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Philadelphia Union could lose MLS All-Star Kai Wagner for nothing

The 26-year-old is in the final year of his current deal and has had interest from Premier League and Bundesliga clubs.

All-Star Kai Wagner frustrated with MLS salary limits

Kai Wagner has established himself as one of MLS’ top defenders during his five-year stint with the Philadelphia Union but he could leave on a free transfer after the club failed to reach an agreement on a new contract.

The 26-year-old has made 140 MLS appearances for the Union. He made it into the All-Star roster in 2021 and 2022, and was named in the MLS Best XI in 2022.

But despite impressing in one of the league’s best teams, his current contract is worth just $630,000 annually. Speaking to reporters recently, Wagner said that he was frustrated with the club’s inability to offer him improved terms.

I don’t ask for much, I don’t ask for crazy money,” he said. “Everybody should know that I’m happy here and my family loves it here.”

“But on the other side I think the teams and the fans should get a little more out of this club. This club can be so much more.”

What is the MLS salary cap?

Unlike teams in the top leagues in Europe and Mexico, MLS sides are bound by comparatively strict roster-building rules. For the 2023 season the maximum salary budget charge for a single player is $651,250, meaning that Wagner can only be offered a very modest pay increase and remain below that threshold.

Of course, the league’s Designated Player rule does allow some to earn far more than the single player limit. However teams are limited to three Designated Players per roster and they typically use them on attacking players.

A left back, even one of Wagner’s quality, is extremely unlikely to be given a Designated Player spot, meaning that the team cannot offer him a compensation package worth more than $651,250 per year.

Wagner could leave Philadelphia for Premier League

So far this season, Wagner has produced more key passes (49 in 22 games) than any other defender in MLS. He had similarly impressive figures in 2022, when he contributed an average of 2.4 chances per game in a team that reached the final of the MLS Cup.

If Wagner cannot agree a new deal with Philadelphia he will be able to leave the club on a free transfer at the end of this year. He is expected to have suitors from some of Europe’s top leagues, including the Premier League and the Bundesliga.

The Philadelphia Inquirers report that Wagner has previously had offers from West Ham United and Leeds United, but those potential moves fell through.

Union manager Jim Curtin said of those proposed deals: “He’s had the disappointment, frustration, whatever you’d like to call it, of some transfers being close but not quite happening.”

“He’s given everything for Philadelphia, he’s a winner, and he’s been a big part of our success through the years. Certainly, I know there’s decisions that are going to get made in the coming weeks and months and days, but I hope he wears this badge for a long time.”