Everybody loves a bargain, especially teams in a salary cap league.
Major League Soccer is known for the big names and multi-million dollar stars, but any recipe for success in the league includes the ability to find players who can offer big production at a small salary.
The 2017 season saw several breakout campaigns by young players who made the most of their first seasons as starters in the league, from the New York Red Bulls tandem of Tyler Adams and Aaron Long, to Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
When deciding on the league's best bargains, we will exclude two groups of players: rookies and those on loan. Generally speaking, rookies who have good seasons are bargains given the relative scarcity of big-money rookie contracts. The top 2017 rookies, be it rookie of the year Julian Gressel ($93,750), Jack Elliott ($53,004), Abu Danladi ($176,000) or Jake Nerwinski ($65,004), were all great values at their positions.
As for players on loan, it is always difficult to know for sure just how much a player is costing a team given the various elements that can go into a loan deal from the international market. As much as a loaned player's listed salary might be low, those figures don't necessarily reflect the actual price he commands.
So who were the league's best bargains? Here are Goal's selections for the MLS Underpaid XI for 2017. All salaries are in guaranteed compensation as per numbers provided by the MLS Players Union.
ZACK STEFFEN, Columbus Crew - $105,000
You could make a strong argument for MLS goalkeeper of the year Tim Melia being the biggest steal in the league at the position, but the 22-year-old Steffen was one of the league's lowest-paid starters and was outstanding in goal for the Crew. His ability to make acrobatic saves and command the penalty area improved as the year went on, as did his touch and distribution.
Young Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono deserved serious consideration as well, giving the league's top team a steady starter for a $90,200 price tag.
TYLER ADAMS, New York Red Bulls - $91,041
After a standout 2016 in USL with Red Bulls II, Adams made a smooth transition to MLS in 2017, emerging as one of the league's best young players. Initially a defensive midfielder before shifting over into a right wingback role, the U.S. Under-20 national team standout played well enough to earn a call-up with the full national team in November.
Chicago's Matt Polster ($114,900) made a smooth transition to right back this season, helping fill a key void for the Fire and emerging as one of the league's best fullbacks.
IKE OPARA, Sporting Kansas City - $150,000
After years of battling serious injuries that kept him from reaching his considerable potential, Opara put it all together in 2017, becoming the dominating defensive force he was expected to be when he first arrived in the league in 2010. The Sporting KC center back anchored the league's stingiest defense, while tying his career high with three goals.
The Columbus Crew's Josh Williams ($110,000) was a reclamation project for the team and rewarded their faith by taking over as a regular starter. He not only played well, but also helped Jonathan Mensah settle down after a rough start to his time in Columbus.
AARON LONG, New York Red Bulls - $65,000
After bouncing around early in his career with Portland and then Seattle, Long found a home with the Red Bulls, first starring as a USL defender of the year in 2016 for Red Bulls II before making the step up to the Red Bulls in 2017. He blossomed under Jesse Marsch, turning into his team's best center back and an absolute steal at a salary that is sure to go up in 2018.
Vancouver's Tim Parker ($99,900) is still playing on his rookie contract, and will be due for a big raise if he chooses to re-sign with the Whitecaps.
JOEVIN JONES, Seattle Sounders, $96,166
The Sounders left back is heading to Germany after the 2017 season and he has put together a heck of an MLS farewell campaign by recording 11 assists, the most of any defender in the league. More of an attacking threat than a pure defender, the Trinidad & Tobago international has continued to be a key figure well into the playoffs.
New York City FC's Ben Sweat ($65,000) stepped in and helped Patrick Vieira's side overcome the injury absence of Ronald Matarrita, showing himself to be a very solid left back.
CRISTIAN ROLDAN, Seattle Sounders, $137,000
The Sounders midfielder followed up an impressive 2016 season with an MLS Best XI caliber campaign this year, establishing himself as one of the league's best central midfielders. The 23-year-old produced six goals and three assists, earning a spot on the U.S. Gold Cup team, and will be a driving force behind Seattle's quest for a second MLS Cup.
Minnesota United's Ibson ($210,337) was outstanding for the Loons, delivering six assists and a valuable presence in central midfield.
ALEX, Houston Dynamo - $170,000
After six seasons in MLS, Alex enjoyed a true breakout season in 2017 under Wilmer Cabrera, delivering more assists (11) this year than in all his previous seasons combined. The Brazilian thrived as the best value at playmaker in the league by a wide margin.
Columbus Crew winger Justin Meram ($328,750) isn't exactly underpaid as a midfielder, but his production (13 goals) made him a steal at that price.
MICHAEL BARRIOS, FC Dallas - $200,000
It isn't often that a player who signs a new contract still finds his way into a list of top bargains, but Barrios was still an excellent value even after doubling his salary with a new deal. His 14 assists were tied for fourth-most in MLS, and he was one of the few reliable bright spots during a disappointing season by FC Dallas.
OLA KAMARA, Columbus Crew - $482,500
Anyone who might have thought Kamara's big 2016 season was a fluke learned this year that he is that good and that reliable as a goal-scorer. His 18 goals were fifth most in MLS, on a contact that paid him a fraction of what the rest of the league's top 10 goal scorers earned (excluding Sapong). His success in MLS has helped garner attention from European clubs, and also earned him a return to the Norwegian national team.
Montreal's Anthony Jackson-Hamel ($66,150) delivered nine goals and four assists for the Impact, making him a player that Montreal will want to keep around as one of the best values on the team.
C.J. SAPONG, Philadelphia Union - $300,000
The best goal-scoring bargain in the league, Sapong finished the season with a Union-record 16 goals, most of any American and tied for eighth in the league. The 28-year-old earned a USMNT call-up after his career year, and with just one more year left on his current contract, Sapong should be in line for a new deal.
Seattle's Will Bruin ($327,000) was a revelation for the Sounders, delivering 11 goals to help his new team offset a myriad of injuries.
CHRISTIAN RAMIREZ, Minnesota United - $392,504
When Minnesota United signed Ramirez to a new deal before the club's arrival in MLS, there were some questions about whether he was really worth the salary the Loons paid him. Those questions faded quickly though as he emerged as one of the better goal-scorers in the league. He finished the season with 14 goals, third most of any American player.
Colorado Rapids forward Dominique Badji ($65,000) deserves a strong honorable mention after producing nine goals and six assists as one of the lone bright spots in a terrible year for the Rapids.