If there’s one certainty in MLS, it’s this: If your Designated Players don’t produce, you will struggle to meet expectations.
Since the rule came into effect in 2007, Designated Players have carried teams to titles, shattered records and won MVPs. They’ve also hamstrung clubs, sometimes for years at a time. This season has been no different, with the league’s best squads getting plenty of production from their highest paid players and those at the bottom of the table seeing their DPs struggle.
As we enter into the stretch run, I thought it’d be a cool idea to give an outline of every club’s DP situation. For the list, I used the league’s official roster of DPs, which excludes certain players – Laurent Ciman, for instance – who initially signed DP deals but have since been bought down under the DP threshold using Targeted Allocation Money. DPs who were traded midseason but still count on the books of their initial club (Kennedy Igboananike, Matias Perez Garcia) were included on their first club’s list.
With that, here’s the list, grouped from best DP situation to worst:
Best of the best
Toronto FC – Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco
Even if Giovinco was their only Designated Player, Toronto might still fall in this category. The Italian, who will miss the next few weeks due to injury, has been dynamite all season. He’s currently tied for the league lead with 16 goals and is second to New York’s Sacha Kljestan with 13 assists. Bradley and Altidore haven’t been too shabby either, with Altidore currently enjoying a really, really solid run of form and Bradley leading TFC from his spot at the base of the midfield. The only issue with this group has been their health. If they can stay on the field, Toronto should make a deep run in the playoffs.
New York City FC – Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa
We expected this from Villa. Pirlo and Lampard? Not so much.
Villa has built on his solid form from last year, with his 16 goals tied with Giovinco and Bradley Wright-Phillips for the MLS lead. After a quiet first half season in New York, Pirlo has been solid, notching nine assists and a lone goal from his deeper spot in the NYCFC midfield.
Lampard has been the real revelation, however, exploding onto the scene after missing the first two months of the season due to injury with nine goals and one assist in 15 games.
Together, the trio have scored 26 of New York’s 45 goals. They’ve been a huge part of NYCFC’s rise to the top of the East – we’ll see if their older legs hold up long enough to keep them there come playoff time.
LA Galaxy – Giovani dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane
Even with Keane missing healthy chunks of the season due to injury and international duty, these three have put together some really solid numbers. Together, they have 19 goals and 21 assists in 49 combined appearances. That’s a ridiculous rate, even if it’s dropped a bit in recent months. If they can get firing again – and if Keane can stay on the field – LA should be a tough out this fall, even without the departed Nigel de Jong and injured Gyasi Zardes.
Almost at the top
Montreal Impact – Didier Drogba, Ignacio Piatti, Lucas Ontivero
Yes, Lucas Ontivero, not Laurent Ciman, counts as the Impact’s third DP. And yes, that’s the sole reason Montreal aren’t in the first group.
Drogba and Piatti are both legitimate MLS stars. Despite missing Montreal’s turf-heavy opening to the season, Drogba has produced pretty well, recording eight goals and five assists in 17 appearances. Piatti has been even better, firmly establishing himself as one of the top attackers in the league with 14 goals and five helpers in 24 games. Ontivero drags the group down, however. The young Argentine is a spot starter, he’s made 10 starts in 18 appearances, and has struggled to produce, recording just two goals and two assists.
Real Salt Lake – Burrito Martinez, Yura Movsisyan, Joao Plata
RSL have quietly assembled one of the most talented casts of DPs in the league, with Martinez, Movsisyan and Plata forming a potent forward line that appears to be hitting their stride in time for the stretch run. Movsisyan scored both goals in RSL’s win against Colorado last week, giving the Armenian international nine on the year. Plata has been the most consistent of the bunch, however, spreading his seven goals and 10 helpers somewhat evenly through the season.
Portland Timbers – Lucas Melano, Liam Ridgewell, Diego Valeri
Another case of classification keeping a club down. If Fanendo Adi or Darlington Nagbe counted as a DP, the Timbers would have a solid case to be included among the top group. Instead, it’s Lucas Melano who’s officially on the books. His up-and-down form and relative lack of production, along with Ridgewell’s occasional injury issues, put the Timbers in my second grouping, no matter how brilliant Diego Valeri may be.
The Timbers announced on Wednesday that Ridgewell had signed a contract extension and, thanks to TAM, will no longer be a DP.
Seattle Sounders – Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro, Nelson Valdez
If Lodeiro had been here for any significant length of time, the Sounders would be in the top group. He’s doing his best to claw Seattle back into contention, but even his outstanding form – he has two goals and six (!!!) assists in his six MLS games – might not be enough to get the Sounders over the red line. That, together with Valdez’s total inability to produce (zero goals and one assist in 17 games), keep the Sounders in the second tier.
