Those who follow top-tier European football leagues would probably be a bit confused by the salary structures utilized in North American top-flight competition Major League Soccer. MLS, for starters, has a salary cap that every team must follow, a cap that is not truly a “hard cap” because of regulations such as the Designated Player Rule and the supposed “Core Player” spot that still does not make a ton of sense even to those who actively follow the league. Big-name players have jumped at the chance to cash-in on massive paydays in North America, but some of those signings have led to fans and critics alike referring to MLS as a “retirement league” for aged stars who are in the twilight of their careers.
That may or may not, depending on your opinion/biases, be the case as it pertains to four of the six highest-paid players in MLS for the 2015 regular season. Two of those individuals, legends for their Barclays Premier League sides, have done nothing of merit since putting pen to paper on their MLS deals, and one was involved in a controversy that was yet another black eye for the league. The man who is atop this list had a roller coaster ride of ups and downs while featuring in Europe, and he is now looking to end his career in style.
21 Honorable Mention - Didier Drogba: Reported $3 million
The Chelsea legend who hoisted the Premier League and Champions League trophies while with that club had been linked with MLS for several years. It had been rumored that the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy were set to fight over his signature, but the battle ended up being between the Chicago Fire and Montreal Impact. Montreal emerged as the big winners at the end of the day, and Drogba's arrival to the Canadian outfit was met with a party atmosphere at the airport. The 37-year-old veteran front man will now be tasked to prove that he has plenty left in the tank.
20 Innocent Emeghara: $1.04 Million
The San Jose Earthquakes were hoping to get some help for the team's attack when the club landed Innocent Emeghara in the winter of 2015. Emeghara was asked to wear multiple hats during his early days with the club, and that transition was not the easiest for the player. His debut MLS season was put into a tailspin in the spring when it was learned that he had suffered a serious knee injury. The Earthquakes announced at that time that surgery would sideline the designated player for four-to-six months, a tough break for a 26-year-old who has not yet really had a chance to show what he can do in MLS.
19 Kevin Doyle: $1.17 Million
Kevin Doyle is one of the several designated players featured in this piece still learning what it means to perform in MLS. Doyle had been signed to Wolverhampton Wanderers up through the spring months when he was granted an early release from that deal so that he could join up with the Colorado Rapids. The Irish striker made headlines in the United States and also across the pond when he netted a beautiful tally that helped propel the Rapids over Seattle Sounders in July. Both Doyle and the Rapids will be hoping that there is even more to come in future days.
18 Federico Higuain: $1.17 Million
Federico Higuain has made history multiple times during his time with the Columbus Crew. Higuain was the first ever Crew player to win the MLS Newcomer of the Year Award, an honor that was bestowed upon him back in 2012. He is also the first ever million-dollar player in the history of the club. The Crew do not play in a massive market, and thus the club is not able to offer certain opportunities received by designated players who ink contracts with sides that perform in cities such as Los Angeles or New York. Higuain has proven his worth to the Crew since joining the side with numerous stellar performances in MLS play.
17 Gilberto: $1.2 Million (loan to Vasco de Gama)
There really is not much to say about Gilberto for the 2015 MLS regular season. The 26-year-old Brazilian front man was hoped to be a goal-scoring machine upon joining the Canadian outfit, but American forward Jozy Altidore linking up with Toronto made Gilberto surplus to requirements. He has since joined Vasco de Gama on a loan deal, and his future with Toronto and in MLS is in doubt during the summer. There have been rumors since this past winter that Gilberto and TFC will permanently part ways once the current MLS regular season concludes.
16 Pedro Morales: $1.41 Million
The Vancouver Whitecaps have taken fans on emotional rides during seasons over the past couple of years. While the club has disappointed supporters as it pertains to the postseason and MLS Cup, Vancouver no doubt got it right with the signing of Pedro Morales. Morales was honored as the 2014 MLS Newcomer of the Year after he notched 10 goals and a dozen assists, leading his team in both of those categories. While Morales did go through hot and cold streaks during his debut campaign with the Whitecaps, he served his purpose as a MLS designated player.
