The MLS salary cap is a fickle mistress.
The difference between a bad team and a good team is, more often than not, based on how efficient teams are at managing their limited cap space. With the MLSPA releasing their biannual salary dump last week, I took a look at five players who are over-performing and five players who are under-performing their salaries.
Before I start analyzing some of the players on the list, I want to note that I tried to include players from a diverse range of salaries. It would have been easy to just include the five players that are performing best with the lowest salaries or the five Designated Players who are having the worst seasons. However, with the complexity of MLS roster rules, teams need to be able to efficiently sign players across a wide range of price levels. Being cognizant of that, I picked my bargains and overpays with the same philosophy.
All salary numbers are based on guaranteed compensation as listed in the 2022 MLSPA salary guide.
OMIR FERANANDEZ, NEW YORK RED BULLS
Price Level: $
With the core of the New York Red Bulls’ team-building strategy revolving around their academy, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see a Red Bulls homegrown on this list. With respect to John Tolkin’s incredible hair, it’s young attacking midfielder Omir Fernandez – who already has two goals and three assists this season – who should be catching your eye.
The Bronx native epitomizes the Red Bull’s directness from either the wing or a more central position in New York’s 3-4-2-1. Fernandez has shown the ability to make line-breaking runs to generate dangerous scoring opportunities at the back post and can cut the ball back to teammates for high percentage shots in the penalty area.
The analytics love the 23-year-old, too. According to American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added (G+) metric, Fernandez ranks third this season among all wingers and attacking midfielders in total G+. He’s only behind Talles Magno and Darwin Quintero and he’s in front of Daniel Gazdag, Jordan Morris, and Carles Gil.
That’s excellent company.
If teams continue focusing their defensive attention on RBNY’s higher-priced attackers, Fernandez will have even more opportunities to build on his great start to 2022.
BRANDON VAZQUEZ, FC CINCINNATI
Price Level: $
There probably hasn’t been a bigger surprise in MLS in 2022 than Brandon Vazquez’s emergence at striker for FC Cincinnati: he’s tied for third in the league with seven goals.
There are still a lot of games to be played this season, but the conversation around Vazquez has started to shift from “is he any good?’ to ‘how good is he?’
Vasquez isn’t very flashy up front, but he excels at consistently getting into position for good scoring opportunities. His receiving, as categorized by G+, ranks only behind Julian Carranza and Adam Buksa. While Vasquez is over-performing his expected goals, his 5.51 xG mark is still among league leaders.
If Benner can get his act together this season, FC Cincinnati could have the opportunity to deploy a dynamic strike team to go alongside No. 10 Luciano Acosta.
JOSE CIFUENTES, LOS ANGELES FC
Price Level: $$
Last year was a season to forget for LAFC, but the development of Jose Cifuentes was a major bright spot. In fact, the Ecuadorian’s development was likely one of the biggest reasons that LAFC felt so comfortable shipping out Mark-Anthony Kaye to the Colorado Rapids for a wheelbarrow full of allocation money.
In 2022, Cifuentes has continued to build on his strong 2021 finish, which you can see in this chart from FBref. That’s a lot of green, folks.
Cifuentes is a truly modern box-to-box midfielder whose game is filled to the brim with progressive actions. He moves the ball forward with his passing and his dribbling, while also making dangerous runs into the box behind LAFC’s frontrunners.
LAFC acquired Cifuentes using Targeted Allocation Money and they can now keep his reported $3 million transfer fee off the cap using the U22 Initiative tag. Almost anytime you can get an elite player on the roster without using a Designated Player slot, it’s a great bargain.
DARWIN QUINTERO, HOUSTON DYNAMO
Price Level: $$$
At 34, Darwin Quintero is getting up there in age, but he is still very good at soccer. Let’s not forget, one of the reasons that Tab Ramos is no longer coaching the Houston Dynamo is because of his decision not to play his best player for large chunks of last season.
When Quintero is at his best, he’s easily one of the top attackers in the league. He’s fast, he’s good with the ball, he can pass, and when he feels like it, he can score too. While many incorrectly label Quintero as a ball hog, his league-leading G+ among attacking midfielders points to the simple fact that good things happen when he is on the ball.
Even better for Houston is that they were able to re-sign Quintero this offseason at a TAM-level salary, giving them the flexibility to sign Mexican national team star Hector Herrera to a Designated Player contract.
If he can beat Father Time and continue producing at a DP level, Houston may be one of the interesting teams to watch during the second half of the year.
