Within minutes of Lionel Messi announcing that he would continue his MLS career with Inter Miami, rumors and reports of players who wanted to join him began appearing on social media and in newspapers around the world.
Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Angel Di Maria and Luis Suarez.
There is likely to be some truth to at least some of these names. Several sources familiar with the discussions confirmed that the club had been engaged in serious talks with Busquets long before Messi’s announcement. Alba is leaving Barcelona, but has made quite a bit of money in Spain and a move to Inter Miami doesn’t make much sense on the surface given the salary cap constraints below and their positional needs. Di Maria will be a free agent when his contract with Juventus expires at the end of this month, and while sources involved in the talks confirm reports that interest between Di Maria and Miami is genuine, there is a long road between interest and potential contract talks. Suarez reportedly has a buyout clause in his contract with Brazilian club Gremio, which runs until the end of 2024.
While it’s great that Inter Miami has assembled a group of Messi’s friends — who, of course, are also high-profile soccer players in their own right — to bolster the roster of a bottom-place MLS team, the facts of MLS’ salary cap could get in the way.
All of these players are highly paid at their current clubs, and Miami continues to be Under salary cap penalties For breaching these rules in the past in a case centered on over-cap payments to players – most notably French World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi. Undoubtedly every team in the MLS will be watching to see how the league handles the rules. Messi will be a designated player, so no rules will be bent or broken when he signs; Any amount of reviewers can be paid by law. But this will not apply to every player that Inter Miami signs.
Given the team’s current roster and hat setting, sporting director Chris Henderson will be very busy in the next few weeks before the secondary transfer window opens on July 5.
Here are some of the challenges he will face.
designated player locations
The “DP” Designated Player rule was introduced in 2007 when the LA Galaxy welcomed David Beckham to MLS. Teams are allowed to spend any amount of money above the salary cap in order to sign top-level players. Each team is awarded three player points which are not negotiable.
Prior to the Messi deal, Miami already had three players: Mexican midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, Ecuadorian forward Leo Campana and Brazilian midfielder Gregor, who will be out until at least September after undergoing foot surgery in March. In order to get Messi into the team, Miami would “buy” Gregor with allocation money. (Any player with a cap – which includes salary and any transfer fees – over the “budget fee cap” of $651,250 can be listed as a designated player, but players with a cap of $1,651,250 or less can also be bought below the cap. Maximum budget fee using appropriation funds.)
With Messi sliding into one of the three DP spots, Miami will almost certainly need more DP departures if Di Maria or Suarez join, as both players will almost certainly command salaries in excess of $1.65 million.
MLS clubs can use a one-time contract—different from a buyout—at any time in 2023. A buyout allows a team to remove a player from the roster and hold it at the salary cap. Pizarro is under contract until the end of 2023 and would make sense as a potential buy, should they go that route.
A DP slot can be purchased at Campana, but this will require ample cash and salary cap space to fit him and other DPs in. Another option is to sell Campana — Miami paid the Wolves a $2.7 million transfer fee at the end of 2022 and would prefer to recoup some of that — or an intra-MLS trade that could boost Miami’s reserves of general allocation money, a key tool for creating cover space. More on this in a minute.
If Miami moves to Campana and buys Pizarro, they’ll have two player spots open for them to use with the likes of Di Maria or Suarez.
salary cap area
The MLS salary cap—like many other MLS properties—has tiers. The simplest one is that clubs have a total of $5.2 million to spend on their roster. That in and of itself is not a hard ceiling, but rather a baseline number that is being worked around with multiple tools that allow them to spend more.
As described above, clubs can pay up to three DPs what they want. DPs older than 23 hit the salary cap at $651,250, while younger DPs hit lower rates: players ages 21-23 hit $200,000, and DPs younger than 21 hit the cap at 150 000 dollars. This is done to incentivize MLS teams to sign younger players, and has been a key tool in the return to the “retirement league” moniker – the average age of MLS DPs didn’t drop below 30 until 2013, and has since fallen to the current mark of 28 1 year and 21 days. In 2023, the average age of MLS player signings was 26 years, 16 days.
