Bruce Arena's side will welcome the influential Brazilian back to southern California, but his arrival renews concerns about the Galaxy's compliance with MLS salary restriction.Distressed cries rang out from coast to coast yesterday when Los Angeles surprisingly announced Juninho would leave Sao Paulo to return to southern California yet again.
Most of those moans and shouts fell into two categories of incredulous queries: (1) how in Doug Logan's name could Bruce Arena shoehorn yet another influential player into his squad and keep the Galaxy within the salary budget?; and (2) is there any way to stop the MLS Cup holders from repeating last season's success in 2012?
On the second point, it seems the majority of fans and observers have answered in the negative. It's hard to disagree at the moment, though the debate isn't as open and shut as many suggest. By adding Edson Buddle and Juninho (plus, and perhaps far less importantly, signing Leonardo on a permanent deal) into its already formidable squad, the Galaxy appear stronger on paper than the group that won the title last season.
Juninho, in particular, could prove decisive on several fronts. David Beckham's presumed Olympic participation and Marcelo Sarvas' inability to feature in CONCACAF Champions League play required Arena to reinforce in central midfield. Kyle Nakazawa or Michael Stephens could have stepped into the breach if required, but the Brazilian schemer's presence offers assured and tidy play at a far higher level than either of those promising talents can regularly supply. Securing his services on loan could provide the difference between a campaign of frustration and a journey toward immortality.
Such a lofty ending remains far off in the distance for a Galaxy side with pressing questions still to answer. Omar Gonzalez's recent knee surgery will keep him out for several months and mandate the acquisition of a capable and consistent replacement. The wrong choice could crack the Galaxy's resolute foundation and disturb the balance of the side. Other concerns include the dearth of proven cover for Josh Saunders if he buckles under his new burdens (he collected 18 of his 26 career starts last year) or suffers an injury, the lack of natural width if Landon Donovan and Mike Magee aren't available and the prospect of a distracted Beckham lacking his usual panache until he completes his duties in the summer.
Most other clubs would gladly swap their lots for those relatively minor concerns and the weight of expectation, but they are instead left to wonder how exactly the Galaxy can accommodate three Designated Players, the returning trio of Buddle, Juninho and Sean Franklin, the incoming Sarvas and the lingering salary millstone better known as Chad Barrett within the $2.81 million salary budget allotted for 2012. It is a conundrum with no readily apparent answer and no satisfactory solution in the offing.
(Note: If the 18 other clubs would like to test Arena's salary budget acumen and the accompanying MLS explanation for the Galaxy's salary budget compliance, they would reject any overtures to whisk Barrett away via trade. This collective suggestion has little to do with Barrett's ability [he can start in MLS on a regular basis, even if Toronto FC fans disagree], but rather focuses on the $192,000 base/$225,333.33 guaranteed salary [per MLS Players Union documents] he pulled down in 2011. Perhaps the Galaxy found a way to temper former TFC general manager Mo Johnston's largesse heading into the final year of the four-year deal Barrett signed in Sept. 2008 [he didn't feature in the re-entry process, by the way] or maybe the Reds still carry some of Barrett's wages on their salary budget. Even if Barrett's salary is defrayed in some way, the prospect of keeping him in Los Angeles is worth evaluating since the Galaxy cannot buy him out now [the deadline to do so has passed] and must carry him if there are no takers.)
As one might expect from the league's most deft operator in this particular department, Arena cleared plenty of money off the books and cobbled together allocation during the winter. Six-figure earners Chris Birchall and Donovan Ricketts departed (and the Jamaican goalkeeper's exit helpfully yielded allocation money from flush expansion side Montréal) to clear budget room, while comparatively expensive bench players like Frankie Hejduk and Jovan Kirovski yielded to younger and cheaper alternatives. Loan moves by Donovan and Robbie Keane likely garnered some additional financial relief (especially if the league felt it needed to provide it to make the numbers work), while the Galaxy's CONCACAF Champions League duties will send more allocation money flowing into the coffers.
Even if Arena found a way to pick up the extra $70,000 in allocation money offered for employing just 28 players and socked away plenty of cash to buy down the DP budget charges, the current Galaxy roster stretches the bounds of what appears acceptable. Los Angeles may ultimately comply under the fluid regulations used to calculate compliance, but its particular roster situation fails to persuade clubs, fans and observers that every team in the league operates within the same strictures.
Consider this breakdown of the guaranteed salaries for the top nine returning earners – plus the guaranteed salary Buddle earned in 2010 before he left for Germany – as an illustrative (but not concrete or determinative) exercise to explain the problem:
David Beckham (DP) – 335,000*
Landon Donovan (DP) – 335,000*
Robbie Keane (DP) – 335,000*
Chad Barrett – $225,333
Omar Gonzalez – $197,000
Edson Buddle – $188,448
Todd Dunivant – $141,750
Sean Franklin – $111,139
Mike Magee – $105,350
Juninho – $100,000
(* – This number constitutes the budget charge for a DP on the team at the start of the season. Clubs can buy the budget charge down to $150,000 with allocation money. In order to hit the minimum salary budget charge for all three DPs, the Galaxy would need $550,000 in allocation money each season.)
With the remaining $735,980(ish) in their budget plus any additional space gained by buying down cap space with allocation money (or reworking a contract or two), the Galaxy must theoretically accomplish the following tasks:
(1) accommodate a likely raise and signing bonus for Franklin (out-of-contract),
(2) assume any raise or signing bonus afforded to Buddle upon his return (note: he reportedly made somewhere between three and four times his 2010 MLS salary in Germany),
(3) compensate for the CBA-mandated raises to the minimum salary [five percent raise to $44,100] and other contractually-mandated bonuses and pay hikes,
(4) dole out for a portion of any acquisition fees used to sign players (e.g., Juninho),
(5) sign at least eight more players to the senior roster, including Leonardo ($100,000 in guaranteed money in 2011, for the record), Sarvas and, potentially, another central defender to plug the gap created by Gonzalez's injury
Although the Galaxy could certainly concoct a way to shoehorn every last dollar into the salary budget (and Ridge Mahoney made that case yesterday) and may possess enough allocation money to do so, any resolution will still prompt some level of skepticism about the propriety of the situation. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid noted the apparent disparity between the Galaxy and Sounders FC on a conference call on Tuesday, while several other coaches and technical directors will have made the same point behind closed doors.
Unfortunately for the other 18 clubs, Los Angeles' backroom wrangling and salary budget crunching matters far less than the talent it now has in its starting XI with both Buddle and Juninho back in the fold. At the moment, it looks like the Galaxy could defend their title with a stronger unit – when Gonzalez returns, of course – than the one that tasted glory last season. Little wonder then why the howls rang out across the league upon hearing the news.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.