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Monday, December 28, 2009
Additional DP slot could be in the cards

Steve Davis

Christmas has come and gone, yet some of the more aggressive Major League Soccer owners didn't get what they truly wanted: another designated player (DP) stuffed into their respective teams' toy bags.

Major League Soccer's experiment with the designated player rule officially expires later this week when the calendar turns. The DP rule allows each team to sign one player to a substantial contract, only a small portion of which would be counted as part of the team's salary cap. The league's pliable single-entity ownership structure makes it relatively simple for the league's board of directors to make adjustments or simply move forward under the current arrangement.

On the other hand, the ongoing collective bargaining agreement discussions will impact the final call -- and who knows where that drifting hot air balloon will finally land?

The DP issue has been a hot-button topic since its inception before the 2007 season, complete with the regal brush of a nickname, the Beckham Rule. It was assigned a three-year shelf life that is now up. So MLS will march into the new year (and decade) as owners, fans and media continue to debate whether Major League Soccer should tweak the structure, perhaps adding a bit more DP delight to each club.

Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, which owns the Los Angeles Galaxy, once led the DP charge, banking on the theory that luminaries would pay for themselves on the back end through merchandise sales and general value enhancement of the team's brand. For instance, in David Beckham's first year with the team, the Galaxy sold approximately 500,000 replica shirts of his jersey.

Now other owners are joining the push for additional marquee might. Sources say ownership at Sounders FC, Red Bull New York and D.C. United are among the more aggressive pursuers who are eager to see Major League Soccer double (from one per team to two) the number of designated players allowed per roster. Then, with the ability to trade for another club's DP slot, the most aggressive teams could employ three DPs.

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But the push for clubs to add yet another DP, who ostensibly could boost performance on the field and gin up the numbers at the gate, is complicated.

First is the issue of how much these bright lights actually add to Major League Soccer. It's easy to speculate from the sideline about what such grand designs can accomplish. But there's a fiscal reality to be respected, one that's illuminated by a notorious history of overreaching in U.S. pro soccer history. Simply put, risk does exist that some teams couldn't compete in an escalating personnel arms race, and no one wants to see clubs start to go belly-up.

Also, consider that scant evidence exists to support theories that DPs -- once the uniquely iconic David Beckham is removed from the debate -- are financially worth the substantial cash outlay involved (as compared to the average annual guaranteed MLS player salary of around $115,000).

There really is a lot of tricky math involved. Real Salt Lake general manger Garth Lagerwey said good arguments can be made for either side. Advocates of the slow-and-steady growth approach say the MLS train is moving down the tracks at a nice, leisurely pace without additional resources devoted to DPs. The demographics and level of cultural acceptance keep shifting favorably.

Meanwhile, the less patient prefer to push the pace, investing more now in hopes of recouping later.

"Most teams aren't making money right now," Lagerwey said. "So, do you want to go further into the hole to push the product ahead? You can fairly argue the point either way."

Teams certainly have been tentative about jumping headlong into the DP waters so far. Currently, only 10 of 16 MLS sides have exercised the option (and navigated the attached salary-cap implications).

There really isn't much evidence that DPs can amplify attendance. Beckham certainly impacted crowd counts in his first MLS go-round, but attendance has waned since his 2007 debut season. And Cuauhtemoc Blanco created a bit of an attendance stir in some markets.

Past that? It's tough to make any argument that DPs in New York, Kansas City, D.C. United, Columbus, Seattle, Houston and Toronto, talented as they may be, did a thing to singularly move the attendance needle. For instance, Seattle's Freddie Ljungberg surely added buzz in the Emerald City as the club readied for launch 12 months back. But given the tsunami of excitement around the entire teeming Sounders scene, it's reasonable to ask, "Would it all have suffered if ownership had never lured Ljungberg?" Simple answer: not much, if any.

Nor is there evidence that deploying a DP necessarily creates a competitive edge.

Since the rule went into effect before the 1997 season, none of the MLS Cup winners has had a designated player on its roster. Real Salt Lake just captured a league title with no benefit of DP grace. Columbus claimed the 2008 crown without exercising its DP option (although soon after, Guillermo Barros Schelotto signed a deal that made him Columbus' first designated player). Houston won in 2007 with no DP.

New England, like Houston, has been generally successful without deploying the heavy weapon option. Houston added Luis Angel Landin toward the end of last season, but he appeared overweight and registered minimal impact. (In fact, the Mexican striker will have to seriously pick up the pace, else he'll become an expensive, cautionary tale against the DP option, just as FC Dallas' Denilson did for Texas' other team.)

On the other hand, evidence exists that clubs are making smarter DP decisions as they start to figure it out. Every team in last year's MLS semifinals had a designated player on board except Real Salt Lake. "We've seen limited effect on [competition] so far, but I say that with one caveat," Lagerwey said. "It's getting much, much better."

There is no question that the DP rule has paid dividends at times. New England Revolution manager Steve Nicol nicely summed up the Beckham experiment back in March when he observed that sports fans and media who "didn't even know the shape of a soccer ball" were suddenly abuzz about MLS. Indeed they were. Still, how many big shots out there have Beckham-level iconic status and the ability to create such a cultural crossover ripple?

Owners began quietly mulling it all in Utah this past summer during meetings attached to the all-star contest. While informal conversations uncoiled among owners, Major League Soccer's influential technical committee convened. One issue discussed was how to get more clubs off the sideline in the DP enterprise. If the season were to begin tomorrow, a DP would take the field for just half the 16 MLS teams.

That trepidation is a major consideration when it comes to potentially adding another DP opportunity to each club. In many ways it doesn't matter whether the league sanctions a second big-money type if owners aren't willing to play the DP card for the first one.

One option apparently discussed during the summer was an adjustment of the amount that a designated player counts against each team's salary cap. Currently, a DP eats up $415,000 of each team's $2.3 million salary cap. A second DP slot could be acquired via trade, consuming $335,000 of the cap. (Of course, the clubs could pay a DP whatever they want; the hit to the cap, however, is contained to those figures.)

So, for instance, if the salary-cap impact is reduced to $200,000 per DP, owners might be more willing to take the plunge. In that scenario, the percentage of salary cap tied up in a club's first DP is theoretically lowered from about 18 percent to less than 9 percent.

Again, those numbers stand to be adjusted by the multilayered, ongoing CBA negotiations. "All aspects of competition and salary structure will be reviewed following the conclusion of the CBA agreement," league spokesman Dan Courtemanche said Sunday.

Officially, all DP discussion among owners is therefore on hold. But that shouldn't stop the rest of us from dissecting, debating and discussing.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.


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