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A Closer Look at Designated Player Strategies (Western Conference)

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The Aging Superstar who started it all.
The Aging Superstar who started it all.

Recently I’ve been spending some time analyzing designated players around the league. The results of DPs on the field have been a mixed bag despite the immense amount of attention they receive when they enter the league. Some are consistently in the pack of the best players in MLS. Others barely see the field. The track record is even worse when you look back on some of the DPs whom are no longer in the league.  

The whole point of this exercise has been my own education. I’ve always wondered how different teams approach the DP rule and which teams seem to be on the leading edge on using DPs. Clearly, there are differences between a highly paid and aging superstar like Robbie Keane and a young up-and-comer like Fredy Montero. My working hypothesis is that young teams like the Sounders have an advantage in using these DP slots especially with the latest DP rule changes (I also use that link to describe some terminology that pops up later in this article).

After the jump I take a look at five teams in the West starting with our own Sounders. I analyze the DPs they have and make some educated projections about what they may do in the future. I'll follow later this week with five teams from the East. Taken together the two articles should provide a good overview of how teams in MLS are using their DP slots.

Seattle Sounders - Pushing the Boundaries of the Designated Player Rules

Previous DPs: Freddie Ljungberg (MF) & Blaise Nkufo (F)
Current DPs: Alvaro Fernandez (MF) & Fredy Montero (F)

I’m going to start this section with a bold statement. The Seattle Sounders have been the most innovative team in using their DP slots since entering the league in 2009. They’ve tried their hand at signing a broad array of DPs from the Aging Superstar to the Rising Star. In the latest international transfer window the Sounders were inches away from landing a big-time player in their peak in Prince Tagoe. In short, the Sounders have the money, the fan support and the international scouting to innovate in their use of DP slots.      

One of their first moves as an MLS team was securing a classic Aging Superstar to anchor the team and drive ticket sales. Ljungberg did an excellent job as the face of the team and was instrumental in re-launching the Sounders franchise. It should come as no surprise that the driving force behind Ljungberg signing was co-owner Joe Roth who knows a little something about building buzz and launching brands. However, Ljungberg’s impact on the field was mixed and when the drama off-and-on the field caused problems he was quickly jettisoned. The front office should be commended with cutting ties quickly rather than letting a problem fester. It’s a lesson other teams could learn.

The economic situation for the Sounders since Ljungberg has changed quite a bit. The team regularly leads the league in attendance and doesn’t need an Aging Superstar to drive ticket and merchandise sales. Instead the team has focused on players that they feel will have a direct impact on the field. Nkufo was brought in specifically to fill a need up top and did it admirably for half a season. Again, when it was clear Nkufo wasn’t willing to give the same effort for the 2011 season, they quickly cut ties to preserve the DP slot and the cap space.    

I expect the Sounders to move toward younger, peak and pre-peak players for future DPs based on the lessons the Sounders have learned from Ljungberg and Nkufo. The recent changes in the DP rules also incentives teams who have the resources for scouting and signing young players. The Sounders were one of the first teams to pay a significant transfer fee to sign a pre-peak player (Alvaro Fernandez). They’ve also used the DP slot to keep a promising young player from moving to Europe too early (Fredy Montero).     


Los Angeles Galaxy – Bending the Designated Player Rule since its Inception

Previous DPs: Juan Pablo Angel (F)
Current DPs: David Beckham (MF), Landon Donovan (MF) & Robbie Keane (F)

The Galaxy. The LA Galaxy. It’s impossible to talk about the DP rule without talking about the Galaxy although I sometimes wish it was possible. Mainly because I’m so conflicted about the role LA Galaxy has played in the development of the rule. I will say one thing in favor of AEG and the Galaxy. Their willingness to spend huge piles of cash on DPs has had a huge benefit for the visibility and marketing of the league.  

So, let’s start with some history. The DP rule was instigated at the behest of the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) so they could sign David Beckham (hence why it’s often called the Beckham rule). The league also bent the DP rules for a couple years so the Galaxy could keep both David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Despite all the rule-bending the Galaxy had some significant problems fielding a competitive side due to the huge cap hit of their DPs and persistent distractions caused by David Beckham. This year they’ve doubled down with the signing Robbie Keane and finally look like they’ll secure the MLS Cup they’ve coveted since the arrival of Becks.       

