Are Designated Player Signings Good or Bad For MLS?

Last month the website commented on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Nicolas Anelka, Guillermo Franco and Adrian Mutu showing some interest in moving to America to play soccer, and how a move in the foreseeable future would be a good thing for MLS. And I agree.

In 2007, David Beckham came to the Los Angeles Galaxy in a transfer that made an immediate impact on the club’s revenue and social status among other clubs throughout the world.

“It was incredible,” said former Galaxy teammate Alexi Lalas to ESPN. “The amount of jerseys that have been sold, the amount of sponsorship that has been sold. … The appearance fees the Galaxy can now command. The Galaxy brand is now international. This all contributes to the increase of the overall value of the team … and much of that can be attributed to the signing of David Beckham.”

What franchise would not want the same success the Galaxy experienced after signing the midfielder?

This is why I agree that bringing Ibra, Anelka, or Franco to America would be a good thing for any MLS club. However, are we enticing big names to defect to the U.S. as a publicity stunt, or to actually make an impact on the pitch?

Well, I’m sadly reluctant to say, it is all one huge publicity stunt, a clever tactic by the clubs management to raise the socioeconomic status of the club.

Look at the evidence. Since 2007 six internationally renowned players have come to the MLS. Beckham (Galaxy), Cuauhtémoc Blanco (Chicago Fire) and Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls) all in 2007. Fredrik Ljungberg (Seattle Sounders) in 2009, and Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls) crossed the Atlantic in 2010.

Each club thrived at this newly found national and international exposure and profited greatly in attendance and merchandise. In 2006 the LA Galaxy’s home attendance averaged at 20,813 per game, but in 2008 it increased over 25% to 26,008.

After New York signed Henry and Marquez, away games were selling out ticket sales, all to see them two play. Ljungberg basically put the Seattle Sounders on the map in their MLS inaugural season in 2009.

But how many championships have these clubs won? None.

None of the four clubs with big name signings have captured the MLS Cup. In 2008 the Red Bulls reached the Cup Final, but fell short. The Galaxy were a penalty kick away from the Championship in 2009 but failed.

They all reached the playoffs at one point or another during the four year span, but have yet to prove their worth where it matters.

It’s not all bad. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel. These men have given their club something very few people can do; they have given them an elevated status, and this is the first step in establishing a team and a league as a real deal. Once these status’s are at their peak, it will be much easier to lure someone with the likes of a Cristiano Ronaldo, or Gareth Bale; basically, someone that can contribute greatly on the pitch. It’s a long process, but with the rise of soccer in America, it’s going to happen.

36 thoughts on “Are Designated Player Signings Good or Bad For MLS?”

  1. I don’t see how this is bad, if done properly (ie. done go overboard on the spending to get said international footballer(s)). Sports entities can’t survive without the fringe fan, in any league in this country. To get the fringe fan you need a hook. Once they take the bait and see everything the team/club has to offer for their entertainment dollar, when the bait leaves (in the Galaxy’s case Beckham), you will retain some of those fringe fans as permenant. As long as it doesn’t become a net financial drain, your club can continue to work on putting out a quality product. How is this bad?

  2. The problem with the designated player rule is not the rule itself, but how it is structured. Basically MLS is saying that all DPs are created equal when they are not. MLS needs international stars to draw “casual” fans, but it also needs to pay American soccer stars as well as above average MLS players.

    Look at Seattle for example. Their three DPs are Nkufo (brought over from Switzerland), Fernandez (made a loan permanent), and Montero (their big star). Three different situations, same designation. MLS should seriously look at creating tiers of DPs to help teams keep or attract all of these types of players.

    OK, I’m climbing off my soapbox.

    1. I don’t think the league should tell the teams how to use their DP slots. The whole DP thing is so new, teams will figure out ways to use them that best fits their needs. If a team wants star power (NY, LA) then let them.

  3. Adrian Mutu is going to sell the same amount of jerseys that Beckham did ?
    No….and I think we all agree these ex-Euroheros have been spotty to be kind. Pathetic most of the time to be more accurate.

