Tim Howard’s Salary Isn’t the Problem

Jun 16, 2014; Natal, BRAZIL; USA goalkeeper Tim Howard reacts against Ghana during the 2014 World Cup at Estadio das Dunas. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 16, 2014; Natal, BRAZIL; USA goalkeeper Tim Howard reacts against Ghana during the 2014 World Cup at Estadio das Dunas. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

By now, you have probably heard the big news that was announced over the weekend: Longtime Everton stalwart and USMNT hero Tim Howard is returning home to Major League Soccer, signing a Designated Player deal with the Colorado Rapids for $8 million over 3.5 years, effective once the summer transfer window opens.

(Also, spare a thought for poor Zac MacMath, who already went through this exact same show in Philadelphia, got the heck out of dodge on loan when it was clear the club no longer wanted him, made that loan permanent, and then discovered that his new club doesn’t want him either.  He’s like the Christmas gift that nobody in your family wants and keeps getting re-gifted every year.)

Already, there is chatter that Howard’s salary is exorbitantly high–too high for him to be worth what is effectively $2.3 million per year, citing the fact that after Howard, the next highest-paid goalkeeper in MLS, DC United’s Bill Hamid, makes a relatively paltry $405,000, over five times less than the checks Howard will soon be cashing.

Of course, the obvious rejoinder to that argument is that Howard will sell way more tickets and jerseys than even an accomplished MLS veteran like Hamid would, but that’s a well-trod and frankly rather boring argument.

Instead, this is a perfect opportunity to discuss the market value of goalkeepers–in terms of both transfer fees and salaries–relative to outfield positions, and especially strikers and central midfielders.

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Among the MLS players in Howard’s $2M/year tax bracket, only Gio Dos Santos, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley can be assumed to be in the primes of their careers, and at least among their peers, Altidore and Bradley both are considered massively overrated (one player even went so far to say, “I’m not saying Michael Bradley isn’t a good player, but not for what he’s getting paid”).

On the other hand, Kaka, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Clint Dempsey, and Jermaine Jones (going by 2015 salary figures) are all clearly in the twilight of their respective careers, and it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see Lampard and Gerrard both hang up their boots this winter.

Howard is similarly aged, but goalkeepers age differently–and better–than their outfield brethren.  Gianluigi Buffon is older than some of the athletes with Legends cards in FIFA Ultimate Team, and he is still anchoring the perennially best team in Serie A. Same for Julio Cesar at Benfica. By their ages, outfield anchors of similar talent levels like Pirlo, Gerrard, and Lampard had ridden off into the sunset from their European clubs.

Goalkeepers not only last longer, but they come much more cheaply. In the summer of 2011, Manuel Neuer, the consensus best goalkeeper in the world for at least the past two or three years, landed at Bayern Munich for the relatively Scrooge-esque sum of 22 million euros.

Meanwhile, during that exact same transfer window, Fernando Torres moved from Liverpool to Chelsea for fifty million pounds (roughly 57 million euros–more than 2 1/2 times Neuer’s price tag–at the time).  Take a wild guess at which transfer turned out to be the better transaction…by an incredibly huge margin.

Yes, we are talking about the best players in the world, but the lesson still stands for MLS, despite its quirks and its opacity. While Howard will be making far more clams than your rank-and-file MLS keeper, he is still going to be paid only a fraction of what Villa, Lampard, Gerrard, et al. will be taking home, and at least in regards to the latter two of that trio, I would much rather have Howard on my team, despite his decline in form this past season for the Toffees.

In fact, Colorado in theory (emphasis on “theory,” as they would have to either trade or pay down Kevin Doyle or Shkelzen Gashi in order to open up a Designated Player slot) could pay for Howard plus another Designated Player of equal salary and still not be paying as much as the Galaxy are for Gerrard or NYCFC are for Lampard.

Now, to be clear: there *are* reasons to criticize this move by the Rapids. Howard is obviously not the keeper he once was, having long since been benched by Everton manager Roberto Martinez in favor of a frankly mediocre option in Joel Robles, and while nobody would ever mistake MacMath for the second coming of Lev Yashin, he was still a perfectly serviceable first-choice keeper at a time when the Rapids have much more glaring holes on their roster, especially in terms of attacking depth *despite* the addition of Gashi and others.

In other words: despite his worsening form for Everton, Howard represents a very real upgrade over MacMath, but not so great an upgrade that it ought to completely preclude the Rapids from procuring any other Designated Players for the time being.

In that respect, as one of my colleagues over at Reporting KC (another FanSided site) put it on Twitter: this represents an opportunity cost lost for the Rapids.

These are some of the very worthy criticisms to make of the Rapids signing Howard. But his salary shouldn’t be one of them. Indeed, of the marquee American players still remaining in Europe, he would likely have come by far the cheapest–aside maybe from fellow keeper Brad Guzan, who is going to need somewhere to land after Aston Villa is inevitably relegated this summer, but that too goes to the undervaluing of keepers as a position.

Congratulations to the Rapids for being able to land such a marquee player despite not being the Galaxy, Sounders, or Red Bulls. Congratulations to Howard on being able to extract one final payday from his storied career. Let those congratulations not stand in the way of the very real possibilities of this deal not being the most optimal decision by the club and the league. But let’s also remember that those possibilities are not based solely on Howard’s salary.