Michael Farrow's sports blog

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…on whether MLS’ designated players are actually worth it

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Torsten Frings - "WTF, I can't run that far anymore!"

With salary-capped sports leagues, there is always pressure to loosen the purse strings a little, especially in minority sports. Raising the cap is the most common way or alternatively allowing cap exemptions for certain players but it’s a balancing act between those teams that want to spend more and those who can’t. In MLS, the solution was to allow teams to spend what they want in a controlled manner. The Designated Player Rule – championed by Anschutz Entertainment Group so their franchise, the LA Galaxy, could sign commercial juggernaut David Beckham – was introduced in 2007 and has been changed and tweaked ever since. However, with the Galaxy the only team to ever win the MLS Cup with designated players and both conferences currently led by teams without them, the question has to be asked; are designated players a waste of time?

For the uninitiated, the rule currently applies to players who earn more than the MLS maximum for that age group. Their wage counts against the salary cap up to that threshold and the rest is covered out of the team’s coffers. Twenty two designated players currently play at 11 MLS franchises. Sporting Kansas City and the San Jose Earthquakes lead the Eastern and Western Conferences and both teams are in the eight that do not have any DPs. San Jose dipped their toe in the pool when they signed Geovanni for a half-season deal in 2010 and KC have had three DPs but they’ve never spent Beckham money, bringing in players for less than $500,000 per year. Other than the expansion Montreal Impact, who are publicly weighing up the pros and cons, only the Philadelphia Union have stayed away from the designated player market, though this is probably due to Piotr Novak’s gruff “no stars” policy.

The problem has been that so many of these players have been hit-and-miss that it’s almost better to find somebody else instead. Chicago Fire have been burned by internationals Freddie Ljungberg, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Nery Castillo. DC United made Marcelo Gallardo the highest-paid player in their history and he departed after an injury-hit year. Denilson was a laughably poor signing for Dallas and Mista, the former Valencia striker, was such an unmitigated disaster it brought Mo Johnston’s risible reign as Toronto FC GM to an end. It seems that often at times the most relatively successful DPs have been those existing players whose wages were raised slightly above the league maximum, such as Guillermo Barros Schelotto or Luciano Emilio.

I guess the problem is strategy. Are you signing a player to sell tickets? Is it to state your intent to compete in the league? Are you signing the player simply because he is the best player you can sign? When signing Kris Boyd, Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson made it clear that this sent a sign to the league that they wanted to win, making the Scottish striker a message signing as much as a playing one. Players have always been signed in MLS to sell tickets with Luis Hernandez’s stint at LA Galaxy hanging in the memory.

Seattle and New York lead the way with five DPs each in their history. Of Seattle’s five DPs, only one has fallen into the “high price talent” category, with Ljungberg clearly a message signing. In the main, they’ve secured decent players in the $400,000-$750,000 per annum range. For the British layman, it’s the sort of money doled out to decent Football League Championship players. Argentinian assist machine Mauro Rosales, their current captain, signed a new DP-level deal in the close season after earning $42,000 on a standard contract last season, falling into the Schellotto/Emilio category.

The Red Bulls, the home of failed initiatives since 1996 when they were the NY/NJ Metrostars, have got good use from forwards Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry, though the latter is the second most expensive player in league history. However, the signing of injury-ravaged Claudio Reyna seemed more a favour to the player than a sensible acquisition and Frank Rost was a good goalkeeper but lasted just half a season. Their final DP is former Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez, whose name has almost become a cautionary tale of expensive decline.

The Mexican international centre back has struggled since his move to MLS and has become more reliant on dirty tricks rather than good defending. They are now faced with an increasingly-common issue; the Designated Player quandary. Do you try and get 60% of what a player was or do you change their role to squeeze more use out of them. This hasn’t only affected New York coach Hans Backe but it’s also also faced by Toronto coach Aron Winter, as he tries to coax a couple more years out of former midfield dynamo Torsten Frings. The engine has gone but his quality is still there and Winter’s experiment with Frings playing as a roving sweeper has had mixed results.

Signing an aging player to do something other than what he has made his name doing is risky anyway. When you’re doing it under a salary cap and it takes up 12.5% of your cap space and costs $1m more out of the club’s resources, it’s more like planning for a lottery win.

The irony is that despite more teams staying away from signing them, in terms of cap space, DPs are cheaper than ever before. In 2007, your first DP counted for $400,000 of cap space under a $2.1m cap. In 2012, the equivalent is $350,000 dollars under a $2.81m cap. No longer do MLS franchises have to trade for additional DP slots, they’re allowed up to three with the third incurring a $250,000 “luxury tax”. Teams can use allocation money to pay down the cap hit or loan players out in the MLS offseason to free up cap space and save money. When the LA Galaxy loan out Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, they’re paying for other players during the season. The $150,000 they’re saving could easily pay for three other players.

Of the players currently on DP contracts, you have to ask; how many of those guys do something that non-DPs can’t do? Sure, Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry are standouts and Beckham exists for commercial reasons. However, you have to ask yourself, is Kris Boyd that much better than Chris Wondolowski? Would you rather have Juan Pablo Angel or Sébastien Le Toux? Should Julian De Guzman be earning even a fraction of the $1.9m he earns ambling around the TFC midfield? I would guess the number of players who are really worth it is actually quite low.

I think we’re already seeing the future of the rule. Tweaks to the rule now allow for younger DPs to cost less against the salary cap.  While Michael Ballack would want $3m and count $350,000 against the cap, the next Nicaraguan wonderkid might cost $600,000 and count $150,000 against the cap.  With Brek Shea’s signing to a DP contract, I believe we’re also now on the cusp of seeing MLS teams make a real fight of keeping homegrown talent.  It has long been commented that rather than rolling over when the first Danish Premier Division side comes a-knocking, it would be nice to see MLS and their franchises decide to aggressively keep good American players in the US.   Given the cost of the fading star names, the direction of the Designated Player Rule could shape what it takes to win in the next decade.


Written by Michael Farrow

May 1, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Posted in Football

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