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Andrea Pirlo just blew up the MLS transfer market

Written by Will Parchman

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Andrea Pirlo’s transfer status is now Juventus Official. The Italian club confirmed what most of us already knew on Monday, ushering the maestro off into the pale sunset over the Alps.

What we learned from Pirlo’s new contract is that its immensity beggars belief. It’s set to run through 2017 with no player or team option, meaning that unless Pirlo simply decides to secretly abscond into the mist with a bunch of grapes, he’ll be in the NYCFC sky blue kit for 2 1/2 seasons. Which means that when he retires, if he lives to see the end of his contract, he’ll be 38. Cool.

But the contract total… woof. Pirlo will be the richest man in MLS with a contract of around $8 million per year. You need perspective here.

In one season Pirlo will make more than twice the entire roster of the Colorado Rapids. One man.

It’s tempting to make grand, sweeping pronouncements about this, but there is no easily discernible truth about what Pirlo’s contract means. Considering this is a power-play ripped straight from the MLS-Circa-2007 playbook, the signing looks backward as much as it looks forward. And it isn’t a blueprint most MLS teams will be eager to follow.

But we can say this: Pirlo is making way too much money. Is he worth it, at the age of 36?

Pirlo is a year older now, but relative MLS scarcity drove up his wages. NYCFC (and its MLS ownership) wanted Pirlo so badly that it was willing to destroy the market to bring him on board. Which follows as a natural extension from the league’s gluttonous binge on players like Giovinco ($7 million) and Kaka ($7.1 million).

It’s not hard to see why MLS’s roster economics have advanced like they have: that is, a gulf between underpaid Homegrown players (Exhibit A: Harry Shipp) and overpaid foreign mercenaries. Players like Kaka exist in every country on earth with a working league, but the difference is that the lower end commands more monetary respect. There isn’t the need to cut corners on the low end because players like Harry Kane and Alexandre Lacazette are household names as much as anyone. That niche prospect market doesn’t exist in any robust fashion here. So MLS stacks the weight on the other end of the balance.

The problem isn’t necessarily that MLS is pricing Homegrowns out of the league, but that it’s pricing itself out of future transfers. Flooding the market with this kind of cash for over-the-hill superstars creates a dangerous precedent for transfers down the line. We know salaries naturally inflate as teams throw increasingly large transfer kitties at players in a never-ending arms race. That much is unavoidable. But what MLS is doing is creating an artificially inflated market for better players.

What does this mean, exactly? Let’s say MLS goes younger. Say, a certain Mexico international in the prime of his career with vital European and World Cup experience. And let’s also say that he’s fully aware that a player 10 years his senior with less than three years left in his professional legs just signed for $8 million. Where does the leverage go? All contracts are built off the backs of their predecessors. This is a law of contract economics, not just in all sports but in life. If you make a certain wage and a rival company is courting your services, they won’t offer you the same contract (or less) to join their firm. Not unless they’re serious, anyway.

That goes double for the contracts they’ve offered to other employees. Everything works on a sliding scale, and MLS’s Designated Player scale is tilting dangerously toward $10. If Pirlo is worth $8 million, what is eminently more exciting prospect Memphis Depay worth? He just signed for $10.14 million per year with Manchester United. Would MLS have to pay more? We’ve established the importance of scarcity, after all. If Pirlo is worth this much, how much more will MLS have to pay for a European player in his 20-something prime?

We may find out sooner rather than later.

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