The Mexican edition of Forbes released a list of the highest-paid players in Mexico on Monday. It presented rather engaging reading for MLS followers north of the border.Several familiar faces topped the salary table in Mexico. Monterrey striker Humberto Suazo ($3 million) and Club América forward Christian Benítez ($2.7 million) drew the largest wage packets. Tigres midfielder Lucas Lobos ($2.2 million), Santos Laguna goalkeeper Oswaldo Sánchez ($2 million) and Cruz Azul playmaker Christian Giménez ($1.8 million) completed the top five.
The level of compensation afforded to these stars comes as little surprise. Mexican clubs possess the financial resources to pay competitive salaries. And these stars – all among the top players in Liga MX – require these sorts of contracts to keep them from decamping to Europe or exploring lucrative options further afield.
But it does present an opportunity of sorts at first glance. These salaries are significant, but they are not out of MLS' price range.
A handful of Designated Players – including current luminaries Tim Cahill ($3.6 million in guaranteed compensation, according to MLS Players Union documents released in October 2012), Thierry Henry ($5.6 million) and Robbie Keane ($3.4 million) – currently earn more money than any player in Liga MX. Several other players match or surpass the $1.5 million salary required to slide into the top 10 of the Forbes list.
In this particular bracket, MLS clubs can pursue a Mexican-based player. Sometimes, they even try to do so. Chicago felt it could persuade Suazo to leave Monterrey on a free transfer this summer. The Fire even reached a tentative agreement on acceptable terms during the winter, according to a recent report by MLSsoccer.com. Suazo eventually and predictably rejected those overtures and signed a new deal to stay with the perennial Liguilla contender through 2016.
Perhaps some enterprising club can convince a player of Suazo's stature to make the move to MLS at some point down the line. Money proves awfully persuasive in the final accounting, particularly when it always arrives on time. Maybe the outmoded Mexican transfer system – a contraption where even out-of-contract players can only move domestically after an agreement is reached between the clubs – will provide an opportunity to swoop in at the right time to snap up a talented figure.
Even with those considerations in the mix, it will take a special player and a special set of circumstances to make the leap. MLS offers a lower, but still competitive, standard and a stable way of life. The likely prospect will probably hit his peak a year or two before he decides to make the move. He probably doesn't play for Mexico. And he probably finds himself drawn to the United States for some off-the-field reasons as well.
The problem for MLS in this equation does not rest in its ability to entice established players. A concerted effort by a few owners could persuade a few of them to make the jump. Just ask the contingent of European players who prioritize lifestyle over economics to play in the league every year.
Instead, it comes from the the players who couldn't quite make their way onto the list and the influence they have on their sides. From a player acquisition perspective, the primary difference between Liga MX and MLS rests with the approach to signings further down the pecking order and the corresponding impact on the standard of play.
Mexican clubs compete in the global market to build a squad rather than pick off one or two integral figures to cap it. They offer competitive wages and reasonable transfer fees to lure talented players from South America. And the corresponding strength of the league – one of the top two or three competitions in this part of the world – and most of its clubs reflects that willingness to spend (and an ability to develop domestic talent, but that topic is for another time).
MLS does not have the desire or the latitude to match the expenditures made by Mexican clubs on squad players within its current structure. American and Canadian clubs operate with refreshing and startling efficiency. They pay transfer fees reluctantly. They restrict contractual bonuses and improvements for domestic players whenever possible. They turn to modestly paid Designated Players more frequently now to relieve the burden on the few genuine stars, but the bedrock players still settle for wages far below market value. And they exist within a system that still relies heavily on lifestyle advantages and wage suppression even as the resources continue to grow.
Those divergent spending tactics explain why the salaries listed for the top players in both leagues do not tell the entire story. The gulf between the competitions isn't about the players at the pinnacle. MLS wields its financial clout to identify and sign top players. It is about the dissimilar tactics used further down the line and the impact those philosophical differences have on the standard of play.
Until the spending gap in the middle class – particularly for the quality of foreign player – closes significantly, the debate about the players at the top end rather misses the point. Those alluring Liga MX stars may look attainable on paper. Some might even sign someday to strike a momentary blow. But even their influential arrivals would not immediately address or erase the difference in the standard of play.