FC Dallas – Carlos Gruezo, Mauro Diaz
It’s fitting that Dallas, who have a shot to become the first team in MLS history to win a domestic treble, are the first team to make the list with less than three DPs. Gruezo has proven to be an astute pickup by Oscar Pareja, with the young Ecuadoran international fitting in nicely in Dallas’ defensive midfield. His work helps free up Diaz to work his considerable magic – Matt Doyle’s special unicorn has four goals and 10 assists in 21 appearances this year.
Plenty of potential, short on production
Colorado Rapids – Shkelzen Gashi, Tim Howard, Juan Ramirez
Tim Howard is excellent, obviously. He just hasn’t really been in MLS long enough to merit the Rapids moving higher on this list. Shkelzen Gashi has shown flashes, as well, though his five goals and four assists are way off the tremendous goal record he had in the Swiss league in recent years. Those two are truly solid DPs, Ramirez – who has been on loan all year – drags the group down.
Philadelphia Union – Alejandro Bedoya, Maurice Edu
Bedoya and Edu have all the potential to move the Union higher on this list, they just haven’t had the chance to show it in 2016. Bedoya only has four games under his belt since moving over from Nantes in early August while Edu has yet to play this season due to injury.
Sporting Kansas City – Matt Besler, Graham Zusi
On a good day, Besler and Zusi are Best XI caliber players. They just haven’t been at their best day in and day out this year. Zusi’s offensive output is down as he’s bounced around a bit positionally and Besler has struggled to see the field due to a combination of injuries, international duty and good form from Ike Opara and Lawrence Olum.
Vancouver Whitecaps – Matias Laba, Pedro Morales
Laba and Morales fall into similar territory as Besler and Zusi. They’re both players capable of really, really excellent things – we just haven’t seen it much from them this season. If Vancouver are to get themselves above the red line and salvage what’s turned into a disappointing season, they’ll both need to step up.
New York Red Bulls – Omer Damari, Sacha Kljestan, Gonzalo Veron
Kljestan has been wonderful this year, leading the league with 15 assists and recently making a long-awaited return to the US national team. But, for all of his excellence, he’s the only Red Bull DP who’s done much of anything this year. That’s not a slight on Damari, who only just arrived on loan from RB Leipzig, but it is an indictment on Veron, who hasn’t been able to find his footing in his first full season in MLS.
Orlando City – Kaka, Carlos Rivas, Bryan Rochez
Kaka is great and all, but the Brazilian legend can’t paper over Rivas and Rochez. Rivas has endured another disappointing year, starting just four times and recording a lone goal and two assists. Things have gone much, much worse for Rochez, who didn’t play a game for Orlando’s first-team before being loaned to Real España in his native Honduras earlier this year.
Chicago Fire – David Accam, Gilberto (Waived), Kennedy Igboananike (Traded to D.C.)
Columbus Crew SC – Federico Higuain
D.C. United – None (Began year with Fabian Espindola, who was traded to Vancouver then transferred to Necaxa)
Houston Dynamo – DaMarcus Beasley, Mauro Manotas, Cubo Torres
New England Revolution – Jose Goncalves, Kei Kamara
San Jose Earthquakes – Simon Dawkins, Innocent Emeghara, Matias Perez Garcia (Traded to Orlando)
Apart from Chicago’s David Accam, who has had a relatively productive year, these teams are in pretty disastrous territory with their DPs.
Federico Higuain’s production is down in Columbus, who have endured a brutal season and dealt their other DP, Kei Kamara, off to New England following his pointed remarks at Higuain back in May. Kamara hasn’t produced for the Revs, scoring just four goals in 16 appearances, while New England’s other DP, center back Jose Goncalves, anchors the league’s worst defense.
Still, Columbus and New England are in better DP shape than D.C., Houston or San Jose. Since shipping out Fabian Espindola earlier this year, United don’t technically even have a DP, as summer addition Kennedy Igboananike still counts on the Fire’s books.
Things might be even bleaker in Houston and San Jose. DaMarcus Beasley, Cubo Torres and Mauro Manotas are not getting it done for the Dynamo and attackers Simon Dawkins and Innocent Emeghara have combined for three goals and two assists for the Quakes, who still have Orlando’s Matias Perez Garcia count as a DP on their roster.
It’s hard to see how any of these teams becoming legitimate Cup contenders without significant improvement from their Designated Players.