Player Salaries Play Role in Expansion Draft Jigsaw Puzzle

Major League Soccer’s (MLS) expansion draft held on Wednesday, December 10th just might be the first major step towards the 2015 season.  Two of MLS’ newest clubs, New York City FC (NYCFC) and Orlando City SC (OCSC) were awarded the opportunity to draft ten players from the other MLS clubs.  This mechanism serves to help level the playing field for the new clubs entering the league.  Current teams were allowed to protect eleven of their players whom could not be taken by either NYCFC or OCSC as part of the expansion draft, which prevents these new clubs from drafting a superclub from the elite talent in the league.

There was a lot for clubs to consider during this draft.  For the two newest clubs, this draft was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to draft quality players while also staying under the salary budget of $3.1 million [Note: this excludes Designated Players who are star players that clubs may sign to any amount while only $387,500 counts against the team’s salary budget].  The already established MLS clubs have to consider which players are worth their salary, protect them, and plan to make roster additions in the off-season while also staying under the salary budget.  All of this is taking place while the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the players and the league is due to expire prior to next season.  The new CBA will likely increase the minimum salary for players as well as increase the salary budget for clubs, but clubs will not know by how much, until the negotiations are complete.

It is likely that NYCFC and OCSC drafted players not merely based on their talent on the field, but rather had to view each player through a financial lens as well and consider the cost/benefit analysis of each possible player.  The figure below shows the total salaries of the players taken in the expansion draft as well as the average salary taken by each team.

Expansion Draft-Drafted Players Salaries

Notice that the clubs have taken players that already account for more than one-third of their total salary budget, but account for half of the players who count towards the salary budget, which means that the players drafted should be serviceable on the field.  Some might believe that NYCFC and OCSC would look to draft players with high value and then trade them to other teams for allocation money to spend on players outside of the league.  This might be true for some of the players drafted, however this cannot be true for a majority of the players selected.  It would be too risky for these two clubs to draft players they do not plan on keeping in the hopes they can trade most of them away to make room for players they truly do want.

The average salary of the players taken by each club is very close to the average salary of all players left unprotected by the other MLS clubs.  The average salary for all unprotected players was $124,315.  This indicates that NYCFC and OCSC either drafted players who earned an average salary or they drafted a combination of proven players that earned higher than the average salary and younger players who show promise that earn below the average salary.  Any fan of the league can plainly see that the latter is true.  Jason Kreis knows a thing or two about building a championship team and knows that one of the secret to success in MLS is a good blend of veterans and youth.

The established clubs generally had similar strategies when it came to protecting players.  The figure below shows the total salaries of the players that were protected from the expansion draft along with the total salaries of players eligible for the draft.

Expansion Draft-Protected Players Salaries

It would be dangerous to read too much into this salary information.  Protected players may not be with the same club in 2015 (as with Jamison Olave of the New York Red Bulls).  This also does not take into consideration any deals among clubs that prevented NYCFC and OCSC from selecting an unprotected player, as was the case with New England’s Diego Fagundez.  Still, note that the salaries of protected players are higher than unprotected players in every case with the exception of Colorado and New York, which makes logical sense as clubs are more likely to pay top talent that they’d want to keep more in base salary.

Also consider that each player drafted by NYCFC and OCSC opens up salary cap space for the club that loses a player.  The below figure shows the fifteen clubs that had at least one player taken in the expansion draft and the amount of salary space that the club is no longer responsible for.

Expansion Draft-Salary Lost by Clubs After Expansion Draft

For clubs like Columbus, Colorado, and even Portland, they might be happy to offload the salaries of players who did not play up to their value in 2014 (i.e. Danny Mwanga who had six appearances and made $171,250).  Perhaps D.C. United hoped that leaving Eddie Johnson unprotected would make him a prime target for selection in the expansion draft since he did not demonstrate the value of a player making $613,333 in 2014, however, he was passed over by both NYCFC and OCSC.

MLS has been an ever-changing league since its inaugural season in 1996, and it will see at least two more expansion drafts in the next three seasons as Atlanta and LAFC will become the 21st and 22nd teams in MLS.  The financial constraints are difficult for MLS clubs to maneuver at times, and these mechanisms for player acquisition may be complex but they allow for competitive balance on the field and in the front office.


What do you think about the MLS Expansion Draft and the salary breakdown of the players that were chosen, as well as the protected and unprotected players  from each club? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.

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