Major League Soccer’s designated player rule has allowed the league to attract several elite level talents away from major European leagues. The prospect of making a comparable salary in an emerging league has allowed several players to extend their careers while still playing meaningful soccer. The rule allows clubs to sign players to higher salaries that will only count for a fraction of their value against the league salary cap. It has had a transformative effect on the league, allowing it to grow and attract superstars like David Beckham.
The Designated Player rule allows MLS teams to sign up to three designated players that will count only as a maximum of $387,500 towards the salary cap. This rule has allowed maximum player salaries to grow, however average and median MLS salaries are far lower than that of a designated player. Income inequality is running rampant in the league despite average salary rising because of fifteen players earning in excess of $1 million this season. For instance, Clint Dempsey earns over 100 times more than several of his Seattle Sounders teammates.
The league has succeeded in attracting elite talents from all over the world. Nine countries are represented among the league’s fifteen highest paid players, including five Americans. As the league emerges into its newest era, attendance records are being set and team revenues are increasing. The league bears a new logo to mark this occasion and has broken the $7 million single player salary barrier this season. Here are the top earning players in 2014.
**Frank Lampard has not be included on this list, as his compensation has not been disclosed by the MLS yet.
15 Liam Ridgewell – Portland Timbers - $1.20 million
Earlier this year, after finishing the English Premier League campaign with West Bromwich Albion, Liam Ridgewell made the jump across the pond to Major League Soccer. He signed as a designated player with the Portland Timbers and has featured in their back line since debuting in July. He quickly was called up to the MLS All-Star team by his Portland manager Caleb Porter, an incident that caused controversy among MLS fans. He has featured the full 90 minutes in his 12 appearances so far this season, and has scored two goals.
14 Gilberto – Toronto FC - $1.205 million
After spending several seasons on loan from Brazilian club Internacional, Gilberto was signed by Toronto FC for a transfer fee of $3.5 million in December of last year. He has since boosted the offense with seven goals and five assists in his 25 games this season. The 25-year-old striker has performed well this season, and has been the club’s second leading goal scorer. Toronto FC also had two other big signings in the off season, and many view Gilberto as a long-term investment at the striker position.
13 Omar Gonzalez – LA Galaxy - $1.25 million
Omar Gonzalez has been a constant feature in the Los Angeles Galaxy defense since being drafted 3rd overall in the 2009 MLS Super Draft. He has also represented the United States at the World Cup and played an important role in the USMNT’s crucial draw against Mexico at Azteca. During his time with the Galaxy, he has anchored defenses that have won two MLS Cups and two Supporters Shields. He has earned Rookie of the Year, Defender of the Year, and has been featured in the MLS’ Best XI three times. Gonzalez is one of the league’s best defenders and has the Galaxy in contention for the best record in the league.
12 Pedro Morales – Vancouver Whitecaps - $1.41 million
In February, the Vancouver Whitecaps paid €300,000 to secure the signature of Chilean attacking midfielder Pedro Morales. He has repaid their generosity with ten goals and ten assists in thirty matches this season and currently has the Whitecaps in playoff contention. The 29-year-old’s career has been revitalized after a difficult stretch in La Liga with Malaga. His contributions have allowed Vancouver to contend for a spot in the MLS playoffs, as without him they would not have come close.
11 Obafemi Martins – Seattle Sounders - $1.75 million
After playing in the top leagues of Italy, England, Russia, and Spain, Obafemi Martins joined the Seattle Sounders at the age of 27. He has developed a reputation for scoring spectacular goals and celebrating with his trademark backflip. This season, he has scored 17 goals and has the Seattle Sounders sitting at the top of the table with 60 points. He is one of only two players in the league to be in the top 5 for goals and assists and has proven to be a spectacular investment for Seattle.
10 Marco Di Vaio – Montreal Impact - $2.6 million
After a long and prolific career in Italy’s Serie A, Marco Di Vaio made the decision to join the Montreal Impact as a designated player. He was named to the MLS All-Star Team and MLS Best XI in 2013. He was also named the Impact’s MVP last season, but has struggled in limited appearances this season. He has amassed 23 appearances this season, but has only started 15 matches. The Impact have struggled this season and are currently sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference. He announced that he'll be retiring at the end of the season.
