Lionel Messi's salary, Inter Miami's payroll are MLS record highs

Lionel Messi alone is making more money in Major League Soccer than at least 25 entire MLS rosters, and Inter Miami's 2024 payroll is the highest in league history, according to data released Thursday by the MLS Players' Association.

Messi's base salary is $12 million, according to the biannual salary release. His "annualized average guaranteed compensation" — a figure that includes prorated bonuses — is $20.4 million.

Those numbers do not include any compensation from Apple, Adidas, Fanatics or other MLS partners. They do not include endorsements. And they do not include Messi's equity in Inter Miami, which reportedly brings the total value of his two-and-a-half-year contract to more than $125 million — over $50 million per season. (Forbes, on its annual list of the world's highest-paid athletes, reported that, including off-field earnings, Messi made around $135 million over the past 12 months.)

But the $20.4 million on its own would still rank fifth among MLS team payrolls.

Yet it is less than half of Inter Miami's payroll, which stands at $41.7 million — over $20 million more than the fourth-biggest spending team.

How MLS rules, designated players shape salaries

Most MLS clubs now spend between $12 million and $19 million annually on player compensation. But three clubs, boosted by the league's four highest earners, spend significantly more.

Messi ($20.4 million) and Sergio Busquets ($8.8 million) account for 70% of Miami's total wage bill. Lorenzo Insigne ($15.4 million) makes 49% of Toronto FC's $31.4 million. And Xherdan Shaqiri ($8.2 million) lifts the Chicago Fire to $25.1 million.

The gaps among those three, and between them and the rest, are largely driven by MLS' designated player (DP) rule. The league's salary cap, technically, still sits at $5.47 million. A variety of mechanisms allow every team to spend more than twice that much. But they are allowed to spend limitlessly on only three players — the DPs.

At some clubs, such as St. Louis City, all three DPs earn $2 million or less — so the team's entire payroll hangs around $12 million. At others, such as Nashville SC, multiple DPs earn more than $3 million, pushing the total wage bill toward or beyond $20 million.

MLS team payrolls, ranked

The following is a 1-through-29 list of MLS team payrolls, as of April 25, 2024, according to the MLSPA.

The main figures include base salaries and bonuses. The numbers in parentheses are base salaries only. Neither number includes transfer fees — which do factor into salary cap-related calculations, but aren't uniformly reported by the league or players' association.

1. Inter Miami — $41.7 million ($30.9 million)2. Toronto FC — $31.4 million ($19.1 million)3. Chicago Fire — $25.1 million ($23.1 million)4. Nashville SC — $21.4 million ($18.5 million)5. FC Cincinnati — $18.7 million ($15.9 million)6. Austin FC — $18.4 million ($15.1 million)7. New England Revolution — $18.3 million ($17.1 million)8. Los Angeles Galaxy — $17.9 million ($16.1 million)9. New York Red Bulls — $17.1 million ($15.2 million)10. Houston Dynamo — $16.8 million ($15.1 million)11. Atlanta United — $16.7 million ($14.3 million)12. Seattle Sounders — $16.6 million ($15.0 million)13. NYCFC — $16.5 million ($14.6 million)14. Colorado Rapids — $16.3 million ($14.7 million)15. FC Dallas — $16.2 million ($14.4 million)16. DC United — $16.2 million ($15.0 million)17. LAFC — $15.9 million ($14.7 million)18. Sporting Kansas City — $15.9 million ($15.5 million)19. Portland Timbers — $15.4 million ($13.0 million)20. Vancouver Whitecaps — $15.2 million ($14.2 million)21. Columbus Crew — $15.2 million ($13.4 million)22. Orlando City — $15.1 million ($12.4 million)23. Minnesota United — $14.9 million ($13.1 million)24. Philadelphia Union — $14.8 million ($13.1 million)25. Charlotte FC — $14.5 million ($13.4 million)26. San Jose Earthquakes — $13.6 million ($12.5 million)27. Real Salt Lake — $13.6 million ($12.4 million)28. CF Montreal — $12.0 million ($10.8 million)29. St. Louis City — $12.0 million ($10.8 million)

MLS rosters locked, temporarily, on April 23, at the close of the league's primary (winter) transfer window. The secondary (summer) window opens July 18, at which point players like Olivier Giroud will join the league, and team payrolls will change.

