New DP status of Galaxy's Gonzalez another marker of change

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

Designated Player slots are not just for foreigners anymore.

That is the impression one is left with after the LA Galaxy re-signed defender Omar Gonzalez Thursday, this time to a DP contract.

In terms of MLS rewarding North American players, it's a development that is long overdue. One only has to scan the list of all the DPs in MLS history to see how the league’s largesse has largely passed American players by.

Since the rule was first adopted in 2007, there have been 67 DPs. Gonzalez is just the eighth North American player to sign such a deal, the others being Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna, Julian de Guzman, Freddy Adu, Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Wondolowski, and Clint Dempsey. He's also just the second defender to earn that designation, after former New York Red Bull center back Rafa Marquez.

The argument against signing North American players to such deals largely went along the lines of "Player X can’t move the needle" in terms of attendance, sponsorship dollars and overall visibility. That logic certainly held true when the league landed players such as David Beckham, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and Thierry Henry. Granted, Donovan was one of the first DPs, but he was very much the exception to the rule.

But use of the Designated Player has evolved since 2007. On-field concerns have taken on greater importance, and some clubs have used the rule to bring in heretofore unknown players, who they hoped could transform their team's record. The performances of such players has been uneven. It seems that for every Oscar Boniek Garcia, there is a Mustapha Jarju.

Previously, the league did go about rewarding foreign players who had proven themselves in MLS like Javier Morales of Real Salt Lake and David Ferreira of FC Dallas, yet North American players didn’t seem to get the same consideration.

Even Dempsey's signing with Seattle two weeks ago was initially viewed as an outlier. Here was a player who owed his large contract -- reported to be the biggest in MLS history -- to the fact that he was captain of the U.S. national team and was coming off a highly successful stint in the English Premier League.

But Gonzalez's signing sends a more enduring signal. He is the third U.S. player this calendar year to attain DP status, and along with the earlier signing of Wondolowski, hints at a greater willingness on MLS's part to reward domestic players who have consistently been among the league's top performers.

An argument can be made that Gonzalez's signing is situational. The Galaxy's huge increase in performance when Gonzalez was on the field in 2012 certainly points to a club merely rewarding one of its best players. It's also a smart bit of business should MLS decide to sell Gonzalez later on down the line.

But it would also appear that MLS is putting greater value on hanging on to its best domestic talent for longer instead of letting them depart for European environs. The creation of a retention fund, and its subsequent use on players such as Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi, reinforces this impression.

There are ample reasons for these decisions. Next year is a World Cup year, and the more MLS players there are participating, the better it looks for the league. Granted, in the past, the league could point to all the MLS alumni who dotted the U.S. national team roster as proof of the league’s success.

But it was easy for that message to get lost when a player's current club affiliation was all that was mentioned. The league’s contribution to the national team becomes more powerful if current MLS players are getting significant minutes. And if the league is going to back up its long-stated vow of becoming one of the best in the world by 2022, then it will need to reward those performers beyond just the Donovans and Dempseys.

To be clear, it would be an exaggeration to say a flood of money is now being invested in domestic players. There still needs to be a broader commitment to domestic players, something that will no doubt be brought up when negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement heat up at the end of next year. But for now, Gonzalez's signing hints that North American players are at least poised to enjoy more of the benefits that have resulted from the league's growth.


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