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The Red Bulls & F.C. Dallas outspent D.C. United: Why we should stop ignoring transfer fees in player costs

We need to stop saying Dallas and New York are the lowest spenders in MLS.

The emerging position of some MLS commentators and D.C. United fans is that because low-payroll teams such as the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas find themselves in their respective Conference Finals, D.C. United should be able to do the same. Generally the all-encompassing trope of Moneyball is bandied about to make this argument. But to expand on something I wrote about  talking about the end of D.C.'s 2015 season, it's not just about the salaries, it's about the total spending the team does to bring a player to its roster. It's about  transfer fees, too.

Using Steve Fenn's visualization on player salaries as orientation, let's look at the low-spending teams around D.C. United and what we know/don't know regarding the acquisition of some key components in their successful (or not) campaigns. I threw in the Timbers as a bonus cut because they're the other team still standing in the playoffs. I've also taken the liberty of incorporating guaranteed salaries from the September 15 salary list from the Players' Union, to drill down further on individual player expenses:

  • New York Red Bulls: Gonzalo Veron (transfer fee $1.8 million), Sacha Kljestan (transfer fee not available, guaranteed compensation $537,500), Ronald Zubar (transfer fee not available, guaranteed compensation $320,000).
  • Real Salt Lake: Juan Manuel Martinez (free transfer, guaranteed compensation $1,108,666.67).
  • FC Dallas: Fabian Castillo ($700,000 for half his rights when signed on loan in 2011, $160,000 guaranteed compensation and full rights to FCD now), David Texiera (transfer fee not available, $338,000 guaranteed compensation), Ezequiel Cirigliano (loan terms not available, $167,999.92 guaranteed compensation, targeted allocation money used in transaction).
  • Columbus Crew SC: Federico Higuain (transfer fee $650,000, guaranteed compensation $1.175 million),Gaston Sauro (transfer fee not available, guaranteed compensation $599,512.50).

Compare all this to D.C. United's sole DP in Fabian Espindola (Re-Entry Draft, listed with a $150,000 guaranteed salary hit, but was looking at around half a million in actual salary two years ago), and you start to see that excluding transfer fees distorts the picture significantly. Even with technically lower payrolls, FCD and RBNY both spend significantly more money - millions of dollars more - on their rosters than United does.

Now, because this is appears on a D.C. United blog, feel free to attach whatever biases you wish to include to it. And since we're here, I'm perfectly willing to have the discussion on how D.C. United spends its money any day of the week; you'd be surprised to know I agree with large chunks of it.

But when you hear that D.C. United cannot spend to get badass players before the Buzzard Point move, hopefully this serves as further evidence of just how isolated the team is financially, and how far they have to go. If someone suggests that D.C United sign [whatever player you use in FIFA] to a Designated Player deal, know that it's not going to happen at this point in time. I mean, if United isn't in on modestly priced talent like those listed here, why - how? - on Earth are they going to be in on a marquee name?

The real point, though, is the information here illustrates the additional spending teams employ beyond what appears on a player's paycheck, and it's just as worth mentioning as the total salary numbers that everyone is currently being swept up in. Let's not confuse payroll with means.