Taking a deeper look at Seattle’s off-season compared to the rest of the league reveals it only seems quiet because everyone else was really noisy. The loudest of complaints about the Sounders moves during the primary transfer window was that they did not add another striker or a DP. For one reason or another, Garth and Co. decided to wait until the summer (the DP part at least). I’m not here to say they are right or wrong, but to compare Seattle’s off-season to the rest of the leagues.
The Sounders retained the second highest percentage of their squad in the league, bringing back 20 players (74% of the roster). League average was 62.5%, which translates to roughly 18 players. From the starting point, Seattle was not going to make massive changes; this was already an MLS-Cup-caliber team based on last year’s results. Only two other teams returned at least 70%: Philadelphia and Portland. The Union appears to be an outlier in roster construction, while Portland built the same way as Seattle for 2018, adding some TAM talent and depth.
Toronto, Salt Lake, and FC Dallas all returned 20 players as well, but had bigger rosters at the end of the season, diluting the continuity percentage. In the case of RSL and FCD, they are both very young teams that played well for large parts of the season but had a major hiccup that caused them to barely miss the playoffs. Toronto meanwhile stood still seemingly feeling they still had the best roster in MLS and only needed to switch out depth players, though that included multiple starters leaving the Reds.
As everyone may have noticed, Seattle did not go on a major spending spree. The Rave Green added some talent — two TAM players and an MLS starter — but did so while keeping additional salary to only $1.6m. Only Portland and Houston added less salary than Seattle over the off-season and overall the league averaged $2.9m additional salary per team. Most teams in the Western Conference spent very little additional salary (n.b.: because transfer fees are not readily available it is not possible to accurately determine exact total spending). Of the 2017 playoff sides, the bottom four in new salaries were in the playoffs. The two that weren’t were in rebuild mode, as Kansas City changed most of their attack and Vancouver had one of the highest turnover rates of all clubs.
Western sides that missed the playoffs did look to add for the most part, with the Galaxy trying to recover from the Vagenas-Onalfo fiasco by adding the most in salary in the league; Colorado was third, and Minnesota and Real Salt Lake were in the middle. The conference is evenly divided into teams that needed a large rebuild, minor retooling, and some extra depth, and salary spending change reflected this.
Outside of the Galaxy and Colorado, where the new salary has yet to pay noticeable dividends, it was Montreal and Orlando City growing. Montreal’s wages grew the most of everyone in the league this off-season, with a lot going to Ignacio Piatti’s extension (though nothing seems to be working for Remi Garde’s side). Orlando, meanwhile, was able to add new players like Uri, Justin Meram, and Sacha Kljestan without significant increase because the albatross that was Kaka’s contract is no longer on their books.
Another place where Seattle did not match the rest of the league, almost no one left. Brad Evans and Calum Mallace were the only players that left the roster making over $100k; the club only had $815k in outgoing salary this off-season. Essentially, Seattle didn’t spend as aggressively because Seattle didn’t lose players. Only one starter, Joevin Jones, left the squad. There was only one other team that shed less than $1MM in salary — Toronto FC. High salary teams like Orlando and NYCFC saw their high priced DPs retire (Kaka and Andrea Pirlo) and that allowed them to add new salary and still lower their total cash outlay.
Similarly, Vancouver, who spent a lot of money this off-season, actually had a net negative in wage bill outlay because they sent so much in salary away. On the list of wages shed in the offseason (before incoming are added back in), Vancouver is third overall and the only Western Conference side in the top seven (though eight to 10 are West). The ‘Caps saw 16 players leave the club, including DP/TAM talent: Fredy Montero, Matias Laba, David Ousted, Tony Tchani, and Christian Bolanos in salary alone were more than Seattle lost over the winter.
This is where you see Seattle was not all that quiet: the Sounders ranked ninth overall, or right outside the top third in net transactions. Of the seven players added this off-season, two are TAM players and another sits at almost $175k. Seattle may have spent less than most, but by losing the least in salary and concentrating their additions on high value players they aimed to maximize impact. As a result the bench of the roster put at least two TAM players on it and a couple other (near) max senior contract players. More broadly, all three teams with high continuity ratings (Philly and Toronto) rank in the top 10 of net effect. The rest of them are teams that completed rebuilds, like Sporting Kansas City, LA Galaxy and Colorado.