Another way the salary cap can be extended is by allocating funds. All clubs are given earmarked money – which is not cash, but mainly budget space – at the start of each season, but more money can be generated through player transfers abroad or through deals within the league, whether for players or other assets. There are two types of Allocation Money: General Allocation Money (GAM), which can be used to purchase a maximum number of any player, and Target Allocation Money (TAM), which has a specific use for players who earn between the maximum budgeted charge and a million above that number.
With these variables, salary spending in MLS fluctuates. Toronto FC was the highest-earning team before the summer transfer window with a total salary bill of $25,741,930 for the season and CF Montreal was the lowest at $10,511,926.
Takeaway from MLS player salaries
This is where it gets interesting for Miami.
Unfortunately, MLS does not share specific information on a team’s salary cap, unlike the NFL, National Basketball Association, and other American leagues, nor does it disclose how much appropriation money each team is holding at any one time. As such, the means by which Miami operates is somewhat of a guessing game. But given that their penalties included a $2,271,250 fine in the Secretariat, divided over the 2022 and 2023 seasons, we know Miami has been running at a deficit for the past two seasons.
They’ve done a great job of rebuilding from those sell-and-trade players last season. This year, they also moved young quarterback Bryce Duke to Montreal for center defense Kamal Miller and $1.3 million GAM. That has given them ample scope to work with to buy cap numbers, especially if they sign Busquets, who is not expected to be DP, according to sources familiar with Inter’s plans.
Busquets’ deal, by the way, would raise eyebrows if it dropped below the DP threshold. The star midfielder has been earning $26.3m a year with Barcelona and has reportedly received an extension offer of $7-8m. He reportedly received eight-figure offers from Saudi Arabia. The idea of him coming to MLS for less than $1.7 million a year would be a hard pill to swallow for many teams across the league.
Despite that, Miami will no doubt have to look to shed cap space and store cash. They likely do this in a number of ways. Traded players like linebacker Victor Ulloa ($250,000 salary) and goaltender Nick Marsman ($587,184) would be depriving at least $725,000 in salary from the cap — and, in theory, Miami would be looking for GAS on those deals. Trading rather than selling a player like Campana could mean Inter Miami lose cash in the transaction, but it would buy them a lot of valuable space across the GAM.
MLS clubs know Miami will want to dump salaries to make room for extras after signing Messi. There is no doubt that teams will look for other players on the cheap.
The club has been preparing for this moment and has remained vigilant in roster building this winter. Alejandro Pozuelo, the main acquisition since 2022, was out of contract and the club stuck to a number it did not want to exceed in the event of a possible signing of Messi. Pozuelo had hoped the club would relent, but they did not, so he signed for Turkey. He is now a free agent again.
A total of 12 players have left the club since the end of the 2022 season.
International and top list boxes
In MLS, teams are awarded 20 slots on the senior roster which count toward the salary cap. Up to 10 league players minimum or on specific types of contracts designed for young talent (adidas generation and Local Deals) are supplemental list slots and do not count towards the cap.
Within the 30 roster spots, every MLS team starts with eight international placements. These can be traded.
Currently, according to the league’s website, Inter Miami have 16 players on their senior roster and have used five of their eight international slots. This means that if Miami wanted to sign more than two of Messi’s friends Argentina/Barcelona, they would have to either trade for an international slot – which would require the use of GAM – or trade in other international players.
This is low on the list of concerns – international play slots are readily available (although they can be expensive), but it’s still an area Miami will have to account for in their current list of rebuilds around Messi.
These are champagne problems. Knowing how to build a roster around the greatest player of all time is a hugely enviable position, even if it requires intimate knowledge of the mysterious and mystical world of MLS roster rules.
That this gymnastics is needed to surround Messi with the best possible roster is perhaps a sign of the growth that is still needed in MLS. The ins and outs of table rules are designed to reduce owner costs and losses and, above all, to promote parity.
But the limitations also present very real limits to MLS’ ability to become a major league on the world stage. Signing one of the best players in the history of the game now puts this out for all to see.
(Photo: Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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