It’s not just in the top European leagues where the amount of money being thrown about keeps on rising. For a number of years now the MLS has been branded with the reputation of being ‘a retirement home’ or the final destination for ageing stars looking for their last big payday. Times are changing, and although many of the stars in this list are in the twilight years of their career, some do not fit the trend and have moved to The US to revitalize their careers after stalling elsewhere.
For those not familiar with the MLS and its salary structure, it’s complicated but I’ll give you a brief overview. Each team has a salary cap which they are not allowed to go over. However teams have designated players slots, which were introduced when a certain David Beckham joined LA Galaxy back in 2007 with the aim of increasing the MLS’ ability to compete with other leagues to attract star players to the league. A designated player only counts as a wage of $400,000 to the salary cap, when in actual fact he could be on a salary that is much more than that. The rest of the salary is paid for by the league. Confused? I’m not surprised, it’s a ruling that most football fans don’t really understand fully.
There are a couple of shocks in this list. In my opinion there are a few average players stealing a living in this league. Then again, there are a couple of former world beaters here too.
20. Federico Higuain – Columbus Crew – $1.175 million
Those with a good long term memory will remember Higuain winning the MLS newcomer award way back when he first joined Columbus Crew in 2012. The Argentine is still The Crew’s only designated player and is still as important as ever, finishing the 2015 MLS season with 8 goals and 9 assists as Crew finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference and 4th in the Overall table. The pressure on Higuain to perform has been made greater by the loss of last season’s MLS joint top scorer Kei Kamara who joined New England. Crew have struggled so far this season, but the consistency of Higuain should help them pick up more points.
19. Liam Ridgewell – Portland Timbers – $1.25 million
A face that fans of English football will recognize, Ridgewell was regular in the English Premier League with Aston Villa, Birmingham City and then West Brom before deciding to take the trip across the pond to sign for the Timbers in 2014. He made an instant impact at centre back and was made captain by head coach Caleb Porter for the 2015 season in which Portland won the MLS Cup and qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League. It was quite a shock for me to see the 2011 English League Cup winner make this list. However, Ridgewell has been outstanding since joining Timbers and $26,000 a week in wages looks pretty cheap compared against the success for Portland last season.
18. Pedro Morales – Vancouver Whitecaps – $1.258 million
Morales has been a very important player for the Whitecaps since he joined the Canadian club from Spanish side Malaga in 2014. In his debut season in the MLS the former Chile international notched up 10 goals and a dozen assists and was awarded with the MLS Newcomer of the Year Award. Last season was not as successful for Morales, as a mid season injury interrupted his good form at the start of the season and he struggled to regain that consistency, eventually losing his place in the side towards the end of the season. Despite another injury this season, Morales has already managed 5 goals and 2 assists in his 9 appearances so far.
17. Innocent Emeghara – San Jose Earthquakes – $1.3 million
Signed in the winter of 2015 from Azerbaijani club Quarabag Agdam, Innocent was brought in by San Jose to support club legend and captain Chris Wondowlowski in an attempt to strengthen their attacking force for the 2015 MLS season. However, 9 games into the season, Emeghara suffered a meniscus tear that would keep him out of action for the rest of the season. This season, the Swiss international has been mostly limited to substitute appearances as he attempts to find his feet in the MLS. So far the signing of Emeghara has not paid off for the Earthquakes and unless his form improves, it will likely stay that way.
16. Nelson Valdez – Seattle Sounders – $1.455 million
When Nelson Valdez scored on his debut for the Sounders in a 4-0 demolition of Orlando back in August, everyone expected the Paraguay international to continue scoring and also assisting for his team-mates. Since then, only once has Valdez found the back of the net for Seattle, and that was in the CONCACAF Champions League against Vancouver Whitecaps. The journeyman is more known for his creative buildup play and teamwork rather than his goalscoring ability, but assists have also been non existent. Valdez’s poor form, combined with the loss of last season’s top scorer Obafemi Martins paints a worrying picture for the Sounders who have lacked consistency so far this season.
15. Juan Manuel Martinez – Real Salt Lake – $1.458 million
Martinez joined ‘RSL’ in August of last year from Boca Juniors after being forced out of the squad because of the arrivals of Carlos Tevez and Dani Osvaldo. The Argentinian international played in 9 matches at the end of the 2015 MLS season, scoring once and assisting two. This season, Martinez has played in every single game for RSL, performing in a front three that includes Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata. So far in this campaign, the right winger has noticed up two goals and an assist.
