The MLS Players Union has released the first of its semi-annual salary reports for 2017, providing the latest opportunity for some speculation about payrolls around the league.
In the case of the New York Red Bulls, an effort is made here to compare the most recent figures with those from the previous release in September 2016. To generate the comparative total payroll, the published compensation for players no longer in the squad (the likes of Dax McCarty and Omer Damari) has been added to the relevant line in the table below. (And if you spot any bad math, please do ring the alarm in the comments.)
Without further ado and with thanks to the MLS Players Union, RBNY base and guaranteed compensation for 2017:
|Name||2017 Base Salary||2017 Guaranteed Compensation||September 2016 Base/Guaranteed||Base/Guaranteed adjustment from 2016|
|Sacha Kljestan||650,000||787,500||550,000/687,500||+100,000 (both)|
|Gonzalo Veron||500,000||500,000||500,000 (both)||no change|
|Daniel Royer||450,000||450,000||375,000/375,000||+75,000 (both)|
|Fredrik Gulbrandsen||360,000||360,000||n/a||n/a (2017 signing)|
|Luis Robles||290,000||292,500||265,000/267,500||+25,000 (both)|
|Gideon Baah||230,000||315,500||230,000/315,000||no change|
|Mike Grella||186,000||188,250||155,000/157,250||+31,000 (both)|
|Damien Perrinelle||175,008||175,008||140,000/140,000||+35,008 (both)|
|Sean Davis||110,000||127,500||90,000/107,500||+20,000 (both)|
|Sal Zizzo||110,000||110,000||105,000/105,000||+5,000 (both)|
|Kemar Lawrence||100,000||205,600||100,000/205,600||no change|
|Zeiko Lewis||75,000||93,750||n/a||n/a (2017 signing)|
|Tyler Adams||75,000||91,041.67||65,000/81,041.67||+10,000 (both)|
|Alex Muyl||65,625||69,625||62,500/66,500||+3,125 (both)|
|Anatole Abang||65,625||65,625||62,500/62,500||+3,125 (both)|
|Brandon Allen||65,625||65,625||62,500/62,500||+3,125 (both)|
|Michael Murillo||65,004||73,754||n/a||n/a (2017 signing)|
|Aaron Long||65,000||65,000||51,504/51,504||+13,496 (both)|
|Justin Bilyeu||54,075||54,075||51,500/51,500||+2,575 (both)|
|Arun Basuljevic||53,004||53,004||n/a||n/a (2017 signing)|
|Dan Metzger||53,004||53,004||n/a||n/a (2017 signing)|
|Hassan Ndam||53,004||53,004||n/a||n/a (2017 signing)|
|Derrick Etienne||53,000||58,000||51,500/56,500||+1,500 (both)|
Any attempted analysis of these numbers must first note that potential errors of arithmetic are not nearly as dangerous to conclusions and observations as the fact that these salary reports from the Players Union are routinely described as imperfect.
Please take these with "a grain of salt" as many have told me to. (For example, Piatti making $450k) #MLS https://t.co/ydjfZ2ap5s— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) April 25, 2017
Nonetheless, the Players Union's reports are what we have and we are free to make of them what we will.
Here are a few thoughts on RBNY's 2017 payroll:
1. It's still low by a league-wide standard
As helpfully illustrated by @TotalMLS, RBNY isn't even close to being a big spender in MLS.
For you visual folks, here are the teams with salary and compensation pic.twitter.com/0sSqLXm4Ye— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) April 25, 2017
2. The payroll for active players is even lower
Note that Anatole Abang is on loan to SJK in Finland and not expected to return to RBNY...ever. Zeiko Lewis is on season-long loan to NYRB II in USL. Gideon Baah is on the season-ending injury list. All three players don't count against the team's MLS salary budget, and it can be assumed some part or all of Abang's salary is being covered by SJK.
Subtract those three players' salaries from the 2017 RBNY total, and you get $5,943,357.00 in total base salary committed to players actually available to the Red Bulls in MLS this season. And the total guaranteed compensation for the active roster in 2017 is $6,435,311.17.
3. The increase in overall payroll from 2016 is pretty much explained by BWP's new contract
Between the MLS Players Union's September 2016 salary report and the April 2017 report just issued, RBNY has shuffled its roster and picked up close to $600,000 in extra guaranteed compensation. A lot of players got a raise from last season, as is to be expected, but BWP got a particularly large one - his latest contract has more than doubled what he was being paid last year.
Consider that BWP was handed an extra $935,000 in compensation this season, and it's impressive that RBNY's overall guaranteed compensation for its first-team roster has only increased by about $600,000 from 2016 to 2017.
Note, however, that Aurelien Collin's transfer to RBNY was reported to require Orlando City to pick up about half of his salary for the 2016 season. So RBNY's 2016 numbers are maybe inflated by around $250,000. In 2017, RBNY is assumed to be solely responsible for paying Collin, who appears to have taken a $75,000 pay-cut from his last contract. Add about $175,000 (money RBNY didn't have to pay to Collin last year) to the visible $600,000 increase in overall payroll for 2017 - and you get a little closer to BWP's pay-rise.
