MLS isn't known for splashing the cash on American stars. When it does, the fallout extends well beyond the handful of players directly affected.
The decision to lavish market-level (or above market-level, in truth) wages on Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan disrupted the equilibrium. It isn't a matter of whether those players deserve the contracts or whether the league and the two involved clubs should have extended themselves to acquire or retain their services. Dempsey and Donovan warrant their wages. MLS needs both of them, even at a significant cost.
Determining the exact cost may take some time, though. It isn't about discerning the amount and the duration of the deals for Dempsey and Donovan. It is about finding a way to figure out how those contracts – and Omar Gonzalez's new Designated Player deal – influence the carefully controlled pay scale within MLS and how the league will adjust to compensate.
Take Eddie Johnson's celebration in Columbus on Saturday night as an appropriate example of the give-and-take poised to unfold. Johnson headed home an inviting Mauro Rosales free kick and immediately peeled off to the sidelines. He implored Sounders FC to pay him now and rubbed his fingers together to reinforce the message.
The celebration marked the latest in a series of entreaties about the disparity between the compensation provided to Seattle's top earners and top scorer Johnson, a bargain at a base salary of $150,000 per season, according to MLS Players Union documents. Seattle teammate Obafemi Martins backed up his claims for a new pact on Twitter last month. Johnson then expressed his desire for revised terms prior to the United States' 4-3 victory against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Aug. 14.
Johnson, of course, makes a valid point. The salary structure in Seattle – like the salary structure for any club with highly compensated Designated Players – makes relatively little sense at this point from a production perspective. Yes, there are genuine reasons why MLS doles out money at the top end. Yes, those players deserve their contracts. But those considerations cannot neatly explain why Dempsey makes 32 times (or so, depending on the actual numbers) more than his club and international teammate.
Try as it might, MLS cannot stop its best players – DPs and non-DPs – from trying to close gaps when they inevitably emerge. It happened in Seattle when Dempsey arrived. It happened in D.C. (and Toronto) and San Jose (a couple of times) when Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Wondolowski shined. It will happen time and time again as players attempt to reconcile their current station with their lagging checks. It is how every player market – even the restrictive one in MLS – works.
Dempsey's arrival and the extensions for Donovan – reportedly at a significant increase due at least in part to the offer made to Dempsey – and Gonzalez (perhaps even a better case to use given his MLS-centric résumé) provide some inspiration for those players to push harder for higher wages. MLS has made significant strides in this department recently with those three deals for American players and the use of retention funds to keep other stars developed in the league, but other players will inevitable move to the front of the queue to push for an increased take.
It is easy enough to spend money on the top-level talent. MLS wants to do it. Every team in the league wants to do it. That spending, however, naturally drives the demands of the next level of players higher and higher. It even makes sense to pay the players in that next tier to increase the standard of play, but it won't end there.
At some point, the value in those expenditures decreases significantly. The battle between the league and its players to set that line in the sand assumed a new dimension with these deals. Now it is up to all parties involved – including Johnson – to find that balance once more in light of the revised landscape.