By Paul Gardner
The introduction of the Designated Player in 2007 marked the beginning of the end for MLS. Or rather, the birth of a new MLS. The move was hailed at the time as a daring step by MLS owners -- which it was -- but there’s no escaping the fact that the decision was to a large degree forced upon the owners. It was absolutely inevitable if MLS was to grow.
By 2007 MLS had survived, not without its crisis period, for 11 years. It was trotting along at a playing level detectably lower than that of the major soccer countries, its drawing power stuck on 15,000 fans per game. The league was, in fact, stagnating.
It had reached a stage that was not really allowed for in the single-entity theory that led to its formation and, indeed, had guaranteed its survival. But survival is hardly an exciting concept -- certainly not a sellable one. The idea that MLS was now set for an infinite future of comfortable, non-risk-taking existence -- which was all that a strict single-entity structure can offer in the long run -- could not possibly appeal to anyone.
A sports league without ambition, without steady growth, with minimal excitement, a no-frills league -- who cares? Something had to give. So the DP was introduced, and the MLS’s days as a single-entity league were numbered.
The DP system has been slowly enlarged. That too was inevitable. It will go on enlarging until it is no longer needed, until the MLS salary caps have also enlarged enough to allow the league to join the rough-and-tumble real word of professional soccer.
Not yet, of course. But the arrival of the DPs has given the league what it must have: A touch of excitement and glamour, and the vision of an exciting future.
The DP idea was always a good one -- its inevitability ensured that -- and on the whole it has proved successful. Not as successful as one would have liked, however, and it’s not that difficult to see where the obstacles to its smooth functioning lie.
Above all, it’s a risky business. For MLS coaches, used to operating in a system in which the reduction of risk-taking was a founding principle, that has proved difficult to handle. The result has been a decidedly mixed bag of DPs, with some outstanding successes, and some pretty resounding flops. But, on the whole, coaches have opted for creative, attacking players (the one thunderous exception being the Red Bulls’ absurd signing of a goalkeeper as DP).
I’m leaving the original DP, David Beckham, out of this picture, because he seems to me to be simultaneously both a big success (in the marketing and publicity areas, at least that’s what I’m told) and a decided failure (on the playing field, that’s my opinion). And he operates at a more heavily scrutinized level than any other DP. He is in fact sui generis.
Of the rest, the tendency has been for coaches (or it may be general managers, or even marketing geniuses) to go for older players -- those with an established record of stardom, but who are nearing the end of their careers. Players who can bring maybe a season, or two, of excitement. Some -- like Juan Pablo Angel and Cuauhtemoc Blanco -- have done that, others -- like Luis Landin and Denilson -- have not.
Now comes a new stage in the evolution of the DP: The attempt by MLS to encourage its clubs to sign younger players. In future, those who do so will get a financial break, with much less of a young DP’s salary being charged against the salary cap. And a younger player will presumably mean a lower salary demand anyway.
At the moment, Fabian Castillo of FC Dallas, at age 18, is the only teenage DP. The idea of sparkling youngsters livening up the league has an immediate appeal, but I’m not sure they can do any better -- or even as well as -- older players. That is not asking too much. When you come to pinpoint DPs who have been on MLS Cup-winning teams, you’re faced with the awkward truth that there aren’t any. Not one. (Guillermo Barros Schelotto led Columbus to the title in 2008, but he was not a DP at the time.)
And if younger DPs do no better than the older ones, what’s the point of signing them? There is a financial reason: they will be cheaper, something that, it is hoped, will encourage clubs to be more adventurous. At the moment, New England has only recently acquired its first-ever DP, while five other MLS clubs have never entered the DP arena.
The tilt towards youthful DPs -- who will be foreigners, of course -- also contains a covert criticism of American youngsters as being not good enough. A criticism that is justified, but one that needs addressing within the American game with much more vigor than has been shown so far.
Then we get back to money again -- and to a built-in problem for MLS. If MLS does develop exceptional youngsters -- be they Americans or imported young DPs -- the chances of the league holding on to those players are slim, because European, or maybe Mexican, clubs will arrive with tempting offers.
As things stand at the moment, as MLS tries to maintain its balance between being a single-entity, cash-frugal league while it slowly inches toward greater financial flexibility -- for example, by entering the free-for-all of unrestricted player-trading -- I can see no way out of the trap.
Not until MLS can offer salaries to compete with the world’s top clubs will it be able to hang on to its starlets, Until then, it must face the reality that has been forced on the top Argentine and Brazilian clubs: they are producing players to sell, at ever younger ages, to Europe.
So we come to an unsatisfactory conclusion. One we knew all along, really: That the DP system is a stopgap measure, with a worrying lack of stability to it. Veteran DPs cost more money, and can give maybe a couple of years’ service. Young DPs are less expensive, but they too -- if they are successful -- will soon be gone.
There is a positive side to the situation -- one that I would hope has only fleetingly entered into the MLS cogitations -- a financial consideration: that there’s profit, quite possibly a very large profit, to be made from the sale of youngsters, something that cannot be expected from older DPs.