Erik Hultstrom, LAFC podcaster for the Voices of the Black and Gold, shares how the 2022 champion will need to skillfully navigate the complicated rules surrounding player salaries in Major League Soccer, all while trying to address the contract needs of two of its most productive strikers. 

 

It’s January 2023, and just three months after the conclusion of the 2022 season, LAFC is once again getting into the thick of the off-season. The players have returned to training, and it seems apparent there are still roster holes to be addressed, some of which could become bigger if another piece of the winning season departs Los Angeles in the next few weeks.

Chicho Arango LAFC
Chicho Arango aqueçe antes de partida contra o RSL pelo LAFC / (TMLS Celso Oliveira)

So it’s time to get back into the nooks and crannies of our roster build rules for our league. We have a salary cap system in MLS, which is relatively unique in the global football world, foreign to many, which makes General Managers have to play incredibly smart by the rules. 

If you understand the salary cap rules well, let’s skip a few paragraphs ahead while I reiterate the rules to those who are not. 

The first to know is that the base salary cap went up to $5.2 million this season from 4.9 last season and will continue to increase over the years. In 2023, teams will have an additional $1.9 million GAM and $2.7 million TAM to invest in players.

2021-2027 MLS Player Compensation

YEAR SALARY BUDGET GENERAL ALLOCATION MONEY DISCRETIONARY TAM AVAILABLE SPEND ON ROSTER
2021 $4,900,000 $1,525,000 $2,800,000 $9,225,000
2022 $4,900,000 $1,625,000 $2,800,000 $9,325,000
2023 $5,210,000 $1,900,000 $2,720,000 $9,830,000
2024 $5,470,000 $2,585,000 $2,400,000 $10,455,000
2025 $5,950,000 $2,930,000 $2,225,000 $11,105,000
2026 $6,425,000 $3,280,000 $2,125,000 $11,830,000
2027 $7,068,000 $3,921,000 $2,025,000 $13,013,000

** Credit: Salary Budget table Graphic – SB Nation Breaking down the new MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement (4) Collin Johnson (@CollinJohnson) / Twitter

Second, unspent TAM rolls over to the next season, while GAM, General Allocation money, will not. Both are used to buy down the salaries of players to help fit under the salary budget. 

Also, we have the designated players (DP) who, depending on their age, carry a flat fee that counts against the salary budget. (This can also be bought down further with GAM or TAM.) 

Then, there are the U22 initiative players, who are also designated, players. They have to be under their contract and other rules, but this is certainly a  “hack” to get around the salary cap. A player in one of the slots can get paid what the team wants to pay, but they only will count as a flat rate against the salary budget.

Finally, Homegrown and Academy players don’t count against the salary budget as an incentive to develop local talent.

Cifuentes and the U22

For LAFC, it’s crucial to remember José Cifuentes is a U22 initiative player, along with fellow Ecuadorian national, left-back Diego Palacios. That means they each carry 125K against the cap even though they make close to half a million a year. That’s the power of the initiative: two players of such an impact, carrying minimal salary cap implications for the Black and Gold. 

As of this writing, LAFC still has all three starting midfielders. Cifu, Ilie & Acosta. 

But the depth behind the starters is gone. Latif Blessing is gone to New England, closer to family. Francisco Ginella just broke his ankle on loan in Uruguay, so recalling him is not an option, leaving LAFC with Daniel Crisostomo as the next man up.

Among the youth, Erik Duenas transitioned to defensive midfielder after recovering from his ACL surgery and is also on the roster, hoping to rack up some minutes for LAFC in one of the team’s many competitions that the team will play in 2023. Still, neither Duenas nor Crisostomo has shown to be productive first-team guys. They are very young, so they have time, but their time has yet to arrive. So The Black and Gold are left with an immediate need in midfield. 

