Sounders FC

Sounders show value of star power in MLS

Two months into this MLS season, Seattle Sounders FC has become not only the best team in the league, but the best show.

And if there is controversy about that first claim — the Sounders are third in the Western Conference by points, and second in the league behind D.C. United by points per game — it’s hard to argue about the second.

The team’s quality and “wow” factor were both on display Saturday on the glamorous stage of Yankee Stadium, where they knocked off expansion franchise New York City FC, 3-1.

All of Seattle’s goals came from their designated player forward tandem of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. Dempsey scored one goal and assisted on another. Martins scored two, assisted one and was honored Tuesday at the league’s player of the week.

“It was fantastic,” coach Sigi Schmid said. “… The fans in Seattle are very fortunate. They’re watching two very special players.”

Before that final goal, the Sounders strung together a sequence of 18 passes. The last one was a back-heel pass from Dempsey to Martins, who streaked through the defense and fired inside the far post. It was his team-high sixth goal of the season and Dempsey’s team-high fourth assist. Dempsey also has five goals.

All of that quality does not come cheap. According to numbers from the MLS Players Union, Dempsey made almost $7 million in total compensation last season. And before this season, the Sounders signed Martins to a new contract reportedly worth more than $3 annually. The union hasn’t released 2015 salary information, but both players are expected to rank among the top 10 in the league in salary.

This willingness to spend money wildly is why the Sounders are the most entertaining show in MLS.

Their ability to spend it wisely is why they are showing up at the top of a lot of MLS power rankings this week, and why they once again project among the favorites for a so-far elusive MLS Cup.

But the Sounders’ ambitions go beyond that.

Seattle also wants to win a CONCACAF Champions League as a significant milestone on the road to their goal of becoming one of the best soccer clubs in the region — from the North Pole to the Panama Canal, as general manager Garth Lagerwey likes to say. Beyond that, the world — becoming a true global brand in the planet’s most popular sport.

The MLS Cup is a reasonable goal in a league in which teams are working on a roughly even playing field. But ambitions beyond that are being squelched by the roster rules and regulations announced by the league last week. Particularly problematic is the MLS salary cap, which crept only from $3.1 million last season to $3.5 million this season and inches along at a similarly modest pace throughout the life of the recently signed collective bargaining agreement.

“I think for the growth of the league, the cap needs to grow,” Schmid said Tuesday.

He went on to concede that the pure salary cap number is misleading, because of the way it can be negated by allocation money, designated player exceptions and other mechanisms.

However, Schmid’s bottom line held.

“We’re having (investors) that are interested and eager to come into our league, and that’s important,” he said. “But we also need, if we want to achieve the things of becoming the Champions League champion in our region, becoming the dominant league in our region, becoming one of the world’s top leagues — yeah, the cap is going to have to expand.”

For now, Sounders FC stands as shining example of MLS clubs getting what they pay for.