LOS ANGELES – It is everywhere you go in soccer and the glue that holds the world game together.
Ever since the early 1990s, when top soccer leagues woke up to the potential power of television deal revenues, money has ruled the sport. You can't win without it, and in most nations, the rich get richer while the rest scramble over each other in a futile attempt to play catch-up.
Even in Major League Soccer, which aspires to elevate to the hegemonic levels of the greatest leagues in the world but is currently far behind, fiscal terminology is everywhere. Expansion fees, salary caps, bargaining agreement, public funding – the list goes on.
Yet on the eve of MLS's biggest game, there is evidence to suggest that in the United States cash cannot buy soccer success in the same way as it does overseas.
The Columbus Crew and the New York Red Bulls collide in Sunday's MLS Cup final at the Home Depot Center in a showdown of the league's two hottest teams. Columbus was the best side all season, losing only seven games on the way to the Supporters' Shield (the award given to the team with the best regular-season record), while the Red Bulls hit form at the right time and surged through the playoffs.
However, the combined total of the salaries of every player on both MLS Cup teams, plus head coaches Sigi Schmid and Juan Carlos Osorio, is less than the guaranteed wage paid to MLS's biggest earner, David Beckham.
Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy finished 13th out of 14 MLS teams, but the England midfielder took home $6.5 million from the club, plus tens of millions more in endorsement contracts. Teammate Landon Donovan was the league's fifth-highest paid player at $900,000.
Collectively, the Crew and the Red Bulls shelled out approximately $6 million on players and head coaches.
Beckham's international image and appeal is a big reason behind his earning potential, yet the case still highlights the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots among MLS players.
"I don't think it matters to most of our fans," MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said. "Players' values are driven by what their international market value is. Any player is only worth what someone is prepared to pay.
"There is a reason why David Beckham makes the money he does, and every player would hope that one day he will be in that position."
The reality is that they won't. Figures released by the MLS Players Union on Oct. 7 showed New York has nine players on its roster that make the minimum salary of just $12,900. Columbus has eight.
The Players Union hopes for a significant increase in salaries when the current collective bargaining agreement ends at the end of the 2009 campaign. But the reality may be somewhat different, given the economic challenges engulfing the sports and business worlds.
"I don't want to talk about which direction it might go," Gazidis said. "The world is experiencing changes on a daily basis now, for sports owners and everyone else. Revenue streams are likely to become a little drier. There is a new sense of realism about the world and MLS is not immune to that."
Many players in MLS are loath to talk about the wage structure publicly for fear it could be held against them by their club or the league. For those on the low end of the pay scale, though, playing the game they love is becoming more difficult to afford.
"Don't get me wrong. It is awesome to have a professional contract and to be able to live the life of a pro athlete," one bottom-rung MLS earner told Yahoo! Sports. "But it is unrealistic to expect people to live on such low salaries. I think it is a bit embarrassing for the sport, especially when how much everyone makes is made public knowledge."