I know the price of milk. I can estimate the price of a television. I have no idea what's a reasonable price for a MLS player.
MLS began play in 1996 under a plan that would allow for measured, steady growth. The inaugural ten teams agreed to a salary cap of just over a million dollars, a number that would promote parity and keep player contracts under control. Now in its 19th year of operation, MLS affords teams a salary budget of $3,100,000. Roster flexibility increased in 2007 when the concept of "Designated Players" was introduced.
Under what was nicknamed the "Beckham Rule," DPs were originally meant to be marquee players that would draw attention from the mainstream media, increase stadium attendance, and, of course, improve the on field product. More often than not, these high-priced players were attackers from other countries. Players like Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Guillermo Barros-Schelloto and Theirry Henry made ideal DPs.
The concept of DPs has evolved over time with large contracts being rewarded to domestic players on a more frequent basis. The pre-World Cup arrivals of Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley were shocking to many, but also a sign that the league had progressed. More recently, Sporting KC locked down young studs in Graham Zusi and Matt Besler.
As demonstrated by the signing of Besler, Designated Players are no longer limited to being attackers. Defensive midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Maurice Edu are DPs, as are defenders Omar Gonzalez and Liam Ridgewell.
The evolution of the rules surrounding the salary cap has turned the league on its head as it's now difficult to determine a player's worth. Edu, Zusi and Gonzalez are DPs but Kyle Beckerman, Benny Feilhaber and Michael Parkhurst are not.
The rumored returns of Mix Diskerud, Sacha Kljestan and Jermaine Jones have brought the issue of MLS player worth to the forefront. Are these players worth the money? If so, why?
Like Zusi, Diskerud is a creative player that was on the World Cup roster. Unlike Zusi, Diskerud never saw the field in Brazil. At 23 years old, Diskerud has a lot of good years ahead of him, which is something that was certainly considered at the negotiating table. Is Diskerud, a player that currently plies his trade in Norway, worth the Designated Player distinction? If so, how much should he make?
Although he has been a part of the national team program since 2007, Kljestan has never made a World Cup roster. That having been said, Kljestan's quality is well-known, especially in MLS circles. A Rookie of the Year finalist in 2006, Kljestan was named the MVP of Chivas USA in 2008 after contributing five goals and seven assists. Kljestan left for Anderlecht in 2010. Would a return to MLS be rewarded with a DP contract?
Jones has more pedigree than Diskerud and Kljestan, but he's also older. Soon to be 33 years old, the German-American probably only has a few more productive playing years left in him. That having been said, Jones is coming off a stellar World Cup in which he was one of the country's best performers. When it comes to offering a contract, how does the league balance Jones' advancing age with his name power and undeniable skill?
Although there are still players that are, as Juan Agudelo eloquently stated, "making 39,000 a year living off peanut butter and jelly," there's no question that we've entered a new stage in MLS history. Salaries are on the rise and the meaning of a "Designated Player" has changed. With the renewal of the collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, it will be interesting to see what MLS does to attract players to the United States and, perhaps more importantly, keep them here.