The DP strategy of the LA Galaxy is perfectly clear and unlikely to change despite the recent rule change to encourage younger players. The Galaxy will fill their DP slots with the biggest names they can sign. AEG has been focused since the inception of the league on creating a global soccer brand. They’ve been extremely patient and have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the league to keep it afloat during some lean times. They won’t flinch on paying the big bucks for the most well-known talent they can find. Eventually, the profile of the league may grow to the point where they can sign big name players in their peak years. Until then expect more Aging Superstars on the Galaxy roster.

FC Dallas – Learning A Valuable Lesson  

Previous DPs: Denílson (MF)
Current DPs: Fabian Castillo (F) & David Ferreira (MF)

FC Dallas is a bit of an odd duck among MLS teams and it shows through in their approach to designated players. Going by the numbers the team should be a rousing success at the gate. It’s located in the fourth largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and has a large and vibrant Latino community. Yet, despite plenty of success on the field, the team’s average attendance remains in the bottom half of the league. Pizza Hut Park’s inconvenient location in Frisco and brutally hot conditions contribute to the low turnout. This has constrained the team financially and contributes to the team’s much more conservative approach to designated players.

I expect FC Dallas to continue to use their DP slots to bring in young talent and keep older talent rather than chase big names and big egos from Europe. The first time the team tried to lure a big name was a big mistake. Denílson, despite his price tag, never really lived up to the billing in Europe or at Dallas. Dallas seems to have learned their lesson with the signing of Ferreira. Ferreira is a proven commodity and would have paid dividends this year except for his unfortunate injury.

The signing of Castillo highlights the teams increased interest in finding and developing young talent and has become a poster-boy for the young DPs that the league wants to bring to the league. One of the most promising things about Dallas is their ability to bring in and develop young talent from their academy system, through the draft and from abroad. As an interesting side note, Fabian Castillo was signed from Colombian club Deportivo Cali which has contributed a large chunk of the league’s best talent. Some notable former alumnus of Deportivo Cali include Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Fredy Montero, Jámison Olave and Jair Benitez

Real Salt Lake – The Challenge of the Small Market

Previous DPs: None
Current DPs: Álvaro Saborío (F)

No team with a DP has won an MLS Cup. In turns out that the financial ability to have big name superstars on the roster is not nearly as important as building deep, talented, well-coached team. Which is what head coach Jason Kreis has done in Salt Lake with a combination of journeyman and veterans from inside and outside the league. This is the first year RSL has taken advantage of the DP rule and it was to retain the services of a vital part of the team’s core. It is also likely to be the first year where a team with a DP finally wins the cup as the top 5 teams by PPM are all carrying DPs on their roster.  

Real Salt Lake won’t take many risks in the international transfer market as it's just too risky for a small market team like RSL. The hard truth of the matter is a mid-sized city in the middle of the desert is never going to be a destination for global superstars no matter how much the league improves. Hell, the Utah Jazz has enough problems keeping talent and they play in the best basketball league in the world. It’s for this reason that RSL is going to have to focus on building solid balanced teams with the occasional Budget DP or Rising Star.

Portland Timbers – I Can Has Designated Player?        

Previous DPs: None
Current DPs: Diego Chará

It’s hard not to judge everything the Portland Timbers do through the prism of their larger and more successful neighbors to the north. So, I’m not going to try. Luckily I don’t have to since Portland's attempts to land a DP for this season play out exactly like the Sounders except a year behind and generally with less success.

As expected there was a lot of buzz before the Timbers joined MLS. Merritt Paulson was stoking the rumor mill and most of the media and fans were expecting a big DP midfielder signing from Europe. Not without reason. The Timbers were clearly trying to land an Aging Superstar like Freddie Ljungberg to help launch the team. It was widely speculated that the mystery player was the reason the team traded Dax McCarty to DC United. In any event the mystery player never materialized and frankly wasn’t needed. The young team had no problems launching the team and generating buzz around Portland.

Still, the Timbers had all but promised their fans a DP midfielder and were determined to go out and get one. Here again they traveled a road already laid out by the Seattle Sounders by traveling down to Colombia and signing Diego Chará. At the time the signing reminded me a lot of the singing of Alvaro Fernandez by the Sounders just seven months prior. Both players are 25 year old technical midfielders and whose DP status is because of a large transfer fee rather than their salary.