When MLS instituted the Designated Player rule in 2007, it was largely to facilitate the signing of David Beckham. But the rule was also implemented so teams could go beyond the salary cap for other stars, or even just high impact players.
In the 10 years since, MLS has been the home of dozens of stars, older and budding. But who are the best Designated Players in the league's history?
Keep in mind, only years that a player was actually a Designated Player count in this ranking, which hurts someone like Landon Donovan or Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has only been a DP for one season.
The Argentine has played in 116 matches for the Timbers and racked up 37 goals to go along with 42 assists. This despite never having any other truly magnificent players around him (bar Darlington Nagbe when he's in form, which is hardly dependable). He set a record by scoring just 27 seconds into the 2015 MLS Cup final, sending the Timbers on their way to the league's ultimate prize.
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Juan Pablo Angel
Angel was one of the league's first Designated Players and, at the start, the best of the bunch. He scored 19 goals in his first season with the Red Bulls, cruising to Best XI honors. He bagged another 29 goals in his next three years with the club and was a transformative figure for a club in need of a turnaround, helping lead them to their only MLS Cup final. His two final seasons in MLS, with the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA, didn't go nearly as well, but he was a bonafide star in New York at a time when MLS was short on true stars.
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Martins only played three years with the Sounders and left unexpectedly before the 2016 season when a Chinese club came in with a giant offer. It left a sour taste in the mouths of some, but it's impossible to ignore just how good he was for Seattle. The Nigerian scored 40 goals and added 23 assists in his three years, helping the Sounders to their first ever MLS trophy when they captured the Supporters' Shield. People got caught up talking about Clint Dempsey, Sigi Schmid, the gigantic crowds and any number of other things in Seattle, but for three years Martins was the team's most dangerous player, and one of the most dangerous in all of MLS.
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Like Martins, Villa also scored 40 goals in MLS. The amazing thing is he did it in just two seasons. Villa arrived at New York City FC with huge expectations and he didn't just meet them -- he exceeded them. This despite playing for an expansion team and often having little support around him. There's a reason NYCFC and Villa both want to work out a new contract -- he's delivered on the pitch as much as off of it, and that's saying something.
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Morales' 10-year stay with Real Salt Lake came to an end after the 2016 season and, with it, MLS lost arguably their premier playmaker of the last decade. Often overlooked because he played in a small market and didn't arrive with much fanfare, it was impossible to watch RSL and not be wowed by the Argentine. It took him all of 40 seconds to notch his first assist in MLS and he never stopped. He was just as good in the postseason, picking up nine assists in 21 matches. Morales was the main man in RSL's lone MLS Cup title and helped them to another final, not to mention a Champions League final too.
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The Designated Player rule was created just for Beckham, but there were some wondering if he was worth it in his first couple years with the Galaxy. While it was a home run off the pitch, where visibility and revenue skyrocketed, it wasn't as good on the pitch. His impact was minimal, he and Landon Donovan didn't exactly get along and the Galaxy were floundering. But Bruce Arena changed that and Beckham became the best distributor in the league. He had 24 assists in his last two seasons with the Galaxy, numbers that don't even touch upon the impact his passing had on the league's best attack. He brought home two MLS Cups to live up to the hype on the pitch that always accompanied him off of it.
If Donovan's entire career was taken into account, he'd probably be higher, but he didn't get the tag until 2010. All he did in that time was score seven goals and add 16 assists in 2010, 12 goals in 2011, nine goals with 14 assists in 2012, 10 goals and nine assists, then an astounding 10 goals and 19 assists before retiring in 2014. That run also saw the Galaxy capture three MLS Cups and a Supporters' Shield. And that was just a fraction of his MLS career.
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It was easy to miss just how good Henry was because he often looked like he was simply jogging and half-interested. But the man the New York Red Bulls signed to take New York by storm did just that. He had 51 goals and 42 assists in 122 matches, pulling the strings for the Red Bulls attack as much as scoring goals for himself. He was the consummate playmaker and did it despite having questionable talent around him. The Red Bulls had little going for them in a couple of his years with the club, but Henry alone was more than enough, and the fact that he did it all so casually just made it cooler.
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How do you get to be this high after just two seasons? How about 39 goals and 31 assists. He won the Golden Boot and MVP honors in his first season with Toronto FC and was nearly as good in his second season. There was plenty of hype around Giovinco's signing -- MLS doesn't usually land players as good as Giovinco in their prime -- and he's lived up to it and then some. No MLS players has ever been as good as Giovinco was in his first two years, and still just 29 years old, his future is still bright. He might even add an MLS Cup title to his name this weekend too.
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When Keane joined the LA Galaxy in 2011, he joined a team with Beckham and Donovan. Naturally, he was overshadowed, but it didn't take long before nobody in the entire league could overshadow him. After helping the Galaxy to MLS Cup in his first season, he poured in 16 goals in 2012, then another six in the playoffs to make it back-to-back titles. The Irishman upped it to 19 goals and 14 assists the following season, then 20 goals and eight assists, as well as MLS Cup MVP honors in 2014. Simply put, for five years he was arguably the best player in the league on the league's most dominant team. He was an absolute force, be it in front of goal or setting up his teammates and he was the consummate leader, wearing the captain's armband too. Simply, Keane is the best player in MLS history, DP or otherwise.