For the third straight year, Brazilian star Kaka has topped Major League Soccer's salary chart. While it might seem surprising that he has continued to hold on to the top spot even as new players join MLS, it is no coincidence he's still No. 1 on the league's earning list.
Sources tell Goal that Kaka's salary has acted as the de facto ceiling since his formal arrival in 2015. When he first negotiated with MLS and Orlando City in 2014, it was believed Kaka was willing to sign for a salary in the $4 million to $5 million range. But upon discovering that U.S. national team captain Michael Bradley's salary was more than $6 million, Kaka saw his demands grow considerably.
By the time a deal was struck, Kaka signed for a $6.6 million contract, a tad more than the $6.5 million base salary Bradley was earning. (Clint Dempsey returned to MLS that same year, and earned a prorated salary higher than Bradley's, but that came after Kaka's deal was done.)
A year later, Sebastian Giovinco arrived in MLS in a blockbuster deal that easily made him the highest-paid player in the league not named Kaka, who was raking in a reported $7.16 million, a tidy $50,000 more than Giovinco's $7.11 million. Every year since, Kaka has continued to top the league salary list, with this week's unveiling of 2017 player salaries by the MLS Players Union showing us once again that Kaka remains a whisker ahead of the 2015 MLS MVP.
Is it unreasonable for the Kaka to have secured a guarantee of being the highest-paid earner in the league? If you were a 32-year-old former Ballon d'Or winner negotiating with a fledgling league, wouldn't you feel like you should be the highest-paid player? And if you were MLS and Orlando City, would you consider the demand a deal-breaker when you have a chance to sign an international superstar to help launch your expansion team?
The better question going forward is what will Kaka be expecting beyond 2017? His contract is set to expire, and the midfielder stated in January a desire to try and sign a new deal and extend his stay in MLS. It's safe to say that the 35-year-old will be surrendering his place at the top of the earnings list come 2018, assuming he does return to MLS.
Who will be the new top earner a year from now?
Giovinco appears to be the favorite, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's recent knee injury likely hurts his chances of arriving in the league on a bigger deal than the $7.1 million the Toronto FC star is making. One player who could vault to the top of the list is Mexican star Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who sources tell Goal could fetch a contract worth $10 million a year, which would make him the league's first eight-figure earner.
For now, Kaka leads the MLS million-dollar club, which has grown to 28 players this year, even with the departures of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Steven Gerrard. Bradley continues to lead the American contingent, which is up to six earning more than $1 million per season.
A look at the league’s top 20 earners in 2017 shows how much the league’s focus is shifting. In 2016, only six players among the top 20 MLS earners were younger than 30. At the start of the 2017 season that number was up to 11. That figure is clear evidence of a shift away from the "retirement league" stigma MLS has carried and continues to carry.
Sure, MLS will still sign some older star players, which shouldn't be seen as a bad thing — Bastian Schweinsteiger's signing is looking better by the week — but the league will truly reach a new level when the very top of the earners list is filled with more players in their 20s than their 30s.