When you look at salaries for 2017 vs 2018, you will notice that Seattle decreased in total outlay. But wait! I just said Seattle spent more on players than they lost, and while they did they also cut salaries of current players on the roster more than they spent on new. The Sounders were the only team in the league to do this and it is because of three players. Chad Marshall took at $25k pay cut, which paid Will Bruin’s $25k raise. Lamar Neagle took a $100k pay cut, which paid almost all of Kelvin Leerdam’s raise. Then Clint Dempsey took a $2.2m pay cut, which meant Seattle had a net decrease in retained player salaries of $1.2m. Thus, they only added a net of $777k in salaries.
The top three teams when it came to increasing retained player salaries were Montreal, DC United and Toronto. Montreal added $4.6MM in salary with $4.25M of that going to Piatti, who got a contract extension, while Anthony Jackson-Hamel also doubled his contract to $155k. In DC, Russell Canouse, Paul Arriola and Zoltan Stieber all received significant raises. Toronto gave Chris Mavinga a raise into low DP levels (almost certainly bought down), Victor Vazquez went from $700k to $1.5MM, and Jozy Altidore pushed his contract up to $5MM.
Comparing the High Spenders
There is a tendency to compare Seattle to the other shiny teams in the league, and this off-season shows Seattle is still matching them stride for stride. No, Seattle does not spend on salary what Toronto does, but no one does. Toronto is outspending the second closest team (LA Galaxy) by $9m on salaries, and spend $12m more than third place NYCFC. The majority of that money, however, is sunk into three contracts and if Michael Bradley or Sebastian Giovinco left they would be in the same position as everyone else. LAG is spending stupidly; they have a bottom third defense and spend the most on it of any team in the league. They only average a goal a game and have Ola Kamara, both dos Santos brothers, and Zlatan. They are just spending on marketing with their player salaries.
LAFC and Atlanta, the two expansion darlings that essentially copied Seattle’s expansion plan and updated it for current salary rules, are the latest to try to threaten the king. First off, Seattle outspends Atlanta on salaries; it may only be about $300k, but the Sounders do spend more on wages. Since transfer fees are murky it is less clear in this situation, but Seattle also hasn’t had to pay a transfer fee recently for a DP and this summer probably has a significant effect on how the two teams match up here. When Clint Dempsey came in, it was an incredibly high fee relative to the league norm, but he’s still here. Alonso transformed into a DP. Nico Lodeiro was about a $6MM transfer fee. Miguel Almiron a year later was about $8MM for a younger player with higher resale value. Josef Martinez was about a $3.5MM signing for Torino and had his release clause activated, which was likely around $5MM based on typical release clauses. Ezequiel Barco blew the roof off MLS with a $15MM fee and a sell-on clause. That is likely not the new standard, but rather an outlier that Arthur Blank expects to get back when the Five Stripes sell the Argentine in a couple-few seasons. Seattle can match Atlanta on transfer fees for the most part, with a double-digit investment they’ll have their own Almiron/Barco.
LAFC is new, has money, and has to compete in a market that needs star power. While their purchases are not the same as LAG - as in older stars with a name - they still went for players that they can market like Carlos Vela. LAFC is spending about $2MM more than Seattle right now on salaries and will add Andre Horta in the summer. That gives them two youth DPs, Horta, and Diego Rossi, and the added salary of about a $1m will widen the gap. When Seattle adds their DP for the summer, it should close it back to $2m or less. Horta’s fee of $7MM, Rossi’s fee of $4MM, and Carlos Vela’s fee of $6.1MM add up to $17.1MM. Their salaries combine to roughly $8.3MM this season. Dempsey and Lodeiro are roughly $4MM (and temporarily including Alonso bumps that to around $5.2MM), so with another DP signing Seattle is not lagging behind the new kids on the block.
Seattle is not likely going to pay the same fee as Atlanta did for Barco, they are not going to have the salary outlay that Toronto does for their DPs, and they aren’t going to buy three DPs at once like LAFC did (though they technically bought Vela last summer and aren’t getting Horta ‘til this summer), but Seattle will continue to have strong off-seasons and match the majority of the league.