Last week in this space, I talked up the Designated Player Rule, triumphantly claiming that at long last, after seven years of hits and misses, it’s finally hitting its stride.
And that’s good enough for me. Because this week, I’m going the other way.
I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of chatter on the idea that with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and new TV broadcast-rights contracts on the way after the 2014 season, perhaps now it’s time to consider expanding the DP Rule again – maybe even to four or five slots per team.
I cannot think of a worse idea.
Because let’s be honest, that’s something that will truly benefit only the one percenters in this league. (Or maybe I mean 16 percenters? What’s 3 out of 19?)
I argued last week that teams have finally figured out how to make Designated Players work for them. For the first time in league history, every club has at least one on its books, and they range from the high-voltage names like Robbie Keane and Clint Dempsey all the way down to high-profile role players like Diego Chará and Claudio Bieler.
Some teams go big, while others work the margins for guys who aren’t huge names, but they can pay them just over the max-salary threshold and not break the kitty. And there's more truth somewhere in between.
But let’s look at facts: There are currently only three teams carrying the maximum allowed three DPs: the LA Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas. Three DPs is an all-in proposition, a clear sign that you are serious about winning games and putting butts in the seats – or at least that’s the idea.
Seattle have gone this way before, and still have yet to make an MLS Cup final. But they’ve signaled their intent to go big or go home. FC Dallas, meanwhile, are using two of their slots on Young Designated Players, Fabián Castillo and Mauro Díaz (at right). I doubt many are seriously looking at them as a favorite to win MLS Cup.
Now raise your hand if you can name the only team ever to win MLS Cup – heck, the only one even to make it to the championship match – while using all three DP slots.
It’s not exactly a secret. The LA Galaxy signed the first Designated Player, experienced one hell of a roller-coaster ride in trying to make it work, and then finally struck gold with the star power of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Keane leading them to back-to-back titles.
They are the only team to keep the same DP trio together for more than one season, and they’re the only one to consistently use all three slots simultaneously (minus an eight-month hiatus between Beckham’s departure and Omar Gonzalez being re-signed as a DP).
The Galaxy have played by the rules and they’ve been justly rewarded. Kudos to them for figuring it out, all while building their team the right way and still focusing on youth development. They are a model MLS franchise and I’m proud to call them the defending champions of this league.
Now let’s be honest. If the rules were changed tomorrow to allow a fourth and fifth DP, who would be first to use it?
We all know LA would pounce, bringing in more big names as club owner AEG has always promised to do. New York would also get on board. As would Seattle, perhaps even Portland, Montreal, Vancouver, Sporting KC, Toronto or other mid-major market clubs that are willing to spend. New York City FC, backed by Manchester City money, would almost certainly look to max out heading into the 2015 season.
I’m not ready to go so far to say as this would skew the competitive balance in the league so far out of whack that it’s a repeat of the old NASL – but it would certainly further separate the haves from the have-nots. Currently seven teams only have one DP on their payroll. With most of them, it’s hard seeing them getting up to three (even including using the adjusted Young DP threshold).
I’m not sure I’m so excited to see a league where one team has, say, Keane, Donovan, Gonzalez, Ronaldinho and Andrei Arshavin while another feels forced to make a bad DP signing of a mid-level midfielder who ultimately doesn’t work out just to keep pace.
That’s the reality if MLS decides to change its DP Rule again this soon. And it goes against the slow growth mantra the league has done well to stick to over its first 18 years.
Let the DP rule be for the time being. Let the Galaxy continue to utilize the system to as close to perfection as they can, thereby continuing to raise the league’s profile globally. Enable the Sounders to continue to tinker with it until they get it right. Force the Red Bulls to figure out the right formula at long last. And give every club the opportunity to do the same in the way that makes the most sense for their market and piggy bank.
In the meantime, let’s instead focus on the more immediate change that will do more good for every team: increasing the salary cap. Rarely has that number increased year over year by more than 5 percent or so. (The last Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2010 was the first and so far only to see any kind of sizable increase: more than 10 percent from the previous season.)
And if MLS is going to affect any kind of drastic change with its next CBA, that must come first. If this league is truly about parity and equal opportunity among its teams, don’t make clubs feel pressure to use DP slots to compete.
Allow them to re-sign their best players without breaking the bank and without fear that they’ll lose them to foreign leagues. Enable them to attract foreign talent without being held hostage by player representatives who demand DP money. Ensure teams can keep a successful nucleus together, but still have the resources to add meaningful pieces.
Let the DP rule be, and reward the many instead of the few. That’s the bigger message to the footballing world. I just hope the MLS Board of Governors is listening.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.