Highest-paid MLS players

The top 20 earners in MLS, per the MLSPA salary guide, by total compensation, are:

1. Lionel Messi (Inter Miami) — $20.4 million ($12.0 million base salary)2. Lorenzo Insigne (Toronto FC) — $15.4 million ($7.5 million)3. Sergio Busquets (Inter Miami) — $8.8 million ($8.5 million)4. Xherdan Shaqiri (Chicago Fire) — $8.2 million ($7.4 million)5. Sebastián Driussi (Austin FC) — $6.7 million ($4.5 million)6. Federico Bernardeschi (Toronto FC) — $6.3 million ($3.1 million)7. Emil Forsberg (New York Red Bulls) — $6.0 million ($5.4 million)8. Héctor Herrera (Houston Dynamo) — $5.2 million ($4.8 million)9. Hany Mukhtar (Nashville SC) — $5.2 million ($3.8 million)10. Carles Gil (New England Revolution) — $4.5 million ($4.0 million)11. Christian Benteke (DC United) — $4.4 million ($4.3 million)12. Luis Muriel (Orlando City) — $4.3 million ($2.8 million)13. Lucho Acosta (FC Cincinnati) — $4.2 million ($3.0 million)14. Denis Bouanga (LAFC) — $3.6 million ($2.9 million)15. Alan Pulido (Sporting KC) — $3.6 million ($3.6 million)16. Teemu Pukki (Minnesota United) — $3.6 million ($3.2 million)17. Hugo Cuypers (Chicago Fire) — $3.5 million ($3.2 million)18. Walker Zimmerman (Nashville) — $3.5 million ($3.2 million)19. Diego Rossi (Columbus Crew) — $3.4 million ($2.7 million)20. Joseph Paintsil (LA Galaxy) — $3.4 million ($3.1 million)

Of the 20, 17 are forwards or attacking midfielders. Two, Busquets and Herrera, are central midfielders. One, Zimmerman, is a defender.

How Inter Miami built its superteam around Messi

To build its superteam, which currently sits atop the Eastern Conference and the league-wide Supporters' Shield table, Miami maneuvered cleverly within and around league rules. But it also required Messi's friends to take pay cuts.

Messi, Busquets and backup striker Leonardo Campana are the three DPs:

Lionel Messi ($20.4 million in annualized guaranteed compensation)

Sergio Busquets ($8.8 million)

Leonardo Campana ($722,333)

Two months after he signed last summer, the MLSPA reported Busquets' base salary as $1.5 million, and his annualized guaranteed compensation as $1.8 million. Those numbers have jumped by $7 million each in 2024.

Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba, however, still make $1.5 million per year. Which is more than Campana, but if either had signed as a DP, Miami would have had significantly less flexibility further down its roster. So, both accepted salaries that are small fractions of what each made at Barcelona. Miami then used a mechanism called Target Allocation Money (TAM) to essentially bring both cap hits down below the non-DP max salary.

Campana, 23, is the third DP because he still counts as a "Young DP." That designation, per league rules that incentivize investing in youth, allowed Miami to sign three more talented players within the "Under-22 Initiative" — then a fourth when one of the original three, Facundo Farías, tore his ACL in preseason.

Those U-22 players are Paraguayan midfielder Diego Gomez, who makes $504,167; Argentine center back Tomas Aviles, who makes $412,496; and Argentine midfielder Federico Redondo, who makes $255,000.

But, per the initiative, all three salaries hit the cap at a discount rate of $150,000. (Farías makes $675,000, but has been placed on the season-ending injury list.)

That, plus more TAM and a few offseason trades, allows Miami to also afford:

• Julian Gressel ($1.1 million)• Nicolás Freire ($1 million)• Sergiy Kryvtsov ($809,000)• Matías Rojas ($516,667)• Drake Calendar ($405,909)• Marcelo Weigandt ($384,708)• Franco Negri ($342,500)• Robert Taylor ($326,900)

Other contributors, such as Benjamin Cremaschi ($106,716) and Noah Allen ($91,383) are on cut-rate "homegrown player" deals.

Injuries have made the roster appear shallow, especially in the shadow of Mexican giants. But it is almost certainly the best in MLS. And Messi, who has been scoring and creating goals at historic rates, might just be the biggest bargain of all, even as the highest earner in league history.

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