With MLS's addition of the Designated Player (aka, the Beckham Rule) for the 2007 season, teams were suddenly freed from a very tight financial leash and were permitted to spend without limit to acquire a player. This was a huge change for teams that had previously been forced to bargain hunt and pinch pennies with every signing. The rule has since been expanded to allow each team two "DPs" and a third for a one time $250,000 fee (to be divided among all teams who have never signed a third DP). Last year, the rules were adjusted with the addition of "youth DPs". Players 23 and under signed to Designated Player contracts now have a reduced impact on a team's salary cap.
While this may sound to the casual observer like free license to buy any player that a team might want, that is far from the reality. MLS teams quickly find themselves in the deep end of the pool competing with the truly huge teams from Europe, the best teams in South America, and teams from the Middle East, Russia and China with VERY deep pockets. Simply put, MLS is far from Alpha Dog and does not get to feed first when shopping for talent. In order to get ample return for their investment, teams must be crafty, careful and thorough. Below, I explore some DP acquisition strategies - some used in combination - and how they relate to various Sounders' acquisitions and rumors.
Find a star player in his late prime (note: NOT past his prime) who is going to be out of contract or looking to extend an existing contract.
This class of player will be expensive and there will be competition from bigger clubs in bigger leagues. However, many of these bigger clubs won't be willing to offer this type of player a long-term contract - because they don't have to. Their spending isn't limited, nor is the appeal of thier respective leagues. Why would they tie themselves to a player during a period beyond that player's prime? The player, however, may realize that this could be his last BIG payday. The lure of four years of earning at this level versus just one or two years might be enough to convince the player to take a chance on Seattle and MLS. It is important to remember that many of these players have been playing professionally since they were teenagers and may have no other marketable skills. They need to make retirement money NOW to guarantee financial security at a high standard of living for their families.
Rumored targets who fit this mold: Joan Verdú, Hélder Postiga
Current DP who fits this mold: Christian Tiffert
Find a star before he is a star - help him grow and profit from it.
This sounds great, but in reality is very, very difficult. The problem with this approach is that all of the "bigs" are constantly looking for the same thing - and doing so with much greater resources. Barcelona, Man U, etc. have legions of scouts constantly scouring the leagues of the world looking for the next Messi. While these big clubs avoid tying themselves to a player past his prime, they have no issue whatsoever tying themselves long-term to a younger player. They can always loan him out if he's not panning out. Nonetheless, it's apparent that the Sounders are exploring this avenue. Although the risk is great, the appeal of a young DP talent is hard to resist. Last year, the DP rules changed to incoroprate a reduced salary cap hit for players 23 and under. When the decreased salary cap hit for a youth DP is factored in, it is not surprising that the cap-tied Sounders are actively exploring this type of DP.
Rumored targets who fit this mold: Luciano Vietto
Former DPs who fit this mold: Fredy Montero, Álvaro Fernández
Find a star talent who is under-performing for reasons that the Sounders think they can fix.
There are players all over the world who aren't playing to their potential. Some were once-great and have lost thier form, touch or confidence. Others were touted as "the next big thing" and simply never materialized. IF the Sounders feel they can identify WHY a player is under-performing AND they feel it is something they can correct, there can be real value to be found.
Rumored targets who fit this mold: Price Tagoe, Nelson Valdez
Former and current players (DP and non-DP) who fit this mold: Freddie Ljungberg (hip injury), Eddie Johnson (confidence and form), Christian Tiffert (lack of a target at Kaiserlautern in '11-'12)
Find that special past-his-prime player who is simply (one hopes) still worth it.
The Sounders clearly had a little Keane-envy after the LA playoff series. Who can blame them? Keane looked great and the Keane/Beckham/Donovan DP trio won back to back MLS Cups and a Supporters' Sheild. There are a number of this class of player who have expressed interest in coming to MLS including Kaka and Lampard. Almost invariably, they are linked to New York and LA. If you can find the right one, you get leadership, mentorship and production. If you get the wrong one, you get a lazy, semi-retired locker room pariah who makes more money than the rest of your team combined. Tread carefully when entering these grounds.
Find a player who is looking for an "adventure"
As fans who can't get enough and are already anxious for the season to start, it's hard to imagine a professional athlete feeling the kind of burnout that we sometimes feel in our less glamorous daily grinds. It does, however, happen. Look no further tha Landon Donovan for proof. He is still at the top of his game and could play almost anywhere, but may be opting to take a break and do some soul-searching. There are other players out there who haven't lost their passion for the game, but who simply are ready for something new - an adventure. This won't likely be the deciding factor for a player making a move to the US. It will, however, be much easier to convince a player to make a big move if they are bored with the same old same old and have a bit of wanderlust.
Rumored target (probably non-DP) who fits this mold: Christoph Metzelder
Current player who has expressed this sentiment: Michael Gspurning
(ADDED BASED ON COMMENT FROM Adnan Ilyas) Find a player in a league or on a team that either isn't paying his salary on time, is unsafe for his family, and/or is collapsing for some other reason
There are teams in a number of leagues that are not paying their players on time (or at all). This has occurred in the Greek Super League, La Liga, La Liga MX, the Scottish Premier League, The Honduran League and many others. Players for some teams in the Russian Premier League have been physically threatened. Games in Mexico have been interrupted by gunfire right outside the stadium causing panic. Match fixing has rocked Seria A and, to an even greater degree, the K-League. If you can time these sorts of issues right and "rescue" a player, you can find a real bargain by talking up the (relative) safety of the country, the high standard of living, and the financial security of the league.
Rumored targets (non-DP) who fits this mold: Wilmer Crisanto, Jose David Velasquez (financial issues at Vicoria)
Current players who have expressed this sentiment: Michael Gspurning (wasn't getting paid on time), Mauro Rosales (thrown under the bus by Querétaro F.C), Eddie Johnson (Thrown under the bus by Puebla)
If there is one thing that is clear at this point, it is that the Sounders have many irons in the fire and a deep contingency plan which considers most, if not all, of the avenues above. It seems as if each time a rumored pursuit falls apart, a new one pops up to take it's place. The front office is clearly working hard and casting a wide, but fine, net. That's a good thing, because it will require excellent scouting, good timing, persistence and more than a little luck for the Sounders front office to land the type of talent we Sounders Faithful expect and deserve.