COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — In the early years of Major League Soccer, D.C. United was the model of a successful franchise, winning the MLS Cup in three of the league’s first four years of existence.
But Washington — one of the league’s lowest spending franchises — has struggled to maintain that level of play in recent years.
Between 2010 and 2016, the red and black made the playoffs four times, reaching the Eastern Conference finals only once. And even when they have finished the regular season strong, they have failed to capitalize in the playoffs; they are the only team during that period to have finished in the top four of the league at least once and failed to appear in the MLS finals.
During that period, United has consistently spent less than the MLS average on players, failing to keep pace with the league-wide salary growth. From 2010 to 2016, United players’ salaries grew 40 percent, compared with 56 percent for MLS.
In a league in which goal-scoring has become increasingly important, United has also lagged behind the league in spending on forwards. The average salary of MLS forwards went up by 67 percent between 2010 and 2016, whereas United forwards saw a 42 percent pay increase.
Goal-scoring forwards are more important in MLS now than ever before. The average number of goals per team steadily increased between 2011 (44) — when the MLS switched to its current schedule format of 34 games a season — and 2016 (50). During that period, higher-spending teams have scored more goals than lower-spending teams, as this graphic shows.
Lindsay Simpson, a spokesperson for D.C. United, said the club was “strategically making sure that we have the best talent on the field as well as being efficient about it.”
The team invests in quality players, she said, pointing to the United’s signing of Luciano Acosta to a club-record transfer deal last season. Acosta made $429,272.76 last season for the team, according to the MLS Players Union, and was in the top 10 in the league for assists. However, United still scored at just around the league average in 2016.
And it’s certainly true that some lower-spending teams have had recent success in the MLS, according to Kristan Heneage, a freelance soccer journalist and writer of the video “MLS Salary Explained”.
“Of course there are dynasties like the LA Galaxy, but if you look at the winners of the Supporters Shield [for the best regular season record] the past two years, FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls, they have among the lowest salaries of teams in MLS.” Heneage said.
But what both Dallas and the Red Bulls lack in spending, they make up for in academy strength. The teams are in charge of the best and third-best academies according to Will Parchman’s MLS academies ranking. The ranking measures each academy’s collective coaching acumen, the technical level of its players and its connection to the first team.
Because the MLS salary structure is designed to encourage teams to invest in their youth, both of these teams are able to sign top-level young talent with little damage to their salary cap. United’s academy is also ranked below the league average — 13th out of 21 MLS teams — and has not produced a prominent first-team player since goalkeeper Bill Hamid and winger Andy Najar were brought up over half a decade ago.
Will the team’s move to a new stadium — Audi Field in Southwest — lead to higher levels of spending on players? The team’s current home, RFK Stadium, is famous for crumbling infrastructure and lack of modern amenities like upscale luxury boxes that bring in revenue for other MLS teams. Some fans hope the team will use new stadium revenue to improve the roster by filling some of United’s unused designated player slots with highly paid stars.
“Securing a sponsor in our own backyard in Audi was a step in the right direction. Fans will see that continue to change how business is done within the club moving forward,” Simpson said.