Five things we learned about Nashville SC from the updated MLSPA salary guide

The MLS Players Association just released its biannual Salary Guide. Along with the newly released club profiles, The data on MLS players’ salaries provides a brief glimpse into the often murky nature of MLS contracts and roster budgets. 

Here are the five Nashville SC nuggets that most caught my attention. 

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Jack Maher’s new contract

Jack Maher appears to have inked a new deal this offseason skyrocketing his salary from $355,000 to $795,000 in 2024. The new contract makes Maher the 27th highest-paid center back in MLS and keeps him under team control through the 2027 season. 

While it may have been a fair deal a year ago when Maher received plaudits for his play, the astronomical figure is an albatross in 2024. Maher’s form has dipped and has drawn criticism from the now departed Gary Smith.

It is fair to wonder if Maher even cracks Nashville’s starting lineup if all options are available. Although not seen often due to injury to both, Smith seemingly preferred MacNaughton and Walker Zimmerman as his starting center-back duo when deploying a back four. Could a future manager feel the same?  

With Nashville paying Maher high-level starter money, it would be difficult to move him unless the club ate a portion of his salary. Regardless, selling low on a 24-year-old defender is not a wise move. Development is hardly ever linear, and Nashville will be hopeful that this is just the one step back preceding two steps forward. 

Until those steps are taken, Maher’s new contract will haunt Nashville’s roster build. You cannot continue to pay a third-choice center back a TAM-level salary before it constrains your ability to improve the roster elsewhere.   

Jacob Shaffelburg doubles his money and still provides a bargain

Since arriving in Music City, Jacob Shaffelburg quickly cemented himself as a fan favorite. The speedster creates danger in an instant with his electric pace. 

Before the 2023 season, Nashville finalized its trade with Toronto for Shaffelburg and inked him to a new deal keeping him in Gold for four seasons with a club option for 2027. Last year, Shaffelburg earned just $195,000 making him one of the best value attacking options across the league. 

Whether it came through a scheduled raise or performance incentive escalator, Shaffelburg doubled his salary, now earning $395,000 in guaranteed compensation. Even with the 103% increase, Shaffelburg remains an absolute bargain.

Beyond his Nashville play, he has worked himself into an impact substitute role with the Canadian National Team with room to grow given Jesse Marsch’s penchant for vertical, attacking principles. If he features and plays well at Copa America, a few lower-tier European league clubs may explore a transfer.

Nashville invested big in its Designated Players

The two pillars of Nashville SC, Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman, earned significant pay increases this offseason.

Mukhtar increased his yearly salary from $3.1 million to $5.2 million pushing him into the top 10 of MLS’ highest earners.

In the back, Zimmerman received a million-dollar raise climbing up to $3.4 million in 2024. While it may be a steep price for a non-premium position, after a player crosses the Maximum TAM threshold into full DP status (no ability to buy down with allocation money), there is no effect on the roster construction. It becomes solely a question of what a club owner is willing to spend.

In total, Nashville is spending $11.57 million per year combined on its three Designed Players. The only clubs spending more on its three DP slots are Chicago (Shaqiri, Cuypers, Giménez); Inter Miami (Messi, Busquets, Campana); and Toronto (Insigne,  Bernardeschi). Those clubs’ DP budgets are largely driven by the massive earnings of their top-line stars. 

At $2.9 million per year, Sam Surridge is the league’s highest-paid third Designated Player. Now, that is partly by design. Mike Jacobs has focused on veteran DPs eschewing the two additional U22 Initiative slots that could have come with a younger or cheaper third DP. 

That choice will soon be irrelevant. As reported by Paul Tenorio (The Athletic), MLS is set to allow clubs to access all three U22 slots, even if all three DP slots are filled with veterans earning above the Maximum TAM threshold. Whether Ingram pulls out the proverbial checkbook to invest in those roster mechanisms as well remains the biggest open question heading into the Secondary Transfer Window.

Nashville’s bloated belly 

Nashville’s biggest roster construction and budgetary problems come from the lack of production of its next highest earners.

If the DPs make up the top end of the budget, we will label those non-DP players exceeding the Maximum Salary Budget Charge as sitting just above Nashville’s salary cap waistline. For any player exceeding the $683,750 threshold, Nashville must apply allocation money, in the form of GAM or TAM, to buy down the salary cap impact.

For Nashville, these players are: 

Randall Leal $1,115,000

Sean Davis $1,024,000

Shaq Moore   $881,500

Jack Maher   $795,467

Tyler Boyd   $775,000

Aníbal Godoy   $721,250

These players, by nature of their pay, should be above-average to high-level starters in MLS. However, the production from the group, taken as a whole, has been pretty abysmal through the first third of the season. A principal reason for Nashville’s slide below the playoff line falls on the shoulders of this group.

Injuries continue to plague Randall Leal while Shaq Moore and Tyler Boyd have both dealt with knocks of their own to start 2024. In the midfield, Sean Davis seems to have slid down pecking order, and Aníbal Godoy’s play is evidence of a typical mid-thirties decline. Plus, I already outlined the issues with Jack Maher’s dip in form. 

For Nashville to climb out of the hole it has dug for itself, it will need significantly increased production from these six individuals who form a large part of Nashville’s core. 

If there are concerns about their roles, Mike Jacobs and John Ingram must think long and hard about options for freeing up salary cap space. 

Godoy’s contract is only guaranteed through the end of this season. His future in Nashville will hinge on his willingness to take a large pay cut, much as Dax McCarty did in successive seasons before him.

Moving on from Randall Leal, who cannot stay off the injury list, would help immensely. Yet, it would require a sizable commitment from Ingram to eat an additional year of Leal’s salary as he is guaranteed through 2025. 

The same applies to Sean Davis. It is crystal clear that Nashville must find more ball-progression capabilities in its midfield to solve some of its attacking woes. The element that the aforementioned McCarty brought to this side still has not been replaced. Moving on from Davis could free up a spot, but he is also guaranteed through 2025. Agreeing to use a waiver, which would provide immediate salary cap relief, is a tough and expensive pill to swallow for the majority of ownership groups.

Without any reasonable quick-fix options in this area of the budget, Nashville must get better production from this group if it is to keep the playoff streak alive.

Sipić signed an enhanced homegrown deal

Last summer, Nashville made Adem Sipić the club’s first-ever homegrown signing out of its academy. It marked a seminal moment for the organization as a whole finally producing fruit after several years of investment into the youth structure. 

We now know Sipić’s starting salary as a professional. Sipić, 18, will earn $129,000 in 2024. It may not be an eye-popping number compared to other professional athletes, yet it is quite notable compared to his peers in that it far exceeds the Reserve Minimum Salary ($71,401). 

In February, Nashville also announced the signing of Isaiah Jones to a homegrown deal. Like most homegrown signings, Jones will earn the Reserve Minimum Salary. 

On the other hand, Sipić’s earnings place him squarely in the upper tier of high-potential prospects. For example, here are the salaries for a few of the U19 U.S. Men’s National Team players:

  • Cruz Medina (SJ) – $128,394
  • Matai Akinmboni (DC)   $99,216
  • Favian Loyola (ORL)   $73,536
  • Kristian Fletcher (DC) $139,509
  • Sergio Oregel (CHI)   $89,716
  • Taha Habroune (CLB)   $83,401

Sipić’s salary reflects his ability and potential. He also likely had a bit of leverage in negotiations with Nashville. As the son of Bosnian refugees, his ability to obtain a European passport could open more doors than the average homegrown signing.

Author: Chris IveyChris is a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His writings focus on the team at large and often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Coventry City, and USMNT. Follow Chris on Twitter

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