Whether you want to call it soccer or football, there’s no question the beautiful game is gaining traction in North America. For decades, fans in the United States and Canada had to make due with watching European and South American teams compete from afar with longing. Although the level of competition (and money) is still significantly higher elsewhere, North American soccer has been steadily gaining ground with the success of Major League Soccer, or MLS for short. The MLS was founded in 1993 as a requirement for the USA’s successful bid for the 1994 World Cup. Its inaugural season took place in 1996, and was initially composed of 10 American teams who struggled to compete for relevancy. Today the MLS has 16 teams in the United States, 3 in Canada, and is determined to take soccer mainstream in an already saturated North American sporting market. Attendance is up and viewers at home are tuning in more than ever thanks to a lucrative deal with NBC Sports.
The recent success of the MLS can arguably be traced to the introduction of the Designated Player Rule in 2007. MLS teams operate with a salary cap that is downright meager compared to the player salaries offered in Europe and elsewhere. To have any hope of attracting top talent, the MLS had to pay top dollar. The Designated Player Rule allowed teams to sign star players without having all of their salary count toward the team’s salary cap. David Beckham was the first internationally famous player to make waves and leave Europe behind to play in California for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Although MLS still plays second fiddle to the major European leagues, it has become a viable option for talented players almost entirely because of the designated player rule. Since Beckham, many players have secured high-paying contracts with various MLS clubs. Let’s take a look at the 10 designated players who were able to pad their bank accounts the most.
10. Dwayne De Rosario – Toronto FC – $645,333
Canadian midfielder Dwayne De Rosario wasn’t poached from outside, as he was born and raised in the MLS. The 35-year-old’s career has taken him from the San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls, DC United and finally back to the Toronto FC. In addition to one of the longest careers in the MLS, he remains the all-time leader scorer for the Canadian national team. He will begin the 2014 season back in his hometown club, Toronto FC, for a salary of $645,333.
9. Kenny Miller – Vancouver Whitecaps – $1,124,992
Kenny Miller isn’t particularly concerned with club loyalty as much as he is with the number on his paychecks. The Scottish striker made that clear after spending time at both Celtic and Rangers, two clubs in his native Scotland who have possibly the fiercest rivalry in all of modern football. He was one of only 5 people in the last 70 years to play for both teams. Miller signed for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2012, deciding that the $1,132,492 offer to play in the MLS was the most lucrative path in his foreseeable future.
8. Danny Koevermans – Toronto FC – $1,663,323
Toronto FC and Dutch striker Danny Koevermans had a melancholy relationship. Although he was brought in halfway through the 2011 season to score goals, the wishes of both parties never truly materialized. Koevermans would spend most of his 2 ½ seasons in Toronto sidelined with injuries, and although he collected $1,663,323 last season he barely clocked in play time. As of now he’s been let go and is currently a free agent.
7. Obafemi Martins – Seattle Sounders – $1,725,000
Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins joined the Seattle Sounders at the start of the 2013 MLS season. Martins had played for teams such as Newcastle United, Inter Milan, and Vfl Wolfsburg, and entered the MLS as a relatively young player at 28 years old. Martins was on the forefront of a wave of younger players opting to make the jump to MLS. The $1,725,000 salary may or may not have been a factor in his decision.
6. Marco Di Vaio – Montreal Impact – $1,937,508
The Montreal Impact lived up to their name with the signing of Marco Di Vaio in 2012 for their inaugural season as an MLS franchise. With the exception of a brief stint at Monaco, the Italian striker was venturing outside Serie A for the first time in his career and it has been a tremendous success. The 37-year-old earned every dollar of his $1,937,508 salary when he went on to be only 1 goal shy of becoming the league’s top scorer in the 2013 season. Di Vaio has renewed his contract for a 3rd season in Montreal.
5. Landon Donovan – LA Galaxy – $2,500,000
Landon Donovan has been the face of US Soccer for close to a decade. He has played for the Los Angeles Galaxy since 2005, with intermittent loan spells to high profile teams such as Everton and Bayern Munich. Donovan has become the all-time top scorer for the US national team, and his decision to stay with the MLS despite international interest is a testament to the increase in the quality of the league. He must have been able to leverage his importance to American soccer during contract negotiations, as he banked $2,500,000 in 2013.
4. Tim Cahill – New York Red Bulls – $3,625,000
The New York Red Bulls lured Australian midfielder Tim Cahill to the MLS in 2012 with a salary of $3,625,000. Cahill made his name playing for Millwall and Everton in the Premier League, and for being the ace of the Australian national team. He helped New York win the Supporter’s Shield in 2013, the award that goes to the top team of the regular season, and will be staying on for the 2014 season to help bring in more trophies.
3. Robbie Keane – LA Galaxy – $4,333,333
Robbie Keane began his MLS career in 2011 by signing to the LA Galaxy for a salary of $4,333,333 to play alongside Landon Donovan and David Beckham. Before that, he made a name for himself playing in the Premier League for Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, while becoming captain and the all-time leading scorer for the Irish national team. He was instrumental in winning the finals of the 2011 & 2012 MLS cup for the Galaxy, and will be on the roster again as the 2014 seasons kicks off.
2. Thierry Henry – New York Red Bulls – $4,350,000
Ask any Arsenal fan who their favorite player to ever wear the jersey is and chances are the answer you’ll get is Thierry Henry. The French striker led them to unparalleled glory during his tenure before seeking new challenges in Barcelona. In 2010 he joined the New York Red Bulls and immediately became their star player. His $4,350,000 salary makes him the 2nd highest paid player in the league, and has scored 30 goals in 42 appearances for his new team.
1. Clint Dempsey – Seattle Sounders – $5,038,567
In August 2013, towards the end of the MLS season, Clint Dempsey joined the Seattle Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur F.C. for an eye-popping salary of $5,038,567. Seattle paid big to have a young player with a proven track record who was, importantly, American. Dempsey will have his first full season with the Sounders in 2014, who are hoping the presence of US national team member Dempsey will act as a sign that North America is finally capable of retaining their top players.
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