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Friday, September 21, 2007
ESPNsoccernet: September 23, 7:20 PM UK
Designated Player Slot not the sole solution

Frank Dell'Apa, Special to ESPNsoccernet

So far, the Beckham Rule ( the rule allows each MLS franchise to sign one player outside of a team's salary cap) has been great for marketing but not so great for competition.

David Beckham has produced tons of publicity for the Los Angeles Galaxy, but the team is virtually out of playoff contention. Juan Pablo Angel and Claudio Reyna (New York Red Bulls), Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Chicago Fire) and Denilson (FC Dallas) have stimulated interest but have not elevated their teams above also-ran status.

The MLS teams with the top four point totals -- D.C. United, the New England Revolution, the Houston Dynamo and Chivas USA -- have not employed the Beckham Rule. Those teams felt they needed only fine-tuning. United added low-priced, low-profile attackers Luciano Emilio and Fred. New England went for collegians such as Adam Cristman and Wells Thompson. Houston and Chivas traded for players within MLS.

This is not to say the Beckham Rule has not had a major impact on the league. The arrival of Beckham, Angel, Blanco and Denilson has caused every coach and general manager to broaden his horizons. Although the Galaxy have been dismal on the field, just knowing Beckham is around has kicked up the competitive level of everyone in the league. And this all will have a ripple effect in coming years.

Right now, the best bets to reach the MLS Cup on Nov. 18 are the Dynamo, the Revolution and United. They will have gotten there without a designated player, but that does not mean they won't be looking for one after the season. Whoever wins the cup will be seeking a boost for the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and a big-time player could do the trick. What if Miguel Calero were in goal for an MLS team instead of Pachuca? Whoever loses the cup might wish they had a difference-maker available.

We still are in the early stages of what figures to be a ripple effect of designated players. Beckham's arrival opened the eyes of not only MLS decision-makers but also agents and prospective foreign players, most of whom saw only the dollar signs. But the trickle-down interest also caught the attention of players such as Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus), Paulo Wanchope (Chicago), Ronald Wattereus (New York) and Abel Xavier (Los Angeles), who have provided a lot of production for little money; these (including Luciano Emilio) are more likely to be the success stories resulting from the Beckham Rule than high-priced designated players. All of these internationals bring class and experience, but they, like the designated players, also confirm it takes more than one or two stars to make a team.

United often has set the standard for building a team. It did so by bringing in high-profile players (Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno) from a low-profile country (Bolivia) in the first year of the league. Now they are bringing in low-profile players (Emilio, Fred) from a high-profile country (Brazil).

It has been a pragmatic approach, because the MLS is a humbling league in many ways. Etcheverry and Moreno were able to get through the early transition period because of their low-key backgrounds, patiently awaiting their time. Etcheverry was ready to depart, along with countryman Juan Berthy Suarez, before Bruce Arena convinced him to stay. Emilio already has had his chance in Europe, forgotten about national team ambitions and knows a good thing when he sees it.

United might never need a designated player if it continues to find performers like Christian Gomez and the Brazilians. But, again, even if United wins the MLS Cup, it will need a major boost for continental competitions.

New England has been unable to capitalize on what could be called the Dempsey Rule. The Revolution have $2.4 million of Clint Dempsey's $4 million transfer fee that can be used for competitive purposes. They can put $500,000 of that total toward a player, but they have been unable to find a fit. A Barros Schelotto, Wilman Conde or Xavier might have helped, and the team surely will bring in someone if it again fails to win the MLS Cup.

Houston was not broken when it won the MLS Cup last year, so there has been no need to fix it.

Chivas actually has had designated players (Juan Pablo Garcia, Paco Palencia, Ramon Ramirez and Claudio Suarez) who helped the team emerge from a possible Real Salt Lake fate. Chivas owners Antonio Cue and Jorge Vergara are ambitious and certainly will go for world-class designated players if the team gets to the MLS Cup.

But if the Beckham Rule has not transformed the Fire and the Red Bulls into contenders, it has helped salvage their seasons. Chicago would be a blank without Blanco. New York would be hopeless without Angel and Reyna.

It still seems more sensible to spread the money around rather than putting it all into one designated player. This will be increasingly apparent next year, when the Emilios and Xaviers start becoming dissatisfied with their paychecks, knowing they have produced more than the designated players.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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