The Sounders currently have three Designated Players on the roster: Clint Dempsey, Osvaldo Alonso, and Nicolas Lodeiro. Though it’s possible only one of them will be a DP and/or on the roster by opening kick. The health of Clint Dempsey and the salary of Osvaldo Alonso have a cascading effect on how the roster should be built and when a new DP could be brought in.
With the questions around Dempsey’s health, the team can’t know for sure whether to focus on a player that complements Dempsey’s skillset, or instead seek a player who can replicate those skills. If they commit to the former now, and Dempsey can’t play, have they created a new set of problems? Conversely, does having two players with the same skillset create problems trying to get them both on the pitch?
With Ozzie, it all comes down to money. There’s a maximum amount of TAM you can spend to buy down a player. The 2016 roster rules state (subject to change by MLS of course):
The compensation ceiling for such players is set at $1,000,000 per year, except as follows: if a Designated Player is converted to a non-Designated Player through the use of Targeted Allocation Money during the Secondary Transfer Window, that player may earn a maximum of $1,500,000 on a prorated basis.
Ozzie made $941,667 in 2016. If he’s given the same raise as he got from 2015, he’d be at just over $1.1M in 2017. That’s over the threshold. Any raise Ozzie gets over 6.2% puts him over the limit to be bought down with TAM for the whole season.
The Sounders obviously want to have another DP join them, but what’s the best position to try to fill and when should they fill it? There are three positions where a DP would make sense for Seattle: central midfield, right wing, and attacking midfield.
This might be the position that leaves most people shaking their head the most. The team has Ozzie and Cristian Roldan, why would you want a DP here? There are some compelling reasons to think it might be a good strategy. First of all, Ozzie isn’t going to be around forever, and Roldan is going to need a partner going forward. While Ozzie likely has another club option, he’s starting to get quite expensive, possibly too expensive to buy down with TAM. If you’re going to use a DP slot on a player in central midfield, you might not want to do it on a player who will be 32 going into the 2018 season.
Of course, we’re talking about 2017 and not 2018, so how would the logjam work with three CM’s in 2017? Ideally the DP you bring in would be talented enough that, though his best position was deeper, he’d be able to handle moving up into the attacking band of three. Both Roldan and Erik Friberg did this last season, and I see no reason why that wouldn’t work again. He would also provide cover for injuries and suspensions to your starting CM pair.
The biggest question here: Is a DP-caliber player there really necessary? Would the Sounders be a lot worse (or would what they do change very much), if they had a Wil Trapp, Dax McCarty, or Perry Kitchen in place of Ozzie? It may make more sense to get a TAM-level player to fill this need.
Seattle right now lacks some pace on the wings. Unless you are starting Bruin up top and pushing Morris to the left wing, the wide attacking options are going to be Lodeiro, Alvaro Fernandez, Harry Shipp, Aaron Kovar, Seyi Adekoya, and possibly Victor Mansaray. Other than Adekoya and Mansaray, none of them are going to be a threat to get behind a defense very often, and those two are probably too young and inexperienced to be counted on heavily.
Assuming that Seattle sticks with the 4-2-3-1, having someone with pace who can cut in from the right gives Seattle a ton of options. You could line up with Morris wide left and the new signing wide right with Lodeiro in the middle and Bruin up top. The new DP could play up top with Lodeiro wide right, Dempsey in the middle, and Morris left. Or put Lodeiro on the left, Dempsey in the middle, Morris up top, and the new DP on the right. That’s quite a nightmare to think about defending.
The question with this strategy is Dempsey’s health. If it turns out Dempsey can’t play, who besides Lodeiro goes into that center spot of the band of three? Is it Flaco? Shipp? And while Lodeiro works just fine in that central role, is that the best place to use him?
There is still no certainty that Dempsey will play at all in 2017, much less 2018. Seattle could choose to be proactive and find Dempsey’s replacement now. If they choose a similar player who’s younger, say Hiroshi Kiyotake, he might have the flexibility to play on the wing as well behind the striker. You could see the new DP and Lodeiro on the outsides with Dempsey in the middle. If Dempsey can’t go, the new player simply slots into his more natural position in the middle.
Of course this also means that in your fully healthy squad, you’re asking your new DP to play slightly out of position to accommodate Dempsey.
The uncertainty of Dempsey’s health and Ozzie’s contract number make this a difficult decision. So much so, it might simply make the most sense to wait it out. Find out what you have in Dempsey, and save the TAM by letting Ozzie stay a DP for a few months. Perhaps you decide that you do want a central midfielder, but you don’t need to pay DP money. Maybe the TAM you save lets you find one as well as a new DP in the Summer window.