I was thinking more about the rationale for Minnesota United FC having to get rid of Tyler Miller or Dayne St. Clair. Other than an unselfish desire to do right by the players, both of whom are capable of being starters in MLS, the main reason for trading one of them is “there’s a salary cap in this league and you can’t pay both of them.” So let’s talk about that MLS salary cap.

The first thing to know about the salary cap in MLS is that the number is essentially meaningless. Last year the salary cap was $4.9 million, but every single team in the league paid more than that in salaries. MLS doesn’t even refer to it as a cap; they call it the “salary budget.”

Some things count against the budget in a way that doesn’t actually match the reality of paychecks. Designated Players count as $612,500 against the budget, even if they get paid $40 million a year; younger designated players count even less. Homegrown players can have paychecks that don’t match their budget charge. U-22 players can have paychecks that don’t match their budget charge.

And then there is the concept of Allocation Money, which is extra mystery money in each club’s budget, that can be earned in various ways and traded between teams.

You will absolutely scramble your brain if you try to understand all of these rules. And even if you do manage to get a handle on it, it won’t actually matter because salary budget matters are a closely guarded league secret.

The only reason I can say something like “every team in the league paid more than the salary cap last year” is because the MLS Players Association releases a list of player salaries twice a year, ostensibly to help provide transparency. This is helpful but feels imperfect; the only time I recall someone asking MNUFC manager Adrian Heath about these numbers last year, the only thing he said was along the lines of “some of those numbers are way, way off.” Which is not entirely encouraging, transparency-wise.

But even if those numbers were perfect, you wouldn’t be able to assemble a clear picture of any team’s cap situation, thanks to the mysterious elixir of Allocation Money. The league comes right out and says in its roster rules, “To protect the interests of MLS and its clubs during discussions with prospective players or clubs in other leagues, amounts of Allocation Money currently held by each club will not be shared publicly.”

From a business perspective, this makes perfect sense. From the perspective of the soccer blogger, who’d like to dive into the numbers and write intelligently about the constraints that Minnesota United is operating with as they try to bring in new players and keep their current players, it pretty much makes things impossible.

Check out CapFriendly.com’s Minnesota Wild page. Down to the dollar, it tells you what kind of situation Minnesota’s in, cap-wise. As I’ve written before, this kind of detail is crucial to understanding why the Wild are doing what they’re doing, which I find interesting even if it doesn’t increase my enjoyment of the NHL itself.

If you want to do this for MLS, you can look at the compiled list of MLSPA information, which mostly tends to make you think that salaries don’t matter in MLS. According to those numbers, from Sporting KC blog The Blue Testament, the four lowest-paid teams in MLS last year made the playoffs; four of the five highest-paid teams didn’t.

As I said, though, there’s no telling how accurate those numbers are; I certainly don’t trust them as much as I would trust the numbers that are readily available for other sports.

(As an aside, the one thing that is always remarkable to me about the MLSPA data is that the public reaction tends to be “can you believe that Player X is making Salary Y, he’s so overpaid.” To me, the interesting thing is that more than a third of MLS players are making five figures, and almost 80% make less than the minimum salary in the traditional big four pro sports in this country [MLB - $570,500].)

Rather than get into cap minutae, then, MLS teams tend to be judged by whether they’re taking proper advantage of all of the exceptions to the budget. The quick shorthand to MLS orthodoxy, using available information about roster spots and players, goes something like this:

  1. Is a team using all of its Designated Player spots? This is used as a shorthand for team payroll, since the easiest way to exceed that salary budget is through those potential three big contracts.
  2. Is a team’s academy producing first-team talent? This is used as shorthand for what nearly everyone considers Good Soccer Behavior, outside of the Euro Super League teams: developing young players, getting them to their highest potential level of competition, and using this development to help fund the entire operation.
  3. Is a team using all three of its U-22 Initiative spots, or if not using them, at least has them available (through either not having a third DP, or paying that DP a low enough salary)? This is used as a shorthand for whether a team can scout, can plan ahead, and is trying to embrace the new hotness in MLS - developing young players and selling them to rich teams from Europe or Brazil.

By this measure, MNUFC is right in the middle of the pack, maybe closer to the bottom middle. They currently have two DPs, Adrien Hunou and Emanuel Reynoso. They currently have two U-22 Initiative players, though Bongokuhle Hlongwane hasn’t officially arrived, and Thomas Chacón seems to be on the way out the door. But they don’t have an academy, and have few players coming through their homegrown pipeline.

And as for payroll and salary cap issues, they may not be able to afford two front-line goalkeepers. But honestly, your guess is as good as mine.

Vancouver might need a keeper now, and New England might be in the market as well. So if nothing else, there’s always a chance that the Loons could end up with one fewer keeper - but a little more mystery money.