9 Jermaine Jones – New England Revolution - $3.25 million
Jermaine Jones joined Major League Soccer in August following a successful World Cup tournament with the United States. Two clubs submitted offers to sign Jones as a designated player, the Chicago Fire and New England Revolution. The league determined the rights to Jones’ contract by blind draw, which came out in favor of New England. He has adjusted to the league very quickly, earning two goals and three assists in only seven appearances.
8 Tim Cahill – New York Red Bulls - $3.62 million
Australian striker Tim Cahill has displayed his skills in the MLS for the last three seasons after being purchased from Everton for £1 million. He helped the New York Red Bulls win the 2013 Supporters’ Shield and scored eleven goals during the campaign. He scored one of the most stunning goals in the World Cup this summer, but has been relegated to a lesser role in New York following the emergence of Bradley Wright-Phillips. He has struggled to get in goal scoring form this season, with only two so far.
7 Thierry Henry – New York Red Bulls - $4.35 million
Thierry Henry joined the New York Red Bulls in 2010 and has been an MLS superstar over the last five seasons. During his time in the league, he has scored over 50 goals and given the league a boost in credibility by attracting a player of his caliber. He has led the Red Bulls to two Eastern Conference titles and an MLS Supporters Shield. He is currently the all-time assist leader in Red Bulls club history. Rumors are currently circulating that he is considering retirement after the season.
6 Robbie Keane – LA Galaxy - $4.50 million
Robbie Keane joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011 after an unsatisfying stretch on loan with West Ham United. He has since scored over 50 goals and is currently in contention for the league lead in goals scored. He has been an indispensable part of Galaxy squads that have won two MLS Cups and a Supporters Shield. He was the league’s top scorer in 2012 and has been named in the Best XI twice. Keane’s efforts have greatly contributed to the Galaxy’s success over the last several seasons.
5 Landon Donovan – LA Galaxy - $4.58 million
Landon Donovan is an American soccer legend. The former United State Men’s National Team captain may have been left out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s lineup for the World Cup, but he has been fantastic for the Galaxy this season. Donovan currently leads the league in assists with nineteen and has scored ten goals in his 27 games this season. Donovan is the league’s all-time leading goal scorer and holds the same honor for the United States. He will retire at the end of this season as one of the best American soccer players ever.
4 Jermain Defoe – Toronto FC - $6.18 million
Jermain Defoe was lured away from Tottenham and the English Premier League by one of the most lucrative contracts in MLS history. After starting the season on fire with two goals in his debut and another in his second match, he has cooled off slightly as the season wears on. With eleven goals on the season, he has been contributing at a rate better than one goal every two games, but Toronto FC currently sits outside of the playoff picture.
3 Michael Bradley – Toronto FC - $6.5 million
In one of the league’s biggest off season signings, Michael Bradley announced his return to the MLS by joining Toronto FC. He was purchased for a transfer fee of $10 million from Serie A club Roma. Bradley featured prominently for the USMNT in Brazil, but his play was criticized by many pundits for his inability to capitalize on chances. Bradley has contributed two goals in 22 appearances this season, but has only contributed three assists.
2 Clint Dempsey – Seattle Sounders - $6.69 million
Last season, the Seattle Sounders shocked the soccer community by signing Clint Dempsey, the leading American goal scorer in English Premier League history. Dempsey has since donned the American captain’s armband, and led his country in Brazil. Demspey is currently in the top 10 goal scorers with 14 so far this season. He was named to the MLS All-Star Team and has been a key component of the success that the Seattle Sounders have had this season.
1 Ricardo Kaka – Orlando City – $7.16 million
The league’s highest paid player is owned by a team that has not played a single game. Ricardo Kaka was signed by Orlando City Soccer Club as the first signing in their history. He has since been on a loan spell in Brazil with Sao Paolo and has stayed fit by scoring a goal in his ten appearances for the club. Orlando is renowned for their passionate soccer fans and the prospect of their second major professional sports franchise has many fans excited. Time will tell if Kaka can bring success to the expansion franchise.