Who is the Union’s best steal?

Photo Paul Rudderow

Having a more complete appreciation of the decisions Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has made and now faces is the purpose of this two-part post. The second part is scheduled for Thursday. To that end a review of MLS’s salary cap follows, together with the roster structure it mandates, and a “best guess” at what the Union’s roster looks like within the cap and its structure.

But that is altogether too serious. Which of the four felony-grade thefts described below outranks the others as the greatest Union roster steal?

  • Tanner got Kacper Przybylko for free.
  • His predecessor Earnie Stewart got “God” — see Matt Doyle’s preseason Union depth chart “position” for Ilsinho! — for the same price.
  • Stewart got Jack Elliott using only a 4th round draft pick.
  • Nick Sakiewicz’s people got Andre Blake —  2016 and 2020 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year as well as a finalist two other times, and 2021’s absolute brick wall — number 1 in the draft by packaging the second overall pick and cash.

Ilsinho’s age excludes any realistic possibility of the club earning a profit by selling him. On the other hand were he to want to remain in the United States and teach Union Academy youngsters his elastico move, his future value could be limitless.

Probably Przybylko has also reached his pinnacle. Age, and pace over distance may limit his attractiveness to higher level clubs. While he is not quite C. J. Sapong as a defender, he is close enough.  Only one Union striker has ever been a greater threat to produce goals, Carlos Ruiz, and he was here only half a season.

Like Przybylko Elliott has probably found his niche, less because of age than because of abundant defender availability. His combination of height and technical ball skills is unusual, and he is the same age his partner Jakob Glesnes was when Tanner bought the Norwegian.  But if no one comes asking this year or next his likelihood of moving on from MLS diminishes severely.

Therefore the greatest roster steal in Union history has to be Andre Blake. Because D. C. United already had Bill Hamid, swapping picks one and two was a wash, but D. C. received an indeterminate amount of allocation money. So the Jamaican wasn’t free. But as a goalkeeper his still has meaningful re-sale potential at age 30. And he has adapted well to the demands of playing behind a gegenpressing 4-4-2 diamond. His hands, foot speed, and reflexes are ideal for Tanner’s system.

Blake’s least tangible attribute may be his team’s most important defensive asset. The team believes that if anyone can rescue a defensive mistake, he can. That confidence encourages the preemptively aggressive play of the Union’s defenders that is demanded by Tanner’s system. It is significant that now when Alejandro Bedoya is subbed off, the armband usually goes to Blake.

A “soft” salary cap

The information that follows — or rather the real versions of its data in the Sporting Director’s secured files in his office safe — will influence Tanner’s decisions when negotiating with players who, currently, are going to be out of contract at the end of this season, especially Blake, Sergio Santos, Olivier Mbaizo, Anthony Fontana, and Matt Real.

Ostensibly, MLS’s salary budget limits player salary spending to the same total for each club. For 2021 the official limit is $4,900,000. But there are five ways any club can exceed that total, and all do.

  • General Allocation Money (GAM) is provided annually by the league to every club. It can be traded and used for more than just player salaries. It can “buy down” a player’s actual salary to bring it within the official limit, $612,500 for 2021. But also it can buy an extra, unused international roster slot from another club for a season.  It can buy another club’s more desirable place in the allocation order. And it can do still more.
  • Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) is also provided annually, league-wide. It can only be used to buy down player salaries, or pay transfer fees and other acquisition costs. It cannot be combined with GAM for use on the same player in any given year.
  • For up to three individual players, owners may spend more than the $612,500 maximum individual salary charge out of their own pockets without having to use GAM or TAM. These are the Designated Players, a.k.a, DPs. Having a third DP requires a paying $150k  into a kitty that is divided equally by all the teams that do not have a third one. That money counts as GAM.
  • All the money that owners spend on salaries for the Supplemental Roster — slots 21-30 – are above and beyond the annual salary budget limit. Typically, Homegrowns go in these slots on their first contracts.
  • New for 2021 and beyond, the U-22 Initiative says that up to three times (dropping directly to one if a club’s third DP is too old) owners may spend more than the maximum individual salary charge for players who were  under the age of 22 when originally signed. Further, should such players be sold on in future, the amount of the sale that may accrue to the club’s GAM is reduced by how much ownership spent in transfer fees for that third, old, regular DP.

The U-22 Initiative tries to make MLS less of a retirement league (spending big on Zlatan Ibrahimovichs) and more of a player development one, (growing and selling the Alphonso Davies or Brenden Aaronsons of MLS to the Bayern Munchens or Red Bulls Salzburgs of the world).

Cap structure  

The salary cap divides MLS rosters into two groups. The second group further subdivides into three, providing the following four categories.

  • The Senior Roster must total 18 players and may total 20. Manipulated by the exceptions and loopholes listed above, total official senior roster salary spending may not exceed that year’s salary cap. as Inter Miami FC  has just learned quite expensively.
  • The Supplemental Roster divides into three parts.
    • Slots 21-24 have no age restrictions and must earn at least the senior roster minimum salary, $81,375 for 2021.
    • Slots 25-28 must be 24 years old when the year starts, or younger, and must earn at least the reserve roster minimum, $63,547 in 2021.
    • Slots 29-30 are exactly as slots 25-28 but may contain only Homegrown Players.
A probable  current Union roster chart

The MLSPA salary data used below  is “total compensation,” as of the given date. It reflects the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s long-standing automatic bonuses for both service and production. Pro-rated signing bonuses are also included.

Value is from Transfermarkt, as dated.

