Complete archive of Robert Wagman's It Seems to Me.

It Seems To Me . . .

MLS must review inequities in its salary cap policies.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, December 29, 1998) -- In my last column, I started to look at the issue of the hard salary cap that exists in Major League Soccer, and some of the effects it is having. I noted that for the second year in a row, D.C. United is being forced to make radical roster moves in order to get below the cap. And United is just one of perhaps five MLS clubs this season who will have to jettison players to come in under the mandated maximum of about $1.6 million a year for the total salaries of the entire roster.

I noted that commissioner Doug Logan is adamant that the cap will remain "hard," with no exemptions being allowed. Logan points to the strife that has been created in the National Basketball Association over their "soft" cap, one that allows teams to re-sign their own players without regard to cap limits (the so-called "Larry Bird Exemption"). Some general managers in MLS want this. Logan says "absolutely not . . . we wonít tie ourselves in knots like the NBA is doing."

But, of course, what is not broadcast around by the League is the fact that at times its hard cap is not completely hard, and the loopholes are beginning to cause some hard feelings between some teams in the League.

The not-so-secret secret around MLS is that some players are being paid more, and some well more, than the league maximum salary of about $236,000 a year. Everyone in the League knows who they are, the marquee players whose presence in the League adds stature and helps draw fans. Since these players are spread out among clubs there is not to much bickering about them.

The problem though, is how these players are treated as it pertains to the salary cap. In some cases a playerís total compensation package may be made up of salary, income from an endorsement contract or contracts arranged through the League, housing, cars, transportation and other cash and non-cash incentives. But what is becoming controversial is how these compensation packages are being treated vies-a-vie the salary cap.

As one GM noted off-the-record: "I have no problem with paying players more than the League maximum, in fact we should be doing it more often. What angers me is that for cap purposes players on some teams are being carried on the books at considerably less than the maximum, while they are making considerably more. We have to either make the cap more elastic to allow for this for everyone, or carry all players at the maximum whose total compensation is at or above the maximum."

Without naming names, the GM went on to give an example of a player whose total compensation is close to $400,000 annually, but who is carried on his teamís books for cap purposes at $150,000.

Another cap inequity that has existed in the past, and which is bothering some GMs, is how players are treated who join teams after the season has started. In the past, teams who have acquired expensive players well into the season have not been required to make moves if the new playerís salary puts them over the cap. A roster spot may have to be opened, but a team can waive its least valuable player. The theory here seems to be the cap problem will catch up with the team the following season when it must re-sign the expensive new player.

Additionally, this year MLS is facing a cap question for the first time: how to treat a player-coach. Walter Zenga will both coach and play for the New England Revolution. So the question: how much of his salary should be counted against the cap? At one point, the Revolution were saying it would be an amount about equal to the League minimum (about $25,000). But given that Zenga will be making well more than the League maximum, this apparently didnít fly.

On the subject, Commissioner Logan will only say "the matter has been resolved." But we hear that the resolution has been quite favorable to the Revolution, and this has left some unhappy GMs.

Since I wrote the first installment of this look at the salary cap, I have received a number of e-mails saying that I must oppose a cap. Actually I donít. I would really hate to think that MLS would ever reach the point that baseball has, or where the NBA was heading, where on opening day, fans of about half the teams know, absolutely know, that their teams have no chance whatsoever to make the playoffs or of winning a championship because they donít have the money to spend on players that their rivals do.

But I do believe that MLSís cap both must be set higher than the current $1.6 million (perhaps in the $2 million-$2.2 million range), and must be made more elastic to allow teams to offer merited raises to their own players as rewards for good seasons.

Under the present system, the cap acts as a disincentive for a player to really work to get better. Or else we will continue to have situations like the current one with Tony Sanneh, who wants to remain in MLS, but at a salary competitive to what he is being offered in Europe (reportedly a very modest salary by European standards). To do so, however, he would almost be forced off the D.C. United roster, which he also does not want.

MLS must find a way to have a cap that makes sense without continuing to shoot itself in the foot.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at

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