[MLS IN-DEPTH] They aren't always the most influential members of a team, yet Designated Players earn the most money and draw more scrutiny than their less heralded teammates. In the league's fifth season after adopting the DP option in 2007, the disappointments and flops outweigh the triumphs.
“There are three types of Designated Players -- the marquee name, a young player with upside, and very good, experienced, technical players. Eric [Hassli] is very much in the latter category; he’s a player who will make an immediate impact and will make us a better team.”
So spoke Vancouver president Bob Lenarduzzi -- a pretty good player himself back in the day -- earlier this month when the ‘Caps signed Eric Hassli as the club’s first Designated Player at a salary yet to be disclosed. Hassli debuted with a pair of goals and a rugged, spirited performance overall to propel Vancouver past Toronto FC, 4-2, in the first MLS all-Canadian clasico.
He looks right off the bat to be prime DP material, as per “make an immediate impact and make us a better team.” Many teams have signed DPs for their power at the gate as well, and no doubt Omar Bravo – who debuted for Sporting Kansas City with two goals of his own in a 3-2 win – can tap into the nation’s large Mexican-American demographic.
Yet the Caps, along with Portland, seem destined for a season of sellouts regardless of how many, if any, DPs come aboard. On the flip side, a few teams – FC Dallas and Toronto FC among them – have actually impaired their performance by signing big names with little games.
To give teams more flexibility and/or more rope with which to hang themselves, last year MLS amended its DP rules: each team can sign three, slots cannot be traded, each DP costs $335,000 against the salary cap, and a team signing a third must pay a $250,000 tax to be distributed among the teams that don’t have three. Teams can “buy down” the figure a player counts against the cap with allocation money to a threshold of $185,000.
With all due respect to Lenarduzzi’s three classifications, four degrees of DPs can neatly encapsulate how the option has been utilized since being adopted in 2007 and amended last year to increase the number of DPs per team to three. Any player who costs $500,000 or more per season in acquisition monies and compensation is classified as a DP, and thus a player who earns a lot less than a half-million dollars per year can count as a DP depending on how much it cost to get him.
When pertinent, parentheses designated the season(s) when a player was a DP.
DOMINANT PRESENCE (Grade: A). The list of DPs who’ve hit this benchmark, regardless of salary, is rather short. Juan Pablo Angel (2007-present) scored 58 goals in four seasons for the Red Bulls. Midway through the 2010 season they encouraged him to find another team, which he did: Los Angeles via the Re-Entry Draft.
His Galaxy teammate, Landon Donovan (2010-present), is another ‘Duh!’ selection, as is Guillermo Barros Schelotto (2009), one of only two players to be upgraded to DP status, and then downgraded. He went up after leading Columbus to its only MLS title in 2008 and winning both the regular-season and MLS Cup MVP awards, then reverted to non-DP last year before leaving the league to play in his native Argentina.
Sounder Fredy Montero has been upgraded to DP this season and though he’s yet to score in two games he’s most likely bound to come through despite the demands. For the same reason Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio is included here as well.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco (2007-09) is renowned as one of the best signings, DP or otherwise, in league history. Spectacular goals, wicked free kicks, hunchback bunny hops, memorable spats, and enthralled crowds, Blanco brought it all to MLS.
DISAPPOINTING PERFORMER (C). These players weren’t disasters (see next category), they just didn’t measure up to what a DP is supposed to be, or haven’t yet reached that standard. In the case of David Beckham, he can fit it into this category for his mediocre performance in too many games, though he’s bent more than a few quality crosses and dead balls here in the USA. As for marketing, publicity, merchandise sales and exposure for MLS in the USA and around the world, he’s an (A) all the way. For all his injuries, clandestine loan deals, and occasionally cavalier behavior, he could also be an (F).
Argentine midfielder Marcelo Gallardo did all right for D.C. United in 2009 but hardly lit up RFK as did past heroes Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno. So far, Branko Boskovic (2010-present) looks like Gallardo’s long-lost Montenegrin cousin. Claudio Reyna (2007-8) wasn’t bad but neither was he good enough at $2.5 million over two seasons.
Many fans, especially those in Seattle, would label Freddie Ljungberg (2009-10) as an (F) in good standing. He certainly departed Seattle under a dark cloud, training on his own in self-exile before being traded to Chicago midway through the 2010 season. But he can’t be grouped with Blaise Nkufo, who followed him to Seattle. Despite tirades with referees and the eventual rift with Sounders’ management, Ljungberg gave an expansion team and its rabid Qwest Field faithful spirited work and audacious guile in its unforgettable first MLS season.
DEBACLE PERSONIFIED (F). Sadly, this category comprises many representatives, with former Dallas attacker Denilson leading the list. He proved conclusively that not even a Brazilian international of some repute is a guaranteed hit in MLS. The only good facet of his short stint in MLS is that he arrived during the summer of 2007 and thus cost "only" one-half of the DP salary-budget charge for his half-season of half-work.
Nery Castillo (2010), who has been so disappointing the Fire has loaned him to a club in Greece, has the potential to edge out a few other candidates and pass Denilson for the all-time DP bust. Spaniard Mista came to Toronto last year and simply flopped before departing, as did Mexican Luis Angel Landin, whose 18 months (2009-10) in Houston were as impotent as they were mystifying. Signed on loan, his salary was listed at $120,000 but he counted as a DP. Wha? Mista’s former TFC teammate Julian de Guzman came aboard late in the 2009 season and like him has done practically nothing to justify his acquisition, yet unlike him is still on the squad.
Nkufo (2010) might have clung to a (C) but bickered his way into an impasse with Seattle coaches and officials about his role, and got the pink slip just hours prior to the season opener. Ballyhooed as San Jose’s first DP signing when he arrived last summer, Geovanni (2010) came in at the bottom of the DP scale yet if performance equaled salary, he’d have earned the then-minimum of $40,000. He, too, is out of here.
The other player, besides Barros Schelotto, to be upgraded and then downgraded? Former D.C. forward Luciano Emilio (2008-9), the league’s MVP in 2007 before the pressure and expectations of being a DP gradually but inexorably smothered his confidence. Former Argentine international Claudio Lopez (2009) came to Kansas City as a DP, went to Colorado as a part-timer last year, and left the league after rarely playing for the MLS Cup champion.
DECISION PENDING (I, incomplete). Hassli got his life as a DP off to a bang by scoring the first and last Whitecaps’ goals in their 4-2 thumping of Toronto FC. Bravo matched Hassli in his DP debut with two goals of his own as Sporting Kansas City downed Chivas USA, 3-2. One game is absurdly premature to judge, but both Hassli and Bravo brought energy and commitment to their debuts as well as sharp finishing.
Yet to take the field is FCD signing Fabian Castillo, who at 18 is the youngest DP in league history. Crew forward Andres Mendoza moves up the ladder this year and will most likely share the scoring duties with Emilio Renteria. Red Bulls Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez land in this category, as both arrived last summer fatigued after the World Cup and played well in spurts and poorly in others. Ditto for Seattle’s Alvaro Fernandez, who it must be said, is slipping toward (F).