(This is the second in my series of posts called “Why This Lifelong Soccer Fan Is (Currently) Unenthused About Major League Soccer)

When Major League Soccer was founded in 1993, the new league was determined to avoid the veritable orgy of overspending and lack of restraint that has sunk the North American Soccer League in the 80’s (notably, it seems that, unlike the MLS, the US Housing market did not pay attention to this lesson). Because of this, the MLS structure has some major differences from the professional soccer leagues in Europe.  Major League Soccer is operated as a single-entity model, with the league tightly controlling team spending and salaries, by having a salary cap (currently at $2.6 million per year) and a maximum per player cap salary (currently $375,000).  All player contracts are owned by the league, and the league pays player salaries from a pool collected from all the teams.

The single entity model ensures sustained growth and responsible financial behavior, but completely hamstrings teams’ ability to sign big name players.  And so, in 2006, the owners of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who, behind the scenes were orchestrating the possibility of signing David Beckham, proposed the Designated Player Rule.  The rule would enable each team to sign one player in excess of the per-player spending limit.  The player’s contract would be paid for by the league, and count against the cap only up to the limit.  Any amount in excess was the responsibility of the team.  The thinking was that importing high-priced talent with instantly recognizable names and skill level far exceeding that of current MLS players will help the league leap forward both in terms of off-the-field marketing and on-the-field play level.  This, in turn will increase the prestige of the league, further increasing profits and attraction to high caliber players.  Specifically for the Galaxy, the rule will allow them to reap the incredible windfall of signing Beckham, the most marketable soccer star in the world.  Because of this, the unofficial name given to the Designated Player Rule was the Beckham Rule.

Since the rule went into effect, a total of 29 designated players have been signed.  Below is a breakdown of all the DPs with average annualized salary of over $750,000.

Name Team Year Signed Salary Appearances Goals Assists
 David Beckham  LA Galaxy  2007  $6,500,000 63 11 23
 Thierry Henry  New York Red Bulls  2010  $5,600,000 26 11 4
Rafael Marquez  New York Red Bulls  2010  $4,600,000 21 1 1
 Cuauhtémoc Blanco Chicago Fire  2007  $2,759,086.00 65 17 22
Landon Donovan LA Galaxy  2007  $2,300,000 111 59 40
Julian De Guzman Toronto FC  2009  $1,910,746 40 0 3
Marcelo Gallardo DC United  2008 $1,874,006 15 4 3
Nery Castillo Chicago Fire  2010 $1,788,061 10 0 0
 Thierry Henry  New York Red Bulls  2010  $5,600,000 26 11 4
Freddie Ljungberg Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire  2009  $1,314,000 44 4 9
 Juan Pablo Angel  New York Red Bulls  2007  $1,250,000 128 64 8
 Mista Toronto FC  2010  $987,338 7 0 1
Eric Hassli Vancouver Whitecaps  2011  $900,000 13 6 0
Denilson FC Dallas  2007  $879,936 7 1 0

This list contains two players who are among the top players in the history of the MLS (Angel and Donovan.  More on Donovan later), two players who’ve had successful, albeit fairly short MLS careers (Blanco, Ljundberg), and three players  who are still in the league and enjoyed successful starts to their careers (Hassli, who is still in his first year in the league, Henry who is currently leading the MLS in goals, and Marquez who’s had problems with injuries but has been effective when he played). Marcello Gallardo had a successful half a season with DC United before an injury ended his season, and his career in the MLS. Castillo, De Guzman, Mista and Denilson were complete busts and have washed out of the league. And Beckham himself was a case so unique, he fits none of these categories, and will be discussed in detail below.  So there you have it.  Of the 13 players making more than double the league maximum (excluding Beckham), only 2 have warranted the kind of investment the MLS made in them, and 3 more whose careers are still ongoing, but who can certainly rise to that level with time.

Soccer is a highly nuanced game, however.  Sometimes, goals and assists cannot properly capture a player’s impact on his team – though it is much harder to say that about lack of playing time, or the GM’s unwillingness to retain the player on the team.  So, perhaps DPs contributed to their team’s success while managing to stay anonymous on the stat sheet.  Here is a table of the MLS Cup winners and runner ups since the DP rule was introduced, and the designated players on these teams.