14. Shkelzen Gashi – Colorado Rapids – $1.668 million
The Albanian international was signed by The Rapids in February from Swiss side Basel for a reported fee of around $2.5 million. The winger had a pretty impressive goal tally during his time at Basel, scoring 25 goals in 41 appearances that were spread over 2 seasons. Obviously Colorado will be expecting the same sort of return in the MLS, especially when you consider the amount they have paid. The Rapids needed to do something after finishing bottom of the Western Conference and scored the fewest amount of goals out of the 20 teams in the MLS in 2015. The signing of Gashi, along with the capture of goalkeeper Tim Howard shows that Colorado are looking to finish a lot higher up the table this time around.
13. Didier Drogba – Montreal Impact – $2.166 million
Scoring a hat trick on your first start for you new club is quite possibly the best way to start, and thats exactly what Chelsea legend Didier Drogba did in his first game for Montreal against Chicago Fire. When the signing of Drogba was announced, it was greeted with questions like “has Drogba still got it?” and “has he come here just for his final big paycheque?” Well he certainly still has it. 15 goals and 4 assists in 18 games is a phenomenal return, even for a striker of his quality. The Ivorian silenced the critics after scoring 7 goals in his first 5 matches for Impact. Drogba may be on a very nice annual wage, but it’s not as large as some other players, who Drogba is arguably better than. Even at the grand old age of 38, Drogba continues to score goals for fun.
12. Tim Howard – Colorado Rapids – $2.575 million
Finally, Tim Howard is returning home. On the 20th March, it was announced that the American Goalkeeper would be leaving Everton to join Colorado Rapids on a three and a half-year deal. Howard has been an immense goalkeeper in the Premier League for over a decade, but this season Roberto Martinez was beginning to favour Joel Robles between the sticks. Well now both Martinez and Howard have left Everton. Howard won’t officially join the Rapids until the 4th July when the MLS transfer window opens. In Tim Howard, Colorado have signed a goalkeeper that will win the hearts of their supporters, and more importantly, produce when it matters.
11. Robbie Keane – LA Galaxy – $3.5 million
It’s amazing to see Robbie Keane still scoring goal after goal even at the age of 36. The Republic of Ireland international just knows where the back of the net is. Since he joined LA Galaxy way back in 2011, Keane has notched up 98 goals and 43 assists. An outstanding record for someone in the twilight years of his career. Keane is arguably the best designated player that has ever been in the MLS. He has won the MLS Cup 3 times, and when you consider that the most anybody has won the cup is 5 times (LA Galaxy), thats an incredible achievement. The former Tottenham striker shows no sign of slowing down, and should continue to be near the top of the goalscoring charts for a few more years to come.
10. Giovani Dos Santos – LA Galaxy – $4.25 million
Once seen as the successor to Ronaldinho at Barcelona, Giovanni Dos Santos couldn’t be any farther away. Things didn’t work out at Barca, or at Tottenham and things weren’t exactly brilliant at Villarreal. Instead of the Camp Nou or White Heart Lane, Dos Santos has found his home at the StubHub Center. This will be Dos Santos’ first full season in the MLS having joined LA Galaxy in July and he’s started the new season pretty well. He’s scored 6 goals and 3 assists in 11 games. Not bad for someone who has to compete with the likes of Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes for goals. Unlike most designated players, Dos Santos is in his prime at 27 years old and could probably still do a decent job in Europe.
9. Clint Dempsey – Seattle Sounders – $4.605 million
Another former Premier League player. Clint Dempsey returned home a lot sooner than I expected him to. First he was at Fulham, and then at Tottenham before deciding in 2013, at the age of 30 to come back home to the US and join Seattle Sounders. 78 games, 34 goals and 17 assists later and Dempsey is still as important to the Sounders as ever, especially with the departure for Nigerian Obafemi Martins. Dempsey doesn’t seem to be slowing down, even at the age of 33 and will be around for a few more years.
