The year of the Designated Player in Major League Soccer

by Michael Orr

cahill

The Designated Player rule came to pass when LA Galaxy signed David Beckham back in 2007. In simplest terms, the rule allows for a given club to pay a significantly higher salary to a designed player, whose wages will only count for $350,000 against the salary cap each year.

(Note - there are other examples of DP status, such as Portland’s Colombian central midfielder Diego Chará whose transfer fee was amortized over the length of his four-year contract and thus puts his total compensation much higher than his reported salary, thereby requiring a DP slot)

Since its inception, fifty-three players have taken advantage of this designation with thirty-one still in MLS and counting as a DP. A handful of players, like former PSG and Rapid Wien midfielder Branko Bošković and former Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Ángel, are still in the league but have salaries that are either low enough to not require DP status or have had their wages ‘bought down’ by the allocation money process (yes, another MLS oddity that would require an entire article unto itself).

Since the high profile moves of Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans to Toronto FC last July (as detailed here), the use of the Designated Player status has finally opened up to much of the league. Previously, mostly high profile clubs like the Galaxy and Red Bull New York were able to afford such exorbitant (by MLS standards) wages, or the occasional club brought in an MLS stalwart (Dwayne De Rosario, for example) who predated the DP system or a local legend (like Julian De Guzman in Toronto) similar to the A-League’s Marquee Player system. But since Robbie Keane‘s move to Los Angeles in the summer of 2011, the use of the DP has become a league-wide trend.

Just in the calendar year 2012, sixteen players have become Designated Players. Of those, four were already at their current club (Mauro Rosales – Seattle Sounders; Freddy Adu – Philadelphia Union; Shalrie Joseph – New England Revolution*; Javier Morales – Real Salt Lake) and simply were given a raise or different contractual terms to be classified as a DP for the first time. The other dozen are new to MLS this season and have joined eleven different clubs. Only Vancouver Whitecaps can claim two new DPs this season.

Here is a list of the newest signings, separated by their entry date into the league:

Winter window:
Hamdi Salihi (Albania) – DC United
Kris Boyd (Scotland) – Portland Timbers
Oswaldo Minda (Ecuador) – Chivas USA

Summer window:
Barry Robson (Scotland) – Vancouver Whitecaps**
Marco Di Vaio (Italy) – Montreal Impact**
Oscar Boniek García (Honduras) – Houston Dynamo
Jerry Bengtson (Honduras) – New England Revolution
Kenny Miller (Scotland) – Vancouver Whitecaps
Sherjill MacDonald (Holland) – Chicago Fire
Tim Cahill (Australia) – Red Bull New York
Federico Higuaín (Argentina) – Columbus Crew
Christian Tiffert (Germany) – Seattle Sounders

In addition to all these moves, three existing DPs, the aforementioned Canadian De Guzman (FC Dallas), the Uruguayan Álvaro Fernández (Chicago Fire) and the Frenchman Eric Hassli (Toronto FC) have each been traded within the league this season. And none of this counts Milan and Italy legend Alessandro Nesta, whose contract with Montreal Impact was structured in such a way as to avoid the need for DP status.

Tiffert’s recent move to Seattle gives more new DPs in 2012 than remain in the league from the previous five seasons combined. While several big names are on the above lists, most notably Cahill, a noticeable shift has been reinforced this season as clubs target specific positions for improvement rather than trying to sign big name players to help attract more fans. Obviously the signings of Beckham and Henry have been well documented as doing both, but the likes of New England targeting a fantastic striker in his mid-20s in Bengtson, who made his name known to the non-CONCACAF world by scoring Honduras’ winner against Spain in the London Olympics this week, is almost more important for the league. The same can be said of the Higuaín (who is 27, and yes, the older brother of Real Madrid’s Gonzalo) signing in Columbus, and to a lesser degree Robson’s signing in Vancouver (only because he is a bit older at 33), as each team has dramatically upgraded at the given position.

There will still be DP flops, of course. Already this season, Uruguayan striker Federico Puppo has flamed out at Chicago Fire (pun intended) and five Designated Players who signed in 2011 did not return for 2012. Yet this method of player acquisition, and importantly, team improvement, is now not restricted to the league’s elite spenders. Whether Bengtson or Higuaín have a major impact remains to be seen, but the fact that New England and Columbus are able to convince significant foreign players to join on high wages is a good sign for MLS.

Meanwhile, Minda has been fantastic for Chivas this season, though is currently injured. Boyd leads the Timbers in scoring, García has already benefited Houston’s attack and Robson has transformed Vancouver’s midfield. Their successes, combined with the continued influence of Álvaro Saborío at Real Salt Lake, Chará at Portland Timbers and Rosales and Fredy Montero at Seattle Sounders, justify searches for less well known players of immense quality, particularly in Central and South America.

The Designated Player system was designed to help bring big names to MLS. That has certainly worked, but the shift in emphasis has come to define the league’s transfer windows over the past twelve months. Currently, each club can have up to three DPs at one time. It would not be at all surprising to see that number increase in the near future.

* Joseph was traded on Wednesday to Chivas USA, where he will still be a DP
** Robson and Di Vaio signed earlier than the summer window, but could debut until the summer window opened