This is a position worth spending our final U22 roster spot on. Somebody young with a lot of potential, Someone that makes me not so jealous of the Ricky Puig signing.  It could be a player who can be used as a super sub or maybe even a situational guy. Eryk Williamson is an example of a player that would fit very well with what Cherundolo is doing in Los Angeles. The player made 550 K last season in Portland and should be due for a raise when his contract is up. And, like the next player, who will be discussed, will find suitors across the league who will pay him what he wants.

My question is, will players begin to take less money to play for LAFC? And if we have to splash the cash on him, will the club have the funds to pick up another midfielder who can at least compete with Crisostomo for the 4th spot on the depth chart? 

Arango is the ultimate bargaining chip

We just might. And it may come with the departure of Chicho Arango, who feels his paycheck could be heavier. (And honestly, he’s not wrong). When he transferred from Millionairos, there were unverified reports that his contract with LAFC would turn into a DP contract by the second year. And with what’s going on now, including the departure of Gareth Bale, the report suddenly seems accurate.

And this is where it gets tricky. Denis Bouanga and Carlos Vela have secured 2 DP slots, so to open all 3 U22 slots, the third DP needs to either be a Young Designated Player (under 24 as of the first day the league starts) or, the player needs to earn less than the maximum amount deductible by GAM, which is about 1.6 Million. 

Currently, Arango makes about 660K a year, which is nearly criminal for his productivity so far in this league, which is inevitably why he wants more. I like to put him up against Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz. The two play different styles, but their productivity and how much the opposing defense needs to account for their presence are very similar. Agree, or disagree, they’re among the two most comparable players in the Western Conference. Money-wise, however, Ruidíaz earned a salary of 3.2 million last season, 6 times what Chicho made in 2022. So I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch that Arango will fetch somewhere near that amount from a team in this league that’s willing to make him the main star of their roster.

So what if he leaves LAFC while becoming the record-transferred player between MLS franchises? Could LAFC demand 2.5 Million GAM to let the Colombian go? If so, hiring for the other holes in the roster becomes easy. The attack will suffer, but LAFC has excellent depth up front.  If Chicho stays, navigating the salary cap could be tricky, especially if he’s offered an expensive DP contract. The team would have little money to spend on other areas of need. 

This would also cascade into removing Cifu from U22, forcing the team to take the complete hit from his salary, which would be around $500k. 

Christian Tello

When arriving in 2022, Tello was classified as a DP last year, but for this season, his status remains up in the air. At the moment, I have a hard time speculating what’s going to happen to him, but it seems his future rests on what happens with Arango and yet another rumor that came out yesterday from Tommy Scoops:

Suddenly, teams are asking about our 🐐, Kwadwo “Mahala” Opoku. 

The rumor is believed to be roughly 800K in GAM compensation in exchange for Opoku, a steal for a player with his upside. A lot of it! The regular MLS outlets called 2022 his breakout year, which was imposing! He relegated Brian Rodriguez to the bench (and then to Club America) and managed to play in all 37 games for the Black and Gold.

Mahala Opoku
Opoku no banco com os ex-meio campistas do LAFC Francisco Ginella e Latif Blessing, (Celso Oliveira / TMLS)

His breakout will always be his first goal against Cruz Azul in the 2020 CCL. If the Goat left, however, I would hate it. He is a guy we should continue to develop with the club, as he will keep taking steps forward. However, if he ends up leaving along with Chicho, suddenly, LAFC loses both of its attackers, who seem to be at their best when they play centrally. 

Maybe Biuk and Bouanga can adapt to become more central attackers, but this would be very unproven for a team with CCL aspirations And while there will be a lot of schedule congestion to start the season, having no depth, to begin with may put the team on a downward spiral that may be tough to recover from mid-season. 

Most likely, however, would be that Tello would resign and become that central attacker should the two players leave. If they stay, however, a cash-strapped LAFC will have a tough time competing for his services since another MLS team may pay him much more than Black and Gold can afford.

The Arango conversation and a possible Cifuentes sale are crucial for LAFC’s future. That’s at least where I see us, with still some work to do, and we are in the thick of transfer season, so likely, a lot of speculation will continue to come in and get obsolete by next week, so enjoy the madness while you can!

 

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