8. Jozy Altidore – Toronto FC – $4.825 million
I was stunned when I saw this figure. As a massive follower of English football, I’ve never actually seen Jozy Alitdore deliver on the big stage. So to see him earning more than the likes of Drogba and Robbie Keane was a bit of a shock. In fairness to Altidore, he knows how to score goals in the MLS, it’s just a shame he can’t do it anywhere else. Altidore returned to the MLS after going from Sunderland, with Jermaine Defoe leaving Toronto as part of the deal. The US international scored 13 goals in 25 appearances for Toronto in 2015. However, he hasn’t managed to find the net so far this campaign. Time is still on Altidore’s side, the 26-year-old striker still has plenty of time to make a bigger impact on the MLS, and possibly even elsewhere.
7. David Villa – NYC FC – $5.61 million
When David Villa announced that we would be leaving Atletico Madrid to join, what he described as ‘an irresistible project’, I knew it was either going to be Orlando City or New York City. It was the latter and the Spanish World Cup winner became team captain of the 2015 expansion team. In his and the club’s debut season, Villa notched up 18 goals and 6 assists in 30 games. That’s not bad, but I think Villa could have done better. This season, Villa is looking sharper and hungrier for goals, scoring 8 in 12 games. I fully expect so see Villa competing for the top goalscorer in the league come October.
6. Andrea Pirlo – NYC FC – $5.915 million
Pirlo arrived in New York in July 2015 to fill their 3rd designated player slot and join David Villa and Frank Lampard in the MLS. At the time, questions were raised at whether Pirlo would have the legs to play through the US summer. Although he didn’t set the world alight like others on this list, Pirlo was solid and played well. This season, Pirlo has contributed with two assists in 10 games. His age doesn’t matter, he still has the quality to create chances out of nothing, especially with a striker like David Villa upfront.
5. Frank Lampard – NYC FC – $6 million
Lampard didn’t make himself a very popular man in New York when he announced that he would be delaying his start in the MLS until the summer months and opting to stay with Manchester City until the end of the 2014/15 Premier League season. Injuries then disrupted his debut and in 10 MLS matches in 2015, Lampard scored 3 and assisted 2. Lampard hasn’t played in the MLS so far this season because of injury. The fans will be expecting a lot from the Chelsea legend upon his return.
4. Steven Gerrard – LA Galaxy – $6.132 million
Another English legend playing his trade in the MLS. Steven Gerrard made his emotional farewell from Liverpool and the Premier League a year ago and made the trip across the pond to join LA Galaxy. On his MLS debut Gerrard scored and assisted Robbie Keane in a 5-2 win against San Jose Earthquakes. Was it a sign of what was to come? Well you could say so. Gerrard has 4 goals and 7 assists in 24 games for Galaxy, but things aren’t all rosy. He announced that he may retire at the end of the 2016 MLS season because of the long journeys, diverse altitudes and weather in the US. Time will tell whether Gerrard can adapt to the MLS.
3. Michael Bradley – Toronto FC – $6.5 million
Another player who I thought came home a bit earlier than they should. Michael Bradley was at Roma in Serie A when he decided to join Toronto and come back to the MLS in 2014, 9 years after leaving for Holland. Perhaps the money was too good to turn down. The Toronto and USMNT captain was playing further forward when he first joined the Canadian club, but since the arrival of Giovinco, Bradley has been pushed back into more of a holding midfield role, a role he has played for the US for some time.
2. Sebastian Giovinco – Toronto FC – $7.115 million
An example of a player who is probably too good for the MLS and joined because of the financial gains that were there to be had, Giovinco was on the fringes of a fantastic Juventus team that has dominated Serie A in the past 5 years. Obviously the little Italian needed to leave the Italian champions to look for more first tea football, but nobody thought we would see him in the MLS. He had an unbelievable first season in the US, scoring 22 goals and assisting 13 in 33 matches, winning him 5 individual awards. That included breaking the single-season points record which combines goals and assists together. He has started this season in the same sort of form, 11 matches 8 goals and 5 assists, simply superb.
1. Kaka – Orlando City – $7.167 million
The 2007 Ballon d’Or winner joined Orlando City as their first ever designated player back in 2015. In his debut season in the purple shirt of Orlando, the Brazilian scored 9 and assisted 6. Many will say that for the money that Kaka is paid, that return is quite simply not enough. Many will agree. Kaka has picked up a couple of injures at the start of the 2016 MLS season, but has managed two goals and two assists in 5 matches, the sort of return Orlando fans will be expecting to see for the remainder of the season.