On Tuesday, the MLS Players Association released its annual Salary Guide. The data on all players’ salaries is a glimpse of transparency into the often muddy waters of MLS contracts and the salary cap.
Here are the five nuggets that most caught my attention.
Hany Mukhtar is still a best value
Around this time last year, Hany Mukhtar signed a new contract that tied his future to Nashville SC. There was no question that Mukhtar was in line for a significant salary increase. We now know the guaranteed portion of this deal.
In 2023, Mukhtar will earn, at minimum, $3,188,750. The salary leads Nashville SC but stands as only the 17th-highest salary in MLS. For Nashville, getting the league’s most productive player at anything less than the most expensive price is a remarkable value.
Since signing the new deal, Mukhtar has risen to even greater heights. He was named the Landon Donovan MLS MVP last season – an individual accomplishment that surely earned him a significant performance bonus that would not be reflected in the MLPSA Salary Guide.
Despite any performance-based incentives, Mukhtar still represents one of the league’s best values – despite his multi-million-dollar salary.
Shaffelburg may regret his long-term deal
Upon making the trade permanent, Nashville signed Jacob Shaffelburg to a long-term contract. The deal runs through the 2026 season with a team option for 2027.
We now know that Shaffelburg’s guaranteed compensation for 2023 is $195,000. It is a step up for the Canadian, but possibly less than he could have garnered on the open market had he waited for free agency.
The MLS Free Agency rules state that a player becomes eligible for free agency when they reach 24 years old and have accumulated five service years in the league.
While Shaffelburg was not eligible last off-season, he would have been eligible following the 2023 season. He turns 24 years old in late November, just prior to the end of the league year.
Now, we obviously don’t know all the circumstances at play at the time of the trade. Does Nashville even make that loan with a trade option if Shaffelburg had not agreed to a new contract, in principle? If that loan falls through, who knows the path that his career may have taken?
But since arriving in Nashville, Jacob Shaffelburg has significantly outplayed his $195,000 salary.
Sean Davis’ contract raises a lot of questions
The MLSPA Salary Guide revealed that Sean Davis received a hefty raise this offseason. The midfielder’s salary jumped from $637,500 to $939,000, a 47.3% increase year over year.
The increase raises all sorts of interesting questions.
Sean Davis signed with Nashville SC as a free agent prior to the 2022 season. The contract was announced as a three-year deal with a club option for the 2025 season.
Under MLS rules, free agency provides the ability to freely choose who you move to. However, it does not provide the freedom to sign a contract for your true market value.
The collective bargaining agreement signed between the league and the player’s association strictly states how much a free agent can be signed for with a new club.
a. Year 1 – Up to the greater of:
1) $25,000 above the subsequent year’s Maximum Salary Budget Charge; or
2) For the 2020-2025 League Years Only: Fifteen percent (15%) above the Player’s prior year FASBC. For the 2026 and 2027 League Years Only: Twenty percent (20%) above the Player’s prior year FASBC.
b. Years 2 and thereafter:
1) Up to the applicable year’s Maximum Salary Budget Charge if Year 1’s FASBC is at or below the Maximum Salary Budget Charge; and
2) If Year 1’s FASBC is above the Maximum Salary Budget Charge, up to the greater of: (1) a five percent (5%) increase per year; or (2) the applicable Maximum Salary Budget Charge.2020-2028 CBA
Based on Davis’ total compensation package with his former club, the New York Red Bulls, the maximum that Nashville could offer Davis in 2022 was $637,500, which was $25,000 above the 2022 Maximum Budget Charge ($612,500).
Under those same rules, in Year 2 and thereafter of Davis’ contract, the most that Nashville could have offered Davis was the greater of a five percent raise or the 2023 Maximum Budget Charge ($651,250). In Davis’ case, a five percent raise on his 2022 salary would have totaled a maximum 2023 salary of $669,375.
So, how exactly did Davis skyrocket up to a $939,000 salary?
It is a question that we at Broadway Sports are seeking clarification on. In the meantime, here are a couple of purely speculative explanations.
First, Davis could have signed a contract extension with Nashville SC that was never publicly announced. Having a player sign a new contract one year after signing as a free agent would certainly raise some eyebrows around the league office, but I cannot necessarily find where such a practice violates league rules.
The idea here is that Nashville and Davis could circumvent league rules on how much a free agent can be offered in Years 2 and thereafter by signing a new deal that no longer falls under the purview of MLS’ free agency rules. The MLSPA would, of course, find no issue with its member earning more money than he could have otherwise. The real question is if other clubs and league officials would protest such a move.
A second plausible explanation is that certain performance-based incentives over the life of Davis’ contract were already met.
Now, the CBA provides that “readily achievable individual bonuses” already count towards a player’s guaranteed compensation. But what if Davis already achieved a more difficult bonus category or an especially large bonus tied to club performance? Those could explain why Davis’ salary exceeded what is otherwise permitted.
The caveat to this speculation is that I have no idea if such a bonus could even be convertible into guaranteed salary. But the conversion of bonuses and salary is often a tool wielded by general managers in other American sports to massage the salary cap. We could be seeing evidence of Mike Jacobs utilizing similar types of tools.
In an MLS world often shrouded in secrecy, we may never learn of the answer to how Sean Davis received his significant salary bump. However, it certainly begs a whole host of questions.
Dax’s new deal pays for Greguš
Dax McCarty extended his contract this offseason with Nashville SC. The veteran took another salary reduction as he sees his playing time diminish. His salary dropped from $517,500 to $302,500 – a $215,000 decrease.
With those savings, Nashville acquired another veteran midfielder, Ján Gregus. At $266,750 in guaranteed compensation, Gregus fits nicely into Nashville’s budget.
While neither McCarty nor Gregus will contribute the number of minutes that they have in prior years, together they can be partnered to ensure that Gary Smith always has a veteran midfielder with exceptional passing range at his disposal.
Taylor Washington highlights the need for further change
Taylor Washington has unquestionably established himself as the cult hero of Nashville soccer. As the lone-remaining player from Nashville SC’s days in the USL Championship, he knows the ins and outs of this club like no one else.
Beyond his incredible impact off the field, Washington continues to prove to be one of Gary Smith’s most trustworthy substitutes when the Coyotes need to ice away a win.
However, at just $112,269 in guaranteed compensation, Washington remains underpaid.
One of the biggest impediments to Washington earning a larger payday is MLS’ byzantine free agency eligibility rules. While there has been significant progress made on this front by the MLSPA in recent years, the current rules still punish late bloomers like Washington who did not latch on with an MLS team until he was 26 years old.
As mentioned previously in discussing Shaffelburg, MLS free agency is only open to those players who are over 24 years old and have accumulated five MLS service years. Washington, 29, has raced past the age requirement but still remains another year short of the service years requirement. He will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2024 season.
The current CBA runs through the 2028 season. Hopefully, the MLSPA makes continued progress for the free movement of players in the next negotiation so that the Taylor Washingtons of the future can earn their true market value more quickly.