews the data when only considering the average salary of players.

The median salary of South American players in MLS is $135,473, more than any other region in 2013.  European-born players fell close behind South America with a median salary of $126,625, which is somewhat surprising due to the above mentioned fact that they account for 21% of the total salary dollars in MLS, second only to North America. The fact that the European-born player median salary is less than that of South America suggests that there is a small group of European-born players in MLS with substantially larger salaries that inflate the region’s total, while players born from South America playing in MLS hold a tighter grouping of player salaries at a decent dollar amount, which allows them to enjoy the number 1 median salary of all the regions.  North American-born players have the lowest median salary at $73,997, which should not come as much of a surprise.

So how are American-born players in MLS being compensated compared to players from other regions of the world?  The chart below shows the median salaries of MLS players based on region, this time separating out North America by country individually to show Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

It should also be noted that the average guaranteed compensation for American-born players was $137,617.49 in 2013, the third lowest of seven regions surveyed.  What’s most surprising is that Mexican and Canadian-born players on average received only $96.912.22 in 2013. In total, foreign-born players earn $248,625.87 on average compared to $137,617.49 for American-born players.

This kind of data provides some insight into how clubs build their squads in MLS.  Teams offer larger contracts to foreign-born players because in many cases teams cannot find the talent they need to compete solely within their borders, not an uncommon practice in other leagues around the globe.  This could be true in MLS because teams try to lure foreign-born players away from playing in the top flight or lower division leagues in their home nations by offering larger contracts.  It both raises the level of overall talent in the league but also signals to the rest of the world that MLS can attract top prospects and serves as a marketing lever both with fans but also to attract other players to the league.

This data also confirms the claim that American-born players are not paid as much as foreign talent in MLS.  American-born players may not rate as high in other leagues around the world and may not even rate as high in MLS. There is also the issue of top American-born talent leaving the US to play in elite leagues around the world, outside of MLS. This dilutes the American-born average and median salary left in the league. However, as MLS has improved in recent years, some of America’s top talent has returned home from abroad to play in MLS, like Clint Dempsey. As this trend continues, MLS hopes make itself an attractive option for all elite players in the world, both foreign-born and American-born.

Next week, Business of Soccer will take a look more specifically at how each MLS club pays foreign-born players in comparison to American-born players.

What do you think about the MLS player’s salary by region? Let us know in the comments section below or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.