Much of what transpired in the 13th season of Major League Soccer is encapsulated in the performances, or lack of same, of its Designated Players.
Two teams that reached the last two championship games without DPs, Houston and New England, this time fell short. The Red Bulls, astonishingly, reached their first MLS Cup after jettisoning one of their DPs, Claudio Reyna, in midseason but never would have got that far without the other, Juan Pablo Angel, scorer of 14 goals.
A brutal scourge of injuries stripped many top players, including Marcelo Gallardo, from the roster of D.C. United, which upgraded Emilio Luciano to DP status with the extra slot it gained from Colorado in the Christian Gomez trade. Claudio Lopez needed most of the season to ramp up to MLS speed, but once he did, his attacking skills guided Kansas City into the playoffs. In Chicago, Cuauhtemoc Blanco adjusted to a new head coach — Denis Hamlett — and vice versa.
DP news rocked MLS off the field as well, most of it centered — like earthquakes, raging fires and other disasters — in Los Angeles. David Beckham persuaded AC Milan to take him on loan and it was revealed that he holds an opt-out clause – which had previously been denied by MLS officials — in his contract that allows him to leave after the 2009 season.
Tim Leiweke, president of team operator-investor Anschutz Entertainment Group, proposed MLS drop the salary hits incurred by teams employing DPs. He's probably not angling for any changes by next season — he proposed the Beckham Rule a year before it was adopted in 2006 for the 2007 season – but looking at 2009, when the DP option is scheduled for an extensive postseason evaluation and the league must negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players' Union. Rumors of MLS adding another DP slot per team for next season are just that, rumors.
In 2008, those salary hits cost a team $415,000 against the cap ($2.18 million) for the first DP, and $325,000 for number two. New figures will be approved by the MLS Board of Governors in their end-of-season meetings.
Injuries hampered Gallardo, whose high salary ($1.9 million) and cap hit epitomize the risks. D.C. president Kevin Payne believes Gallardo, when healthy, produced.
"He was creating an average of 13 scoring chances a game," says Payne, citing statistics from the Match Analysis tracking service. "That's a play that either creates a shot or leads to a shot. But he was hurt, so it's really hard to evaluate him. If he can remain healthy, I think he can be a dominating player.
"Last year, it was hard to evaluate Beckham [two assists in five league games]. So this year, Beckham stayed healthy, and had a decent year [five goals, 10 assists]."
In his second season, Blanco scored seven goals — including a left-footed, long-range screamer named as one of five Goal of the Year finalists — and led the Fire with 11 assists.
Beckham didn't draw the huge crowds as he did in his first season — more than 66,000 came out to see him at the Meadowlands in August 2007 — yet the Galaxy's road average of 28,132 far exceeded the league average (16,460).
Expansion San Jose, which filled its small capacity at Buck Shaw Stadium (10,500) several times, played three games at the Oakland Coliseum. It drew 20,038 for Blanco's visit, and crowds of 39,872 and 26,071 for Beckham.
As for next season, New York has an open slot left vacant by Reyna's retirement, expansion Seattle has signed Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg as a DP, and Toronto FC management has approved using the option.
JUAN PABLO ANGEL, A
New York (2007-08)
Remarkable scoring record of 34 goals in 47 games heading into MLS Cup 2008 is matched by his class and professionalism.
CUAUHTEMOC BLANCO — A-
The former Mexican international has delivered sensationally on the field and at the gate. In the top 10 of the league's all-time foreign signings.
DAVID BECKHAM, B+
Los Angeles (2007-08)
Propelled MLS and the Galaxy into the celebrity stratosphere at exorbitant cost but managed just 10 assists in 2008 when healthy.
LUCIANO EMILIO, B
D.C. United (2008)
Upgraded to DP after scoring 20 league goals in first season. Led team with 18 goals (41 games) in all competitions in 2008.
CLAUDIO LOPEZ, B-
Kansas City (2008)
Finished well after suffering from fatigue while playing several positions. Stats (28 games, six goals, seven assists) were decent, nothing more.
CLAUDIO REYNA, C-
New York (2007-08)
Played 21 games in 2007 while seldom measuring up to contract and reputation. Retired in midseason after playing just six more games.
FC Dallas (2007)
"It's like a magician who waves his hands over the hat but never pulls out the rabbit." —Commentator on ESPN2.
MARCELO GALLARDO, NR
Incomplete. Limited by injuries to 15 games, but two of his four goals were golazos. Can be a real force next year — if healthy.
(This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)