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MLS 101: Roster Rules and the Salary Cap

HARRISON, NJ - APRIL 02:  The Houston Dynamo pose for a team photo before playing the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on April 2, 2011 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
HARRISON, NJ - APRIL 02: The Houston Dynamo pose for a team photo before playing the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on April 2, 2011 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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The MLS 101 series will be a "living/breathing document" in that I will continue to edit and update these post to keep up to date with the inevitable changes that MLS will make. I encourage you to bookmark the post so you can use them as a reference going forward.

Time to put on your thinking caps, or tinfoil hat if you prefer, and dive into an examination of Major League Soccer's current roster and salary cap rules, and how they apply to the 2012 Dynamo. A few notes before we get started:

  1. This is based on the last MLSPA Salary information release from 9/1/11
  2. There is some speculation on my part concerning salary levels for new players.
  3. I was told there would be no math...they lied.
Basically, this isn't stone cold fact, but it should at least paint a picture for you to look at.

For non-Dynamo fans reading this, all the principles and ideas discussed can be applied to your team as well.

The Dynamo at this very moment, have 19 players on their active roster. Add to that seven new players that have been drafted over the past week and that brings the roster to 26. The latest MLS roster rules explain that a team can have up to 30 players on their roster, within a somewhat complex set of guidelines (which I'll get to in a minute).

The salary cap for each MLS team in 2011 was $2.675 million. When the new collective bargaining agreement was agreed to in 2010, the salary cap jumped just over 10% from it's previous point. As part of the deal, the cap will increase 5% each season until the deal expires in 2014. In addition, minimum salaries ($42k in 2011) will increase 5% per season as well. This means the 2012 salary cap should be $2,808,750 with minimum salaries set at $44,100.

It's a somewhat loose cap with various ways to work around. That's how the Galaxy and the Red Bulls are able to spend upwards of $15 million on salary, while the Dynamo spend significantly less.

It's not that Houston or other clubs couldn't spend that much, they just chose not to or cannot afford the additional cost. That's the wiggle designed in to the salary cap system in MLS that actually allows for some kind of "free spending" should a team's ownership be willing to foot the bill (while still preventing runaway spending) by utilizing designated players slots and allocation money (see Lesson Two).

The Dynamo run a tight ship and it's been effective for them. The new stadium will help increase revenues for the club, along with the improved shirt sponsorship deal they signed last season. Until AEG unloads their majority share in the club though, I doubt you're going to see the Dynamo spending big money anytime soon, and that's just fine.

Spending doesn't equal trophies and it's not like Houston is financially handicapped, just restrained. If anything it forces Kinnear and Canetti to work smarter and be shrewder with personnel decisions, something they've shown to be very good at.

Alright, on to the finer details.

Here are the 2011 MLS Roster rules. There are likely to be some changes but this will at least give you an idea of the system the Dynamo have to work in.

  • Players occupying roster spots 1-20 count against the club's 2011 salary budget of $2,675,000, and are referred to collectively as the club's Salary Budget Players.
  • Roster spots 19 and 20 are not required to be filled, and teams may spread their salary budget across only 18 Salary Budget Players. A minimum salary budget charge will be imputed against a team's salary budget for each unfilled senior roster slot below 18.
  • The maximum budget charge for a single player is $335,000.
  • A Designated Player counts $335,000 against the club's salary budget, unless the player joins his club in the middle of the season, in which case his budget charge will be $167,500.
  • Players occupying roster spots 21-30 do not count against the club's salary budget, and are referred to collectively as the club's Off-Budget Players (maximum of 10 per team).
  • All Generation adidas players are Off-Budget players.
  • Players occupying roster spots 1-24 will earn at least $42,000 in 2011.
  • Players occupying roster spots 25-30 will earn at least $32,600 in 2011.
  • Clubs may elect to leave up to two of these roster spots (25-30) vacant and use $35,000 for each empty spot as allocation money.
  • Clubs may sign up to two Home Grown Players to Generation adidas contracts.
  • Age Designations: Any player making $32,600 must be under the age 25 (does not turn 25 or older in 2011).
  • As of 2011, each MLS team began with eight international slots, which are tradable. There is no limit on the number of international slots on each club's roster. Remaining roster slots must belong to domestic players. For clubs based in the United States, a domestic player is either a U.S. citizen, a permanent resident (green card holder) or the holder of other special status (e.g., refugee or asylum status). MLS clubs based in Canada began with eight international slots as well, but their domestic slots may be filled with either Canadian or U.S. domestic players.
  • MLS clubs based in Canada are required to have a minimum of three Canadian domestic players on their rosters. Players with the legal right to work in Canada are considered Canadian domestic players (i.e., Canadian citizen, permanent resident, part of a protected class).
So let's break down the current roster based on these rules.