15 Omar Gonzalez: $1.45 Million
Omar Gonzalez has served as a prototype for future young designated players. The center back broke into the LA Galaxy first team during his first season in MLS, and he eventually received a call-up into the United States Men's National Team. Faced with the reality that Gonzalez could have his head turned by an opportunity to play in Europe, the Galaxy rewarded the defender with a DP contract. Gonzalez now gets to make over $1 million to remain with his domestic club and in MLS. The league would enjoy to see other young American players follow in the footsteps of Gonzalez.
14 Shaun Maloney: $1.58 Million
Chicago Fire are not LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls or New York City Football Club in that Chicago has struggled to land massive signings during transfer windows (assuming those Didier Drogba rumors are inaccurate). Shaun Maloney may be a bit overpaid in the eyes of some, but he is nevertheless a discount designated player signing in today's MLS market. Maloney is dealing with a back injury in the summer of 2015, something that will be a concern moving forward. A 32-year-old with a bum back during the hot summer months may find himself having to suffer with that setback until he gets adequate rest.
13 Andrea Pirlo: $2.31 Million
The first thought had by many fans and analysts upon learning that Andrea Pirlo had agreed to join up with expansion club New York City Football Club in the summer of 2015 was that the Italian icon would sell a lot of shirts among New York fans. Pirlo, who played for Juventus in the Champions League Final of June of this year (during which he was largely anonymous), turned 36 years old in the spring, and the veteran will be expected to make impacts for NYCFC during the hot summer months. While his free-kick abilities aren't going anywhere anytime soon, those hoping for Pirlo to be an immediate MLS All-Star would do well to lower such hopes to more realistic levels.
12 Obafemi Martins: $3 Million
Obafemi Martins has been a dream designated player since joining Seattle Sounders. Martins has buried tallies and pulled off numerous back-flip celebrations that have gotten himself, the Sounders and MLS featured on programs such as SportsCenter. The DP has helped Seattle win multiple trophies, and his absences from the club have been noticeable in the team's lackluster form when he hasn't been on the pitch. Just as important as all of that was that Martins joined the Sounders when he had plenty of quality left in him, and the hope is that Seattle and other clubs will follow suit with similar signings down the road.
11 Jermaine Jones: $3.05 Million
The saga that involved the United States Men's National Team midfielder linking up with the New England Revolution in 2014 was one of the weirdest we will hopefully ever see in the league. A blind draw – seriously, a blind draw – was utilized to determine that Jermaine Jones would join the Revolution, yet another reminder that the North American top flight may want to reconsider the single-entity structure. There is plenty right and plenty wrong with MLS, but the story that finished with Jones becoming a New England player was ridiculous and could have been avoided had the league (gasp!) let the player sign for the team of his choice.
10 Giovani Dos Santos: $4.1 Million
Giovani Dos Santos agreeing to terms with MLS and with LA Galaxy in the summer of 2015 will hopefully, along with other such similar moves, represent a shift in the type of designated players clubs covet moving forward. Dos Santos is a mainstay in the Mexico Men's National Team who recently turned 26 years old and is thus in the prime of his playing days. He is a marketable star who is also a talented attacking option. LA Galaxy have a long history of getting things right over the past several years, and Dos Santos could be yet another stroke of genius for the club.
9 Robbie Keane: $4.5 Million
There is a solid argument to be made that Robbie Keane is the greatest designated player and maybe even the best player in the history of MLS. The ageless front man continues to score highlight reel goals for LA Galaxy even though he turned 35 years old earlier this summer, and Keane continues to show little signs of slowing down despite his veteran status. Those who would point to the play of Keane since he has linked up with the Galaxy as a sign that MLS is not a “retirement league” for such older stars should remember: Keane is the exception that disproves the rule.