* * *
What does it all mean? Not a lot. All analysis is hindsight, and payroll analysis in MLS is particularly fraught with flawed conclusions. The team perceived to have done best at the end of the season - say, the MLS Cup winner - will be perceived as having made the best investment. If that team wins with an unusually low payroll, it is unlikely the rest of the league will jettison high-earners in an effort to mimic the low-salaried MLS Cup winner's success. If that team's payroll is among the highest in the league, a team like RBNY - with a clear preference for occupying the lower tier of MLS payrolls - is unlikely to decide it needs to dramatically increase its spending on salaries.
It is already well understood that the best teams in the world tend to be those with the highest outlay on wages, but the RalfBall philosophy that guides Red Bull soccer is not really interested in following that model.
The Red Bulls of New York, like the Red Bulls of every other outpost of the RB Global Soccer empire, are not measuring their success or ambition by the size of their wage bill. The RalfBall system favors younger players anyway, as Ali Curtis (RBNY sporting director at the time) explained to Big Apple Soccer a couple of years ago:
In terms of younger guys, we have such as an aggressive, high-pressing, active style of play – a lot of times you want to make sure you have players can keep up with the physical demands for that which is maybe why you lean towards who are a little younger.
And a preference for younger players tends to bring with it lower salaries. As (current RB Leipzig sporting director and the man who put the Ralf in RalfBall) Ralf Rangnick explained to Die Welt way back in 2013:
We want future only commit players who play only for sporting reasons in Leipzig and Salzburg. Because at this time, the right career move is just for them. And not for financial reasons or because the area is so beautiful. We want to find players and shapes that can accompany us for the next stage of development.
The preference of RB Global Soccer is to sign players who are attracted to the way its teams play the game, first and foremost. It is not - at least for the moment - looking to recruit new signings based solely or mostly on its ability to pay them better than anyone else. Pay-rises such as BWP just got from RBNY demonstrate that the RB clubs can and will reward their key players, but within the context of their own salary structure.
BWP was the best-paid player on RBNY's roster last season, and now he's earning more than double what he was on in 2016 - but he's still nowhere close to the top earners in MLS: he is making less than one-third of NYCFC's Andrea Pirlo salary (around $5.9 million, guaranteed, this year), for example. But he is a top performer in MLS, however, and that is what RBNY is looking to recruit and retain: the best players for its system, whom it pays according to the salary structure of its system - a system it expects to put its teams at the top of their respective leagues.
This approach also has the doubtless-not-unwelcome consequence of keeping transfer spending and payroll lower than one might expect of clubs with the backing of a billionaire beverage salesman. There's no particular evidence that RB Global Soccer is poverty-stricken, however. It is fond of financial prudence for its own sake, as Rangnick has also made clear:
We will not make any crazy things and not playing Monopoly.
And that makes overall salary a poor metric for measuring the ambition of any Red Bull club.
In RBNY's last outing - against Columbus Crew - there was more than $1 million worth of salary (Gonzalo Veron, Fredrik Gulbrandsen, and Damien Perrinelle) on the bench while about $200,000 worth of younger players were starting (Aaron Long, Tyler Adams, and Alex Muyl). And that $200,000 trio will continue to keep higher-priced colleagues on the bench as long as the team's best results appear to come from tactics and formations better suited to their skills than their better-paid teammates.
And we can also expect RBNY to continue to trade players at or near the peak of their earning potential once it is clear the pipeline has adequate replacements: it's how the youth-oriented recruitment policy sustains itself, it helps reset the salary burden, and it's good business (if the replacements prove capable of filling the void left by departing senior players).
Off-loading a player like Dax McCarty and his $500,000 guaranteed salary in the off-season clearly wasn't all about cost reduction: RBNY's overall payroll still increased by almost $600,000 this year, and there may yet be additions to the roster this season. Yes, cost control is evidently part of the overall RB Global Soccer strategy. But it is perhaps as much a liberating feature of RalfBall as it is a constraint.
Over at New York's other subsidiary of a global soccer entity, NYCFC, the defining question of this season seems set to be whether the team can still afford to treat 37-year-old Andrea Pirlo as an every-day starter - or whether, given his profile and a salary that is close to what RBNY paid its entire squad in 2016, it can afford not to. Meanwhile, Jesse Marsch can have $1 million of payroll on the bench because he prefers what he's getting out of $200,000 worth of what might be treated as roster-filler at other clubs in MLS. To quote Rangnick again:
The aim is to develop teams, no soloists.
RBNY keeps overall salary relatively low, we can assume, because RB Global Soccer likes it that way. But part of the reason RB Global Soccer likes it that way is because it is building teams without soloists. Carrying a lighter salary load keeps players accountable to their form on the pitch rather than holding the team accountable to a player earning enough to fund a second roster.