The years after the “O” in the contract column indicate club options, although observation suggests the Union under Stewart and Tanner has never announced multi-year contract details for its Homegrown players. For them, the absence of data does not mean anything.

Homegrown salaries reflect how much interest clubs elsewhere may have had in the player at the time the Union signed him.

There will be one open roster slot left should both Alvas Powell be signed eventually, as currently seems possible, and Matej Oravec remain “loaned out”/”unavailable.” Whether the slot is on the senior roster or among supplemental slots 21-24 depends on how Cory Burke’s and/or Matt Freese’s new contracts affected their placement. Below, both are placed on the senior roster, but keeping Burke’s salary out of the official count to create further cap space might be a consideration.

  Name Salary Value Category Signed Current Contract
  Senior: 1-20 4/15/21 5/6/21
1 Jamiro MonteiroDP $1,476,250 $3.3M INTL1 10-Jan-20 21, 22, O 23
2 Alejandro Bedoya $1,023,333 $770k  27-Feb-20 21, O 22
3 Sergio Santos $728,500 $1.65M INTL2  14-Dec-18 21
4 Andre Blake $650,000 $2.2M GC1 17-Jan-18 O 21
5 Jakob Glesnes $448,125 $1.1M INTL3 31-Jan-20 21, O 22, 23
6 Jose Martinez $251,250 $660k INTL4 23-Dec-19 21, 22, O 23, 24
7 Ilsinho $501,250 $550k GC2  24-Jan-20 O 21
8 Kai Wagner $521,000 $2.75M INTL5  6-Feb-19 21, 22, O 23
9 Jack Elliott $340,000 $1.65M GC3  22-May-19 21, O 22
10 Kacper Przybylko $916,250 $2.2M INTL6  28-Feb-20 21, 22, 23
11 Olivier Mbaizo $89,513 $660k GC4 17-Apr-18 O 21
12 Cory Burke $400,770 $660k INTL7 2-Dec-20  21, 22, O 23
13 Stuart Findlay $425,000 $660k INTL8  25-Feb-21 21, 22, O 23
14 Joe Bendik $200,000 $330k 5-Mar-21 21
15 Matt Freese $115,500 $191k HG  16-Mar-21 21, 22, O 23, 24
16 Leon Flach After 4/15 $440k  31-Mar-21 21, 22, O 23, 24
17 Aurelien Collin After 4/15 $110k GC5 2-Apr-21 21
18 Greg Ranjitsingh After 4/15 $220k GC6 2-Apr-21 21
19 Daniel Gazdag After 4/15 $1.1M INTL9 11-May-21 21, 22, 23, O 24, 25
20 ?Alvas Powell? After 4/15 $440k GC7 ????? ?????
  Supp: 21-24
21 Matt Real $90,000 $660k HG 18-Jan-18 O 21
22 Cole Turner $88,444 $193k HG  17-Jul-19 21
23 Jack de Vries $135,556 $275k HG  20-Aug-19 21
24 Open
  Supp: 25-28
25 Anthony Fontana $108,426 $2.2M HG 17-Jul-17 O 21
26 Nate Harriel $87,500 $220k HG 17-Jul-20 21
27 Jack McGlynn $78,892 $220k HG 17-Aug-20 21
28 Paxten Aaronson $91,500 $220k HG 19-Aug-20 21
  Supp: 29-30
29 Brandan Craig $77,825 $330k HG 12- Nov-20 21
30 Quinn Sullivan $67,047 $165k HG 12- Nov-20 21
  Loaned Out
U1 Matej Oravec $284,500 $880k INTL5 20-Jan-20 21, 22, O 23
  Special Cases
U2 Selmir Miscic $70,026 $110k Special 18-Mar-21 Loaned till 11/30/21
U3 Gino Portella $71,615 $28k Special 1-Jan-21 ?????

Before the signings of Gazdag, Flach, Collin, Ranjitsingh, and possibly Powell, as of April 15, 2021 total Union salary spending was fifth-lowest in the league, in part because they have ten homegrowns seven of whom are on their first contracts.

An examination of how the current roster has been built will appear here Thursday.


  1. pragmatist says:

    For a while, Blake was unable to get a UK work permit because your MNT had to be in the FIFA top 50. Well, Jamaica now sits at 45. Watch out for the summer window! :p
    I’m kidding. I would be completely shocked if he left this summer. In fact, I’d be shocked if he left at all at this point. But Jamaica’s FIFA ranking is worth watching for anyone concerned about the possibility of a transfer.

  2. SoccerDad says:

    I’m thinking Mbaizo has earned himself a raise next year.

  3. 300k for Leon Flach is my choice.
    Przybylko is too up and down for me to be classified as a steal. Blake and Elliot are non applicable IMO. Being drafted excludes one from being a “steal”.

  4. Why not Kai Wagner?

    He came fairly inexpensively and shored up LB for the first time ever.

  5. Kai Wagner or Leon Flach would be my choice

  6. Good read, Tim.

  7. Vince Devine says:

    Kai or Leon are good choices, but I think Martinez needs to be a consideration also. I’m not sure what we paid for him, but he came here expecting to be a back-up “project” behind Oravek.

  8. Gazdag…..on a side note…. Have not seen Gazdag in Hungarys line up , not as a starter or substitute. Is he injured? Intentionally not being played or on the active game roster ?

    If so he should be returned so he can train with the Union.

  9. el Pachyderm says:

    a starting RB in MLS makes $90,000.
    It is laughable.

    • I don’t think it’s laughable, that’s not far from what he’d make in England in the Championship. I agree he deserves a raise.

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