 Year Winner  Runner Up DPs On Winner DPs On Runner Up
 2007  Houston Dynamo  New England Revolution  None  None
 2008  Columbus Crew  New York Red Bulls  Guillermo Barros Schelotto*  Juan Pablo Angel, Claudio Reyna
 2009  Real Salt Lake  Los Angeles Galaxy  None  David Beckham, Landon Donovan
 2010  Colorado Rapids  FC Dallas  None  None

*Was not signed as DP until after the season

Guillermo Barros Schelotto was on a regular MLS contract the year Columbus Crew won the MLS Cup, and would be signed to DP contract the next year.  The other three MLS champions have not took advantage of the DP rule, although two of the runner ups have.

The problem with designated players is that while signing one can be a lucrative marketing move for a team (and occasionally may even benefit them on the pitch!), in many cases, historically, the DP spots have deprived the team of resources (both monetary and in terms of playing time) that could have been used to develop local talent with ties and commitment to American soccer. In this vein, one name on that list shows us an example of a good way to use the Designated Player Rule: Landon Donovan.  Donovan has been a star on the US Soccer scene since he won the Golden Ball as the best player in the 1999 U-17 World Cup. He had a number of stints in Europe, but due to various factors have failed to hit it big**.  In 2005, he signed for the Galaxy, and in 2007, when the Designated Player Rule went into effect, his higher-than-maximum salary was grandfathered into the rule, making him an unofficial DP player.  In 2010, the grandfather clause expired and he became an official Designated Player.

There are currently a number of American players in the European leagues who are struggling to earn playing time.  Americans such as  Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Freddie Adu could benefit from being brought home at a salary appropriate for their level of talent using the Designated Player Rule.   Supporters of the US National Team would object that the experience of playing against top European competition is a necessary one to develop them for international competition, but the only thing collecting splinters on the bench of Borussia Mönchengladbach (Bradley), and Villareal, Xerez and Bursaspor (Altidore), or toiling in the absolute anonymity of second rate teams in the Portuguese, Greek and second division Turkish leagues (Adu), has developed is a collection of jerseys with their names on them (and even that might not be true.  Local teams are often cash-strapped.  Letting an ex-player keep his jersey could possibly fall outside financial prudence).  A big contract from an MLS team will go a long way towards soothing egos bruised by failing to find success in Europe.  And the American soccer fans would much prefer to see American soccer stars on MLS fields than an over-the-hill, disinterested Brit.

Which brings us back full circle to David Beckham.  How did the American adventure of the player for whom the Designated Player Rule is named turned out? Decidedly mixed.  His story could almost serve as the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of hype. Without a doubt his signing brought a bonanza of publicity and commercial windfall to the Galaxy.  But after a star-studded media blitz to herald his arrival, and after his promises to serve as an ambassador of soccer in the US and increase the visibility of the sport,  the results on the field and in the locker room were decidedly mixed.  In his first half season with the team, Beckham barely played due to an injury.  And that’s when things got weird.  From 2008 until now, the story of David Beckham has been one of behind the scenes power struggle and unprecedented pandering by the team to their star import.  The way Galaxy bent over backwards to Beckham’s wishes is reminiscent of the stories about LeBron James that came out after he left Cleveland.  For instance, Grant Wahl, in his excellent book about Beckham’s time in LA, The Beckham Experiment suggests that it was due to Beckham’s pressure that Galaxy signed Ruud Gullit as their coach in 2008 – who proved to be so incompetent he was fired halfway into his first season***. Beckham missed games due to non-MLS commitments, and injuries suffered while on non-MLS commitments.  This year, he missed league games to attend the Royal Wedding, and to attend a meaningless friendly game to honor his retiring former teammate in England.  In the later case, when news of his desire to do so came out, the consternation caused a debate on whether he should be allowed to do so – until he promptly ended that debate by getting red-carded before the game in question, ensuring that he’d be suspended and unable to play (in soccer jargon this is known as “punk-ass bitch move”).  At least this year, he’s been healthy and when he played, he played well – he’s currently second in assists in the MLS.  But for most LA Galaxy fans, this is too little too late.

** This summary glosses over many interesting chapters in Donovan’s career.  Such as his attempt to return to Europe after becoming a Designated Player, which was blocked by MLS

*** This highlight reel shows only the tip of the iceberg that was (and is) David Beckham’s MLS career.  I highly recommend Grant Wahl’s excellent The Beckham Experiment for an account of the story that does it justice.

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