By Ridge Mahoney
Rankings are all the vogue these days regarding all things MLS, yet in this age of power rankings and other opinion-ridden rankings there’s one glaring omission; that of ambition, of zeal, of commitment to spend. Suffice it to say, the expansion of Designated Player options gives license to those teams willing to pay and is one way to measure a team's ambition. Spending isn't a guarantee of a fair return, as teams from Leeds United to Newcastle United to New York Red Bulls and even Real Madrid have shown.
By the end of the summer, at least a few MLS teams will have plunged deeper into the DP pool. Until then, all that can be measured is their track record of luring high-priced players, whether they be DPs or not, and the return on those investments. Here's a rundown of the teams with the money to spend and the willingness to do so, and those not so inclined.
1. SEATTLE. During MLS Cup 2009 pre-game festivities at Qwest Field last November, Sounders majority owner Joe Roth not only confirmed his plans to add a DP for the 2010 season, he added specifics: “We’re going to go out and get a big striker.” Blaise NKufo is 6-foot-2, but turns 35 in May. However, this season he’ll only count for $167,500 against the cap. Seattle started building early with Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg, so more names are likely to follow sooner or later.
2. NEW YORK. Just about every well-known international in his mid-30s will be linked to the Red Bulls by the summer if he hasn’t been already, and a good start to the 2010 season won't lessen the clamor. Thierry Henry is regarded as a done deal, even though it isn’t. The front office surely took note of the crowd at the second game at Red Bull Park; regardless of the opponent (FC Dallas), 13,667 isn’t big-time. The May 23 visit of Juventus might be a nice audition for Alessandro del Piero, and there's a huge Italian population to be enticed.
3. LOS ANGELES. The Galaxy might spring this summer, especially if the team can wrangle a ruling out of MLS that David Beckham will only count for half a DP salary, since he won’t be over his injury until August at the earliest. Of course, if Landon Donovan leaves for Europe after the World Cup, it won't have any fit DPs on the roster, and that can’t continue.
4. PHILADELPHIA. CEO Nick Sakiewicz has been very coy about a DP, citing intense fan interest in the city, the team ethic preached by Coach Peter Nowak, and strong crowds all but assured for much of the season once its new stadium opens in late June. By then, the team’s needs and available options will be clear. How about Robert Pires? Just a suggestion.
5. CHIVAS USA. Officially, the team has never had a DP, though Juan Francisco Palencia somehow commanded a salary of $1.36 million for the 2006 season before the option was approved by the Board of Governors. With midseason DPs counting so little against the cap this year, how can the team not nick a major name if mediocre results continue?
6. TORONTO FC. Criticism fell upon the TFC brass as soon as news came forth last August that the team had spent DP money for Canadian international Julian de Guzman, whose career in Europe had been mostly as a holding midfielder. This year’s rocky start hasn’t helped his status amongst fans, though a few pieces added since Preki took over as head coach have been truly underwhelming. Fans are filling BMO Field anyway, but their mood is growing uglier by the day, and this management team seems ripe for a panic move, or any move just to quiet the din.
7. D.C. UNITED. Upgraded to a DP, Luciano Emilio wilted under the pressure, and he waits in limbo while United tries to swing a trade for his rights. Marcelo Gallardo didn't light it up. Before he sold out his interest in the team, Victor MacFarlane liked Ghanaian midfielder Stephan Appiah – in search of a club at the time – enough to express a willingness to pay $2 million to get him. Would Appiah help this team at this time? No doubt. Can he turn them into a winner? Doubtful. Can owner William Chang be persuaded to spend big as the rank-and-file lurches from one bad result to the next? Not likely.
8. CHICAGO. So far, Coach Carlos de Los Cobos – despite his laudable record with clubs in Mexico – has preferred to import players he coached with El Salvador. And there's no clear indication Fire management is eager to buy up a DP slot to replace Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a factor on the field as well as at the gate. However, another star could increase the team’s value in the re-sale market.
9. KANSAS CITY. The Wizards downgraded Claudio Lopez from a DP after one season, and after his second year offloaded him to Colorado. Peter Vermes has come up roses so far with Ryan Smith and Stephane Auvray; if he finds a game-changer who requires DP money who is essential to win a title and give a bigger pop to a stadium opening next year, it's feasible.
10. REAL SALT LAKE. Coach Jason Kreis would take extreme convincing a DP is necessary, as he values work rate and team chemistry very highly. However, RSL’s quest to attain an elite status by which it regularly competes domestically and internationally for honors could lead to serious discussions, and owner Dave Checketts hasn’t been adverse to spending.
11. FC DALLAS. Burned by Denilson, who was a DP, and Mexican defender Duilio Davino, who wasn’t, FCD is leery. Operator-investor Hunt Sports Group is notoriously frugal, yet with Coach Schellas Hyndman signed to a lucrative, long-term deal, if he can convince management a major name can be the difference, a move isn't impossible.
12. COLUMBUS. The Crew “rewarded” Guillermo Barros Schelotto for winning MVP honors and leading the team to its first MLS title in 2008 by stripping his DP designation and salary after the 2009 season. A DP upgrade would take pressure off Schelotto, but HSG doesn't spend eagerly.
13. HOUSTON. A curious move last summer yielded Luis Angel Landin coming to MLS on an 18-month loan as a Designated Player. He’s done little on the field to merit the slot and his impact at the gate has been negligible. Since the team isn’t likely to go into the tank, unless a top-name American player became available as an allocation, a major move probably won’t happen.
14. NEW ENGLAND. Coach Steve Nicol would bring in a DP tomorrow if he could get Revs’ management to sign the check. Brazilian midfielder Ze Roberto is just one player linked to the team in recent years but hard-ball negotiating tactics are a serious obstacle.
15. COLORADO. Operator-investor Stan Kroenke is chasing major ownership of Arsenal and the NFL Rams while his other soccer team plays in a half-empty stadium. Could Coach Gary Smith sell managing director Jeff Plush on a DP? Sure, if he comes on loan – as did Landin – with Arsenal, for example, footing most of the bill.
16. SAN JOSE. Owner Lewis Wolff hasn’t yet generated the money to get his stadium plan, which the San Jose City Council sanctioned in mid-March, off and running. The Quakes open a new training facility at the end of the month; any chance of a DP is far off in the future.