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Real Salt Lake see more players victimized by MLS salary cap and roster policies

Cody Arnoux
Cody Arnoux

So I have to be clear that I am a big fan of both Cody Arnoux and Chris Estridge, and I can honestly say that I have nothing but best wishes for both of them. Far too often we have seen good people and players slip through the cracks at Real Salt Lake. While it is unfair to blame all of it on the system, there is plenty there that plays a big role in decisions like those that recently caused the team to release these two players.

To be honest I think RSL showed Cody a ton of loyalty and stuck with him through some injuries that would have had other teams cut him loose sooner, rather than later. Still as we look at things like the salary cap, the roster rules, and a reserve division that still fails to provide real player development opportunities, it is easy to understand what must be a very frustrating situation for guys like Chris and Cody.

The problem goes far beyond just these last two cuts, for RSL fans you can go back to Diego, Chris Agorsor, Artur Aghasyan, Leone Cruz, and even back to Jean Alexandre, Chris Seitz, Ryan Johnson, and others. Sometimes these players find another place within MLS, sometimes they find themselves playing in the NASL, USL or out of soccer at a professional level. Major League Soccer has gone to great lengths to try to develop an academy system to find young players but there is a huge gap between high school kids playing there and being on a MLS roster, and to be honest there has been little done recently to bridge that gap at all.

More thoughts after the jump:

So we know that the latest CBA has players getting a 5-15% raise each year, which is a good thing. What is sad is that overall is having a negative impact on teams, as the Salary Cap is growing less than that. Here are the numbers:

2010 $2,550,000

2011 $2,675,000 - a 4.9% increase

2012 $2,810,000 - a 5.0% increase

2013 $2,950,000 - a 4.98% increase

2014 $3,100,000 - a 5.05% increase

So clearly there is no real way that a team can improve year to year without using a revolving door of replacing players with lower cost players and hoping the quality stays the same. For a league that has vowed to the fans to become one of the best leagues in the world, this sure seems like a going nowhere, fast way to do it.

Now, you also have the issue of MLS teams being restricted to just 30 players, with players 1-20 counting against the salary cap and players 21-30 being counted as off budget, which is funny because they are actually off cap but still a part of the overall budget. So then when you add in the fact that MLS actually rewards teams for not filling their rosters:

Clubs may elect to leave up to two of these roster spots (25-30) vacant and use $35,000 for each empty spot as allocation money.

So for cap-tight teams, there is a way to get $70K in precious allocation money: Leave two spots on your roster open. For RSL, that is something they have done simply to ensure they can keep as much of their roster together as possible.

We know that it is hard to get players due to the cap going up less than mandatory raises, we know that teams are rewarded for leaving a couple of their 30 roster sports empty. Perhaps the biggest issue for guys like Cody Arnoux, Chris Estridge, and others just trying to get a shot is the limited number of minutes where they can play in match situations. This is also an issue for players coming out of the academy systems, there are a couple of options, MLS favors a larger roster and more reserve matches, but a few of the brighter folks around soccer in the US have a different solution in mind.

That second idea is working with NASL/USL to create a "minor league" system with those teams becoming affiliates of MLS teams, RSL's Garth Lagerwey had this to say:

"Ninety percent of 18-year-olds aren't ready to play for a first team in MLS," Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "They desperately need games and training. We have to have some version of a second division. If that means partnering with USL and NASL with free player movement between (the leagues) ... I think that would be ideal."

Standard Examiner

Bruce Arena agrees:

"We're inefficient in how we allocate resources in the academy," Arena said. "There's a likely argument where you can say we have improved the ability to move kids to the age of 17 or 18. Where do they go from there? It's a black hole. It's insane. We should have a USL-type of league (to develop players). Right now, the kids would be better off going to college, and then we are back to the same thing again."

Standard Examiner

A couple months ago, RSL head coach Jason Kreis supported this type of idea as well:

"I would propose a very professional, organized and structured reserve league," Kreis explained to "Where we can increase our roster size and have a set reserve team that plays in a league like the USL, NASL or the PDL

Jason went on to explain that the realities of MLS make player development even more difficult:

"As a first team coach, you are hired and fired by whether or not you can get your team into the playoffs," the 39-year-old coach said. "You've got to win games and that can be very contradictory towards developing young players."

Even USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann was weighed in on this topic:

"That is definitely a concern," U.S. men's national team coach Juergen Klinsmann said during a conference call with reporters on April 4. "And it's definitely a topic we want to bring up with (MLS Commissioner) Don Garber and MLS because we want to make sure that especially younger groups of players get as much exposure as possible coming through their developmental stage.

"I know that an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old is not at the same level as an experienced player and a proven player, but we've got to make sure that they get the chance to break through and get their minutes in."

Standard Examiner

Now I will never claim to be as smart as those guys but you are talking about a lot of experience and those guys all have invested huge chunks of their lives into helping develop both MLS and soccer in the US. You have to wonder how many guys have either fallen through the cracks of MLS's current system, or have gotten time with a MLS team only to suffer for a lack of available minutes and time for the staff to work on player development?

We know with Real Salt Lake that we have seen a lot of players come and go over the years and sometimes they leave RSL to find a chance to get more minutes and the result is making a splash somewhere else in MLS, you can look at Ryan Johnson with Toronto FC, or Rauwshan McKenzie with Chivas USA. You also can see some of the talent that has spent time with RSL in the results of the US Open Cup a few weeks ago when several former RSL players scored in the 2nd round of the US Open Cup.

It is hard with a system that limits you to a low salary cap with a limited number of roster spots and then rewards you for not even filling all your roster spots, then allows very limited chances for younger players to develop for MLS to really be getting the most bang for their buck when it comes to players. I know that it is never easy for the staff of RSL to cut players, but it is one of the necessary evils of MLS.

I believe that a larger growth in the Salary Cap each year is needed, I suggest we start with $500K a year for the next 2 years and see how it goes. I believe teams need larger rosters to go along with that, I say lets bump it up to 35, with 24 players counted against the salary cap, and teams getting 100K in allocation money if they have a full 35 on their roster, no more rewards for shorting your roster. Then I firmly believe that the long term success of both MLS and the NASL/USL would be boosted by creating a "affiliate" system between the leagues that would allow the lower division teams to benefit like minor league baseball teams, with player rehab stints as well as providing a path of advancement for the best players.

What do you think?