HANY MUKHTAR, NASHVILLE SC
Price Level: $$$$
It’s hard to think about a DP who is making seven figures and change each year as an MLS bargain, but Hany Mukhtar is a special player.
Mukhtar is currently second in the league with 7.18 xG (just a couple of decimal points behind the Union’s Gazdag) and is in the top 10 in the league in G+. Importantly, Nashville SC’s direct attacking gameplan is only a practical consideration if you have a player like Mukhtar to spearhead some of those attacks.
The fact that 41 players in the league make more money than Mukhtar and none of those players rank higher in xG or G+ makes him a special bargain as well.
MIGUEL BERRY, COLUMBUS CREW
Price Level: $
Miguel Berry had a great start to the season. He banged in a nice goal in the Crew’s opener, people were calling for him to be in the next USMNT camp, and Columbus even took the initiative to trade Gyasi Zardes to the Colorado Rapids (and then let Caleb Porter run over him with a bus) to make room for Berry up top.
However, outside of that goal against Vancouver and a couple of other flashes, Berry might be the worst-performing player in MLS. The 24-year-old hasn’t had a game with multiple shots on target since 2021. Also, he’s produced just over 2 xG in nearly 900 minutes and is currently sporting a league-worst G+ at -1.90.
Berry has performed even worse than a replacement player and despite his low-salary, he’s not a value player for the Crew.
KHIRY SHELTON, SPORTING KC
Price Level: $
I know that coaches have “their players”, but after season-ending injuries to Alan Puldio and Gadi Kinda, Sporting KC have been difficult to watch, especially with Khiry Shelton starting at striker. The American has scored zero goals in 9 regular season starts. It’s hard to see what Peter Vermes sees in him.
Very similar to Berry, Shelton hasn’t been very good at putting shots on target. He’s also more likely to turn the ball over when his teammates pass it to him than to do something positive – and only Berry has had a worst G+ total in MLS this season. Shelton is probably a worse value compared to Berry at over double the salary.
This nightmare all could’ve been avoided for SKC if we just got rid of the DP rule. Just saying.
JAROSLAW NIEZGODA, PORTLAND TIMBERS
Price Level: $$$
It’s hard to put a player like Jaroslaw Niezgoda on this list because it seems like he never fully recovered from tearing his ACL in 2020. Nonetheless, there are major expectations when a club pays a $3.8 million fee.
Niezgoda’s production during his time in MLS is nowhere close to the type of production expected from a DP striker.
So far in his 800ish minutes in 2022, Niezgoda has only managed three goals to go along with 1.77 xG. Portland just doesn’t look dynamic with Niezgoda at striker. With Nathan Fogaca scoring a brace in his debut for Portland earlier this month, it makes you wonder if Niezgoda’s time in the starting lineup is nearing an end.
CARLOS SALCEDO, TORONTO FC
Price Level: $$$$
Carlos Salcedo isn’t on this list because he’s a DP center back. Though it’s relatively rare for teams to give DP deals to central defenders, as the league increases in quality and the salary cap continues to rise, it’s only natural that teams begin to use their cap space on historically neglected positions.
No, Salcedo is on this list because he’s a DP center back who isn’t helping his team much at all right now.
Toronto’s defense is a dumpster fire. So far in 2022, they’ve allowed more xG than anyone in MLS and they’ve allowed the joint-second most actual goals in MLS. For Salcedo’s part, he has been particularly ineffective defending in one-v-one situations and has earned two red cards to boot.
Some of Salcedo’s early season struggles can be chalked up to having to adjust to a new team. Still, Toronto have some major defensive problems that aren’t likely to get fixed this year.
GONZALO HIGUAIN, INTER MIAMI
Price Level: $$$$$
When it is all said and done, Gonzalo “I thought I would come here and play with a cigarette in my mouth” Higuain will forever be on the list of bad DP signings. This season with Leo Campana now playing as Phil Nelville’s starting striker, Higuain and his seven-figure salary have been relegated to the bench.
In the limited time that he has played this season, Higuain has been very poor. Once a prolific goal-scorer, the Argentine only has two shots on targets to go with two goals and 1.86 xG in 2022. More concerning for Inter Miami is that Higuain’s negative body language doesn’t give the impression that he is giving much effort. Even during one of his nicer efforts, helping to assist on a Robert Taylor goal, Higuain never attempted to rejoin the play.
If Higuain wants to play with Messi, he’s going to have to do more than that.