One quick note, the 2012 salary cap will increase and many player's salaries will increase slightly as well, so working within the 2011 numbers still gives up a somewhat accurate (hopefully) picture of the upcoming season.

I'm also going to make some assumptions about which players the Dynamo are including on their On-Budget list. Understand that should additional players be signed, players can be moved around.

Roster sports 1-20 (On-Budget):

1. Corey Ashe, 2. Bobby Boswell, 3. Luiz Camargo, 4. Geoff Cameron, 5. Calen Carr, 6. Colin Clark, 7. Brad Davis, 8. Andre Hainault, 9. Tally Hall, 10. Adam Moffat, 11. Nathan Sturgis, 12. Jermaine Taylor, 13. Je-Vaughn Watson, 14. Cam Weaver, 15. Tyler Deric, 16-20. Open.

Roster Spots 21-30 (Off-Budget)

21. Will Bruin (GA), 22. Alex Dixon, 23. Kofi Sarkodie (GA) 24. Josue Soto, 25. Colin Rolfe, 26-30 Open.

We don't know the kind of deals the seven draft picks Dynamo made signed with MLS (remeber, it's a single-entity, so players sign with the leauge, not the team technically). So it's a little tricky to fit them in, but I think it's safe to assume that if Colin Rolfe and Warren Creavalle make the roster, they'll probably take up spots 16 & 17 on the On-Budget list. Rolfe signed a contract with MLS (probably a 42k minimum), so he will likely be on the On-Budget List.

Ownby, Okiomah, Arreola, Aseweh and Roberts* would likely fit in to spots 26-30 on the Off-Budget list, but I doubt all of them will make the roster, in fact more than one or two making it would be a surprise. Nothing against these guys, there is just limited space and you have to earn your place.

So what that leaves us with at least two roster spots that the Dynamo must fill to avoid two minimum salary budget charges for unused roster spots, unless they moved Deric and Dixon up to the On-Budget List. Basically, there's a bit of flexibility in terms of roster spots going in to the 2012 season should the Dynamo chose to add another player or two (either before the season or during the summer)...or at least there should be.

As for salary cap space, that's a lot more complicated. We don't know exact numbers, or how the club disperses the salaries against the cap, or how much allocation money they have to work with. The only information we do have is the salary figures released by the MLS Players Association (the latest of which is from 9/1/11). Going off that information, the Dynamo currently have roughly 1.95 million in cap eligible salary on the books. The Generation adidas contracts of Bruin and Sarkodie do not count against the cap.

Based on 2011 numbers, that's roughly $720,000 in current cap space. More than enough for a designated player or a maxed-out contract signing if the Dynamo find the right player. Once again though, I stress these numbers are just ballpark estimates based on limited data provided.

It should still give you a better idea though of where the Dynamo stand in terms of roster space and salary cap space. Hopefully your eyes are crossed and you don't have a migraine now, if you do I apologize. Instead, I'm hoping you have a little better understanding on the roster dynamics in MLS and how the salary cap system works. Feel free to ask me any questions you have in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.

*Roberts could have been signed as a home-grown player by the Dynamo but they chose not to. He was likely drafted because there were no other players Kinnear was interested in bringing in to camp, so he went we a known commodity.