Bringing a little extra buzz to this Saturday’s MLS Cup rematch between LA and Houston (4:30 ET; ESPN, TeleFutura, TSN/RDS in Canada) was David Beckham’s announcement, made last Monday, that the title match will be his last game for the Galaxy and last as a player in Major League Soccer. The most famous player in the world will say goodbye to MLS fans in the same place he first said hello back in 2007, the Home Depot Center.
Beckham’s arrival from Real Madrid six years ago was made possible by a change in MLS regulations that allowed teams to sign a player outside the restrictions of the salary cap. The official name for this new policy was the Designated Player rule. The unofficial name is the Beckham Rule.
So where does the original model rank among the 52 other stars who followed him through the Designated Player door to MLS, helping to remake the league since 2007?
The Designated Player rule was created to allow MLS teams to compete for international stars, players who could improve their teams on the field, and lift the profile of the league off the field.
We’re ranking the top DPs not just by their performance on the field but also by how much buzz they generated off the pitch, and how much their presence benefited MLS and its players.
5. Guillermo Barros Schelotto
On the field: 9.5
He didn’t always have DP status, but Schelotto was a superstar from the moment he donned the Crew’s canary yellow shirt, leading Columbus to the league title in 2008 and notching 19 assists that year, a club record that’s also tied for the second highest single-season total in MLS history.
Off the field: 6
He was a team leader and fan favorite in Columbus, and has continued his involvement with MLS since departing as a player after the 2010 season. He participated in the MLS Sueno program this past spring.
MLS Honors: 2008 MLS MVP, 2008 MLS Cup MVP, 2007 and 2008 Best XI selection
Quotable: “He sees things that a lot of other players don’t see on the field. … Most of their goals come from him, either directly or indirectly.” — D.C. United midfielder Stephen King.
4. Robbie Keane
On the field: 9
GOAL: Keane's volley from a tight angle
He’s only completed one full season in the league, yet he can’t be kept off this list. Not with 16 goals and nine assists in 28 regular-season games this year, plus five goals in five playoff games.
Off the field: 7
The former Premier League standout made headlines throughout the UK and Ireland by signing with MLS. He also proved he wasn’t coming here to retire by returning to the EPL on loan last winter and excelling.
MLS Honors: Solid contender for MLS Best XI, even with standout seasons from Thierry Henry, Kenny Cooper and Chris Wondolowski.
Championships: 1, with a shot at another next Saturday
Quotable: “Robbie’s a great player. … Since he’s come back from the European Championship, [he’s] been the best player in the league.” — LA coach Bruce Arena.
3. Thierry Henry
GOAL: Henry bangs it in off the post
On the field: 9
He has 31 goals and 19 assists in 61 starts for New York. That’s production.
Off the field: 7.5
His signing made international headlines and he has championed young talents such as Connor Lade while not being afraid to ask for more from veterans like Kenny Cooper.
MLS Honors: 2011 MLS Best XI
Championships: Zero, but there’s a chance that the franchise he plays for is cursed
Quotable: “How much more greatness do you want to see?” — Red Bulls announcer Shep Messing during Henry’s three-assist, one-goal performance against Toronto this year.
2. David Beckham
GOAL: Beckham settles, picks out corner
On the field: 7.5
Overcame a rocky first couple seasons to contribute mightily to the Galaxy cause. Led the team in assists with 15 en route to MLS Cup title in 2011. Bagged nine assists this year, along with seven goals, to help the team to a return trip.
Off the field: 10
Hard to measure the full extent of his impact off the field, but suffice to say that it’s been enormous. Raised the league’s profile, influenced other foreign talents to come here and hotwired memorabilia sales, attendance and international relevance.
Honors: MLS All-Star and Best XI in 2011. Comeback Player of the Year in 2011.
Championships: 1, with a shot at one more
Quotable: “I’ve watched him closely with all the things he does and his leadership ability and how he handles himself. It’s been an inspiration for me.” — Landon Donovan
1. Landon Donovan
GOAL: Donovan the difference in MLS Cup
On the field: 9.5
Since becoming a Designated Player in 2010, Donovan has maintained his status as arguably the best player in MLS history. Has 28 goals and 33 assists in 73 games since earning the DP tag.
Off the field: 9
His decision to play in MLS has been invaluable for the league, and he’s been a steady ambassador for years, whether in Pretoria, South Africa, inside the Everton locker room in England or with the domestic media.
Honors: Three straight MLS Best XI selections as a DP
Championships: Four (two as a DP), with a shot at one more on Saturday
Quotable: “[During] the month of July he was probably as good as any player in the history of this league.” — Galaxy coach Bruce Arena
Honorable Mention: Juan Pablo Angel (58 goals in 102 games with New York); Cuauhtémoc Blanco (16 goals, 26 assists in 62 games with Chicago); David Ferreira (MLS MVP in 2010 for Dallas).
Yes, the Galaxy may have three of the top five Designated Players in league history, but that doesn’t mean they’re a lock to prevail next Saturday.
Houston has last year’s experience under their belt, and — unlike last season — a healthy Brad Davis back in their lineup. They also have a quality Designated Player of their own, Boniek García, who would like nothing more than to steal the spotlight from his higher-profile counterparts in LA.