Denilson - FC Dallas

What worked (and didn't) with the inaugural MLS Designated Player class | Charles Boehm

They’re woven into the fabric of modern-day MLS, with just about every team in the league fielding at least one and usually the maximum three allowed on their roster, even if the club in question isn’t known for its hefty spending.

Back in 2007, however, Designated Players were a newfangled experiment, a dramatic shift for a league founded on an ethos of cost control and careful spending – and one that less than half its member clubs took a flyer on.

Informally dubbed “The Beckham Rule” because the LA Galaxy’s pursuit of the megastar Englishman was a driving force behind its creation, the new gambit helped draw several big names to North America. Many made significant impacts, too whether on the field, at the ticket booth or both.

Others ... well ... did not. Here’s a rundown of the class of ‘07.

Juan Pablo Angel, New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls of today are more about system than stardom with their high-pressing identity and productive academy. Things were quite different in 2007. Just a year into their ownership of the club formerly known as MetroStars, RBNY were still courting a skeptical public, trying to draw crowds to hulking Giants Stadium and build excitement for their new home under construction on the banks of the Passaic River in Harrison, N.J.

So the Red Bulls signed not just one, but two DPs: First Claudio Reyna, then JPA. And even though the Colombian striker missed their first few games as he arrived from English Premier League club Aston Villa, he was a smash hit from the jump. Angel scored 19 league goals in 2007, finishing second in the MLS Golden Boot race, and many of them were gorgeous, as he showcased a graceful fluidity and devastating instincts. Over four seasons in Gotham, JPA would tally 58 goals and 14 assists in 102 regular-season appearances, and even chipped in three more strikes in the playoffs.

David Beckham, LA Galaxy

Most of Beckham’s MLS story is fairly well known by now, so we’ll spare you the details. He eventually won two MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shields with the Galaxy and became a founder, part-owner and executive of Inter Miami, transforming MLS as we know it.

But things got off to a very rocky start; in fact, 2007 was something of a nightmare for him and his club. Read Grant Wahl’s “The Beckham Experiment” for the whole story, or at least most of it.

Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chicago Fire

As many heads as Beckham’s arrival turned, Blanco arguably thrilled Mexican-American communities in Chicago and across the United States to an ever greater extent pound for pound. He delivered more immediately on the pitch, too.

The Mexican superstar scored four times — including the 2007 MLS Goal of the Year — and tabbed seven assists in his first MLS campaign as the Men in Red fell just short of reaching MLS Cup. He would go on to compile 16g/26a in 62 games, and colorful stories galore, over his three years in Chicagoland.

Denilson, FC Dallas

Drawing a World Cup winner and one-time most expensive player in the world to their new stadium in Frisco looked like a coup for FCD, who were already a trophy contender when the Brazilian arrived in August during the stretch run.

But with just one goal — a penalty kick — in eight mostly undistinguished appearances, Denilson failed to settle in MLS and the Hoops quickly cut ties that winter. This footage of him juggling alone in an empty Pizza Hut Park (today Toyota Stadium) is the closest thing to a highlight video he left behind.

Claudio Reyna, Red Bulls

After he spent his entire professional career to that point in Europe, RBNY were thrilled to bring one of the greatest-ever US men’s national team players back to his native New Jersey before the ‘07 season. The classy midfield tempo-setter was named captain and played under his former USMNT coach, Bruce Arena.

Alas, Reyna’s best years were behind him and injuries hampered his impact in MLS; he made 27 league appearances for the Red Bulls and retired a year-and-a-half after his arrival.

The in-between space

League decision-makers were still figuring out the nuances of the new rule as they went, and the 2007 season also featured several players who were effectively but not officially DPs. Landon Donovan, Carlos Ruiz and Eddie Johnson were already making salaries greater than the DP threshold of $400,000 per season, but were “grandfathered in” at first; Donovan eventually became a DP in 2010.

Freddy Adu would’ve also been in this category, but after a strong display in that summer’s FIFA U-20 World Cup, the then-Real Salt Lake wunderkind was sold to Portugal’s Benfica in late July.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto also hit MLS that year, an impact signing for the Columbus Crew who earned the 2008 MVP award and two MLS Best XI honors as he led the Crew to the 2008 MLS Cup trophy. While the Argentine maestro and current Galaxy head coach would later become Columbus’ first-ever DP, he wasn’t one upon arrival.

 

Landon Donovan initially wasn't a Designated Player in MLS | USA Today Sports

Final thoughts

Ultimately, that first DP crop was a mixed bag. And it escaped no one’s notice that the ‘07 champions were the decidedly and defiantly DP-free Houston Dynamo, who won their second straight league title with a dominantly-domestic squad absent of true superstars and big names.

It took time for club executives to come to terms with the new rule and fit it into their respective approaches to team-building. In retrospect, the expectations heaped onto most early DPs — to be impact contributors on the pitch, and bring fans and media flocking — were pretty unreasonable.

In fact, many of the most consistently competitive teams in the ensuing years, like Sporting Kansas City and “The Team Is The Star”-era Real Salt Lake, formed their identities in direct contrast to the original DP concept. It took Arena arriving in LA and rounding the Beckham-Donovan Galaxy into a dominant force for the paradigm to really shift.

Today, DPs can mean any number of things to MLS teams, from the method of acquiring and keeping club icons to a simple accounting mechanism to manage salary budgets and allocation funds. But the core idea — selectively spending more to push the league forward — continues to be a foundational element of MLS’s existence.

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