8 Clint Dempsey: $4.6 Million
The supposed arrangement that Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur has with MLS, one that will see Tottenham feature as the opposition at the 2015 MLS All-Star Game, is somewhat of a mystery, but it is believed that a handshake agreement resulted in Clint Dempsey joining Seattle Sounders in 2013. With his European obligations seemingly finished, the 32-year-old should be all-in on helping Seattle win hardware for the remainder of his club career; when he is not, of course, busy with those FIFA dates and with playing for the United States Men's National Team.
7 Jozy Altidore: $4.75 Million
The career of United States Men's National Team striker Jozy Altidore is traveling down a familiar path in the summer of 2015. Altidore enjoyed a bit of positive form, he ran into a brick wall of fitness issues/scoring droughts/bit of both, and he then got himself in the doghouse of US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Toronto FC supporters will not at all care about where Altidore stands with Klinsmann or with anybody else associated with US Soccer. They will want to see the front man routinely hitting the back of the net while on club duty during the second half of the MLS campaign.
6 David Villa: $5.61 Million
David Villa has been somewhat of a mixed bag in his first season with MLS expansion side New York City Football Club. While Villa has shown that he is capable of turning the clock back with his performances, he has also been dealing with some injury setbacks that have limited his abilities on the pitch. The 33-year-old may struggle to get to full fitness during the hot summer months, especially if NYCFC need his services while attempting to climb into the playoff positions of the Eastern Conference standings. We shall see how much Villa has left in the tank.
5 Frank Lampard: $6 Million
It would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which Frank Lampard's MLS debut went any worse. New York City Football Club fans felt lied to upon learning that Lampard would remain a Manchester City player up through the end of the 2014-15 Premier League campaign, delaying his MLS start until the summer months. Lampard then arrived to NYCFC in such shape that a calf injury kept him off the pitch for back-to-back games. Once he is able to contribute to the club on the pitch, Lampard is going to owe the NYCFC faithful in a big way via some outstanding performances.
4 Steven Gerrard: $6.33 Million
Steven Gerrard scored a relatively easy goal in his LA Galaxy debut, the masses rejoiced, and all was well with MLS. Fans would do well to remember that the Liverpool legend has not looked like his old self over the past couple of years, which is understandable when you realize that the Premier League icon turned 35 years old this past spring. Gerrard has given his heart, blood, sweat and even some tears to the beautiful game. He does not anybody in the sport anything. Gerrard will now ride off into the sunset with millions upon millions of dollars extra in his bank account. Good money if you can get it.
3 Michael Bradley: $6.5 Million
The Toronto FC career of Michael Bradley could take an interesting turn in the summer of 2015 depending on what happens with the MLS outfit. Let's say, just for argument's sake, that TFC earn some positive results and that the team's midfield performs well enough to get by while Bradley is busy with the United States Men's National Team and Gold Cup duties. The possibility could then arise that those running Toronto could consider embracing life without Bradley on a full-time basis; that is, of course, assuming a team (looking at you New York Red Bulls) would be willing to bring on the American.
2 Sebastian Giovinco: $7.11 Million
Maybe, after years of trying and of big-name signings that did not work out for the club, Toronto FC have finally gotten it right with Sebastian Giovinco. Giovinco, who turned 28 years old earlier this year, has been the ideal DP while featuring for Toronto, a young athlete still in the prime of his career who clearly has not phoned it in just because he is being (over)paid in MLS. The entertaining and exciting attacker has left many back lines in his dust en route to putting together what could be an MVP-caliber campaign, and he has helped Toronto make strides away from those punchlines that have hovered over the club for years.
1 Kaka: $7.16 Million
It was one of the worst kept secrets in all of MLS after Orlando City Soccer Club was officially announced as one of the league's latest expansion sides that Kaka would be linking up with the team for the 2015 season. Whether or not Kaka has been worth his salary is a debatable topic. The former AC Milan and Real Madrid star has not been the league MVP during the opening half of the current campaign, but he should get at least some credit for Orlando drawing sizable crowds to home games. Kaka stated in July of 2015 that he favors MLS over La Liga, words that made him a loyal MLS employee and quite the spokesman for the league.