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Real Salt Lake embracing the diversity in MLS spending

HERRIMAN — A couple weeks ago MLS second-year club Atlanta United ponied up a reported $15 million to purchase Argentine 18-year-old midfielder Ezequiel Barco from Club Atletico Independiente.

Barco had European suitors as well but chose MLS for the next step in his career. It’s the largest transfer deal in MLS history, and that figure doesn’t even include his salary. Those terms haven’t been revealed yet.

For perspective, when the MLS Players Union released the 2017 salaries last April, RSL’s salary cap was $7.4 million. That’s half of what Atlanta spent in one day.

In a league where transfer fees don’t count against the complex salary cap, does Barco’s signing signal the beginning of big-market teams further distancing themselves from small-market teams?

Perhaps in terms of spending, but RSL general manager Craig Waibel doesn’t view the record-breaking Barco deal as a negative whatsoever.

“It’s a wonderful thing. That challenges everyone. That challenges my group to be smarter about who we’re getting. It challenges our coaches to coach against players like that and still get results,” said Waibel. “I think everything about the diversity that we’re seeing within the league is better for the fan base.”

That diversity has been increasing in MLS and the salaries paint a very clear picture.

Toronto FC spent $22.5 million on player salaries last season, most of it going toward Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. And oh by the way, with all that spending it’s not surprising that Toronto won the Supporter’s Shield and the MLS Cup.

New York City FC had the next highest payroll at $16.9 million, followed by Orlando, Chicago and Los Angeles. RSL ranked 11th in spending, while the five bottom teams — New England, Minnesota, D.C. United, Montreal and Houston — all spent less than $6 million.

“I think diversity is what defines leagues, it’s what defines competition. It’s what puts fans in a position to support their club, because there’s an identity that they either believe in or see or feel, and I think that’s one of the things we’ve been very conscious of building this roster,” said Waibel.

Only three of the top five spending teams in MLS qualified for the playoffs last year, with both Orlando and the L.A. Galaxy missing out.

Houston — which was dead last in salaries at $5 million — was the only team in the bottom of five of player spending to make the playoffs.

In the biggest leagues around the world, player salaries are often the biggest predictor of success. Real Salt Lake will never be one of those big spenders. It ranked 15th in MLS attendance last season and earns much less in ticket revenue than many of its big-market counterparts.

Despite those limitations, RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen and his staff are trying to stay competitive with a mix of homegrown talent and notable signings.

Real Salt Lake has eight home-grown players on its roster in 2018, and that pipeline should grow in future years as well with the construction of the $78 million Zions Bank Real Academy in Herriman.

“We’re going with a youth-to-pro model. We like developing guys. It doesn’t prevent us from going out and getting good players like Marcelo (Silva), like (Alfredo) Ortuno,” said Waibel.

Silva’s base salary after moving to MLS last summer was $675,000, and Ortuno’s figures to be at least that much after he joined RSL from Spain in January.

“I think we’re finally in a world where we can afford some of the players that would’ve loved to come here years ago but financially it didn’t make sense,” said Waibel.

In Real Salt Lake’s expansion year, in 2005, it spent $1.78 million on base salaries led by Eddie Pope ($314,000), Clint Mathis ($270,000) and Jason Kreis ($160). They were the only three RSL players to earn six figures. Last season 18 of 29 RSL players had six-figure base salaries and up.

The salaries at this stage of MLS’ evolution, and what owners are willing to spend on players like Barco is mind-blowing to RSL coach Mike Petke. He played 13 seasons in MLS from 1998 to 2010, and the highest his base salary ever was once the MLS Players Union started making that information public in 2004 was $135,000 in 2004.

Fourteen RSL players made at least that much last year.

“From an Insider’s perspective having been a part of the very early stages of this league, it is mind-blowing to me. It’s hard to comprehend some of the things,” said Petke.

As the league seemingly divides itself more and more in terms of player spending, Petke has a unique perspective on the trend. During his first coaching stint in MLS with the New York Red Bulls in 2013 and 2014, the club wasn’t shy about spending. Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill earned a combined $7.25 million 2013.

With Real Salt Lake the approach is different.

“I’ve seen both sides of it from many aspects. It’s hard for me to say I enjoy one more than the other, but I can clearly say I’m enjoying my time here and really enjoying how this organization goes about things,” said Petke. “At times it makes guys like Craig, Dane (Murphy), Andy (Williams), myself and the staff work extra hard in identifying players because we’re not going to go out and spend 10 million dollars on a player.”

He believes that the Zions Bank Real Academy is a big feather in RSL’s cap though as it pursues bigger names around the world.

“This could be in Alaska and I’d want to go play there,” said Petke.

The bigger names will almost always end up in the bigger markets though, where the paychecks are larger. That’s OK with Waibel in terms of the big picture in MLS.

“I think the diversity is going to drive our league to be better,” he said.