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Portland, Columbus both spend wisely to cultivate their MLS Cup rosters

Changing of philosophy or just a one-season aberration? Portland, Columbus prove that spending wisely, not just big, is the way to league success.

A year ago in the build-up to the MLS Cup final, buying Designated Players was the most obvious way to achieve success in Major League Soccer. The LA Galaxy ended up winning with Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez on the field, while the Seattle Sounders won the Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup with Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey as the first names on the team sheet.

In 2015, the teams that will contest Sunday’s final, the Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers, scarcely paid over $1 million this season for a player, according to the MLS Players Union’s oft-disputed but standardizing figures. The conference finalists abided by the same measures, by and large. The New York Red Bulls lost Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill and avoided replacing them with expensive signings in favor of sporting director Ali Curtis and manager Jesse Marsch’s new strategy en route to winning the Supporters’ Shield. FC Dallas and its copious number of homegrown players matched the Red Bulls on 60 points.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean the way teams find success in MLS has fundamentally changed in the span of just 12 months. Knee-jerk reactions are all too common in the age of social media, and drawing emphatic and wide-sweeping conclusions based on one season is ill-advised. It’s also hard to call this season revolutionary based on team records. Only the Red Bulls and Dallas finished the regular season having won 50% or more of their games.

In 2014, twice as many teams accomplished that: Seattle and LA, with their aforementioned star power, and D.C. United and the New England Revolution.

However, the 2015 MLS season does offer a glimpse of what the league could be with a continued emphasis on calculated spending. Designated Players such as Portland’s Diego Valeri (29, $550,000 guaranteed salary in 2015), Liam Ridgewell (31, $1.2 million) and Lucas Melano (22, $800,000, although the club forked over a $5 million transfer fee for him) are much better suited to the task in MLS than DPs looking for a final payday at the end of their careers. (Fanendo Adi, 25, also makes $664,000, but his contract was bought down below DP level in July.)

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Columbus’s Federico Higuaín (31, $1.2 million) also fits that age definition and pay bracket, and he's the only Crew player making more than $600,000. Players in their mid-to-late 30s generally struggle to adjust to MLS’s demands despite their career success and, though almost always unintentional, they command attention to the detriment of others on the team.

Obvious exceptions exist, such as Didier Drogba, whose influence on the Montreal Impact was astronomical, but MLS at its best is a league of up-and-coming players or those who have been overlooked or prematurely shunned by European clubs. These players are hungry for success and often in the prime of their careers, and though they might not bring with them the same kind of brand-name recognition, they will raise the standard on the field comparably or better.

The league officially recognized as much when it enacted its new targeted allocation money mechanism, designed to incentivize spending on players in the magical range between $500,000 and $1 million that would “have the most immediate and profound impact on the quality of play in the league,” MLS executive vice president Todd Durbin said at the time.

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They have, and it’s been a part of MLS’s long-term growth strategy. It started with the Designated Player Rule and continued with an emphasis on signing homegrown players, commissioner Don Garber said in his State of the League call on Thursday. The next logical step, then, is those slots in between.

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“We’ve been going about building quality systematically, and I think that systematic, strategic approach has allowed us to be in the position we’re in today, which is careful and controlled growth,” Garber said. “Where we are now is focusing on the core of our rosters—the middle of our rosters, positions 4-7 or 5-8. That’s what the TAM program is all about. Ultimately, as our revenues grow, we can ensure that our resources are effectively applied to all three of those segments.”

A continuation of that practice can only happen with maintained focus on those principles. It could just as easily swing back the other direction in 2016, with teams shelling out millions for players who don’t necessarily comprise a cohesive collective.

The league will continue to import big names for big money as it did this year, but it’s worth noting that none of the semifinalists have any such players on their squads. In a season that was supposed to be about the stars, more youthful players and teams made deeper runs into the playoffs.

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What those teams have, Portland and Columbus above the others, are balance and depth. Toronto, Seattle, LA and Montreal didn’t have that this year, and they seemed as capable of falling into losing funks as they were rattling off consecutive wins.

For comparison purposes, the Timbers sit No. 8 in the league in terms of payroll, according to the latest MLS Players Union numbers. The Crew is below mid-table at No. 12, while Toronto, LA, New York City FC, Seattle and Orlando City SC occupy the top five places.

If the league can take anything from the 2015 season, it’s that playing attractive, effective soccer doesn’t have to come from importing players who won’t offer much to the league in the long run beyond their stewardship.

Now that multiple paths to success in MLS have been illuminated, teams should know they can win championships without overly extravagant spending. That relates favorable to the growth of the league in that anytime a new approach works, it can only help MLS grow beyond the homogeneous approaches of past champions.

“[MLS] is not a league of haves and have nots," Garber said Thursday. "It’s a league where if you’re smart, you get rewarded.”