The sight of Frank Lampard holding up a New York City FC scarf on Thursday offered a timely reminder about the original intent of the Designated Player rule.
Lampard fits perfectly into the initial conception of the idea: an expensive, glittering star designed to attract widespread attention. MLS adopted the mechanism in 2007 to facilitate the arrival of David Beckham. There are no true successors to a player like Beckham, but the list of subsequent signings includes plenty of familiar faces acquired with similar thoughts in mind.
DP signings are no longer just about landing headline names like Lampard, though. MLS clubs wield the option more expansively now to encompass an increasingly wider range of players. It is a modification designed to allow every club the chance to use the DP rule to its own perceived benefit. The spectrum of potential signings now runs from big stars to domestic standouts rewarded for their contributions to established professionals with little box office appeal (a subset previously out of reach given salary budget restrictions) to promising prospects (young Designated Players acquired with one eye on potential resale at a profit down the line).
Most of those tweaks were made over the course of the past few years with one eye on improving the overall standard of play, but the renewed emphasis on obtaining and retaining U.S. national team players at a significant cost is a more recent development. MLS used to squeeze interested Americans into a discount deal to return home. The league now pursues these players with vigor with market-value (or, in some instances, much, much higher than market value) packages in a bid to establish MLS as a viable destination for national team players.
It is working. In the past week, three U.S. internationals — DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi — have agreed to DP deals with MLS clubs. They join the increasing congregation of American stars receiving significant paychecks from the league. It is a group now including top players in the pool (Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey), established figures returning from abroad (Beasley and Maurice Edu), emerging players willing to stay at home for the right price and situation (Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Zusi) and reliable domestic producers rewarded for their exploits at home (Eddie Johnson and Chris Wondolowski).
By committing significant funds to these players and tempting others to return at lower figures, MLS establishes itself as a league of choice for American players and expands the DP definition even further. It is no longer a one-off to pursue a unique player like Landon Donovan or Claudio Reyna. It is a brief stretching across all designations.
The decision to pursue these players ardently is a necessary step for a league seeking to bolster its standing on and off the field, but it does carry some financial consequences. The upcoming CBA negotiations between MLS and the MLS Players Union will undoubtedly sift through the impact on the restrictive ecosystem. It is hard for the league to argue about its available means with the money lavished in certain quarters. The search for common ground in this increasingly liberalized system could prove complicated with other controlling elements — the allocation system and the restrictions on competition between clubs, for instance — still in place.
Those impending discussions are a natural byproduct of growth and spending across the board, but they are disproportionately influenced by the higher-profile splurges. MLS instituted the DP rule seven years ago with a specific idea in mind and protected the definition of the rule earnestly to maintain it. Those days are over. There is still a place for those starry signings in the right circumstances, but the landscape has shifted enough to accommodate a more expansive interpretation to suit the evolving needs of the league in the years to come.
Five Points – Week 21
1. Lampard signing expands number of clubs operating at deep end of financial pool: The expanded employment of the DP rule may encourage every MLS club to splurge from time to time, but it does not mitigate the separation between the top spenders and the rest of the league. Four clubs — LA Galaxy, New York, Seattle and Toronto FC — operate in a different financial sphere than their brethren. New York City FC appears certain to join that group given the arrivals of Lampard and David Villa to form the foundation of their expansion side next year.
2. Júlio César makes his inevitable departure: Toronto FC provided a temporary home for the Brazilian number one this spring as he searched for regular first-team action ahead of the World Cup. He said all of the right things about potentially staying for the remainder of the season, but the economics of the deal limited any long-term ambitions to retain him and mandated his return to Queens Park Rangers in the summer. TFC confirmed the end of his loan arrangement on Friday to draw a line under a short agreement that ultimately worked to the benefit of all parties involved.
3. Toronto FC, Sporting Kansas City return to important matters: Both teams hosted friendlies in midweek, but the stakes in their league meeting on Saturday night are considerably higher. TFC actually benefits from Sporting’s aggressive deportment because it sets the Reds up to counter effectively. The trick here for Ryan Nelsen’s side: holding out long enough to provide a chance to catch Sporting out at the right times.
4. Friendlies disperse usual weekend obligations: MLS will stage just five competitive matches on Saturday and Sunday. The presence of matches on Thursday (Real Salt Lake’s 3-1 win over Montréal on Pioneer Day), Friday (Colorado-Chivas USA) and Monday (Seattle-LA Galaxy) highlights the flexibility required to cope with the demands of staging those exhibition matches during the summer months.
5. Some matches are worth the wait: The prospect of a little Monday Night Futbol is particularly enticing with LA Galaxy and Seattle involved. Both teams will look to commit numbers forward and test the opposition quickly on the break. Seattle holds the edge given its attacking might, but the Galaxy can present a threat if it can force Sounders FC to operate out in the wide areas more frequently.