Aaron Long and Tim Parker signed new contracts during the offseason with salaries more in line with what many Major League Soccer clubs pay their marquee defensive players.
But both New York Red Bulls defenders are still probably not adequately compensated, considering many of their peers around the league earn similar or higher paychecks despite contributing far less on the field.
Long, the league’s reigning Defender of the Year, became the highest-paid domestic defender in MLS on Tuesday when he penned a multi-year deal worth roughly $900,000 per season, according to Sam Stejskal of MLSsoccer.com. That figure is a shade higher than what’s being paid to Parker, who signed a new contract in December.
The new deals immediately placed both players among the top 10 highest-earning defenders in the league, according to the MLS Players Union.
Earlier this offseason, the 10 highest-paid defenders had three things in common: All were foreign players, all were purchased during or after the 2017 summer transfer window, and none were MLS Best XI selections or MLS All-Stars.
Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City’s Andreu Fontas, last season’s fourth highest-paid defender ($1 million in guaranteed compensation) only appeared in two games, neither of which was in the playoffs, and spent the rest of his time warming the bench.
Fontas earns more than his teammate, Matt Besler ($783,250), a Kansas native who has only ever played for his hometown team, represented the United States in the 2014 FIFA World Cup and started 31 games in 2018.
Besler, 32, was the highest-paid American defender before Parker and Long signed new contracts and was also the 11th highest-paid defender overall in 2018.
Still, Besler is an outlier among defensive players with an American passport — one of just three making north of $500,000 last year.
Long’s guaranteed compensation was listed at $73,125 last year by the MLS Players Union, though his total earnings were likely over $100,000 given the performance incentives he probably triggered by winning the Defender of the Year Award, being named an MLS All-Star and MLS Best XI.
Meanwhile, Parker made $115,935.
Those salaries paled in comparison to Besler’s and certainly to those at the top belonging to Mancienne and Fontas.
But Long and Parker’s previous salary figures are also evidence of a penny-pinching tactic MLS clubs can use to manage their salary budgets. Even in the era of designated players and targeted allocation money, both of which allow clubs greater flexibility to pay players more than the league’s salary cap permits on an individual contract, teams can find terrific value on the back line.
Long and Parker were on cap-friendly contracts last season that gave the Red Bulls tremendous flexibility.
Meanwhile, Dave Romney (LA Galaxy), Lalas Abubakar (Columbus), Jalil Anibaba (New England), Nick Lima (San Jose), Auston Trusty (Philadelphia), and Connor Lade (Red Bulls) give their respective teams flexibility, too. All make under $150,000 and played in at least 60 percent of their team’s games last year.
Both Parker and Long were destined to make a big jump in compensation after impressive 2018 seasons with both the Red Bulls and the U.S. national team. Together, the duo also combined to help the Red Bulls concede the fewest goals in the league in 2018. However, high earners like Mancienne and the Galaxy’s Jorgen Skjelvik among others likely provided both players with substantial leverage heading into contract talks.
In short, how could the Red Bulls not pay the going rate for quality defenders when multiple MLS teams are paying a premium and getting less?
Whether or not Parker and Long will sustain and improve upon their performances last year remains to be seen, but they had every right to show up at the negotiating table demanding substantial pay increases.
Given what some defenders are earning, more American defenders may follow suit.