    Ljungberg put Seattle Sounders on the map ? Please. Not ripping your article. That may be the dumbest comment I have ever read.

    I am going to say the DP is a VERY good thing. I am going to say the DP has been used very stupidly. Use it to win championships or make a lot of money. Most of the picks do neither.

    1. Charles, you always go on about the spotty record of these “ex-Euro-heroes”, but seriously how many of such players have their been? It’s too early to judge Henry and Marquez, but apart from them, the only other “heroes” of European leagues to join MLS are Beckham and maybe Ljungberg (not that he was ever in the same class as Beckham or Henry). Pretty much every other European player to join MLS has been more a journey-man kind of level than a “hero”. And it’s hardly rocket science to expect that the record of ancient journeyment is going to be unspectacular.

      1. I go on and on ?
        Maybe, but compare to this website, I hardly mention them.

        If you are saying the gagillions of players that are mentioned in this article and the many others are journeymen fine. I have no problem with that.

        They are worthless to MLS as journeymen however.

        Big names for money or talent for better league. Small names with no talent can be had for 60k or whatever the league min is.

        1. The players who speculatively mention that they might one day have a crack at the MLS before retirement (Ibra, Anelka, Mutu) are not journeymen. But the ones who actually have made the trip across the Atlantic generally have been journeymen. Aside from one or two old superstars (Beckham/Henry) and a handful of very good players (Ljungberg, Marquez), the vast majority of European imports into the MLS have been guys like Danny Allsopp, Danny Dichio, Darren Huckerby, Chris Birchill etc etc.

  4. A lot to say about this:

    First, Beckham’s deal was in large part not about soccer. It only worked because he had other business interests about being here; if it were just to play in MLS, he would have not come here. All the other DP’s have had significantly less impact.

    Second: The revenue generated because of bigger name players in large part does not go to the team. The league pays the salaries except for the overage of DP salaries that are outside of the salary cap, and MLS get a big chunk of revenues teams generate in return. The incentives to teams to splash the cash on big names to sell more tickets is reduced. Team investor owners probably negotiate deals to keep a big piece of revenue related to their DPs (Beckham’s jersey sales, eg), but still, MLS skims off a bunch of what teams earn from big name players.

    About DPs and winning: Don’t forget – the highest revenue producing games in MLS are the exhibitions, not the playoffs/MLS Cup. Being successful in league competition doesn’t make a team much more money, nor does it make the league much money either (although it could if they rewarded winning); better to have big-money exhibitions in the middle of your season to cash in than it is to ensure you do well in cames that count. Plus, if the team spent big on DP’s it needs to do that to make that investment pay back; thus the distractions for teams are inevitable if they have Beckham’s or Henry’s on their team.

    If the league actually incentivized winning the league title with serious prize money for the team and players, then I think that would ensure cash is spent to improve performance on the field (in real games). Thus the reason to sign a big name player would not be because he puts butts in seats, but that it would help the team win. EPL teams don’t sign flashy players unless they have something to add to the team’s performance – that’s the way it should be here too.

    Lastly – about the impact DPs have on the “socioeconomic status” of the club: the DP rules create incredible income inequality that actually rivals what we see generally in the United States (and that’s an amazing accomlpishment). The DP rules result in a very lopsided payroll where the top couple players take up the vast majority of what a team spends on salaries, with the rest of the team splitting the crumbs that are left. A team with 2 DP’s has to count something like $750K of those guys’ salaries against the salary cap (over 25% of the cap), meaning that it really eats into what you can pay the rest of the guys.

    If you’re going to sign a DP, then it makes sense to get a really high salary player, since whether he’s a $500K player or a $5 million player, the same amount will count against the cap. The incentive is to get the extraordinarily highly paid player.

    As a result, you end up with one or two guys on teams making 80-90% of team payroll, and average salaries of non-DP players that are 1/40th of what the DPs make. It would be much better give teams a free hand to spend their own money on salaries above the league-paid $2.5 million, and not have to eat into the salary cap when signing bigger salaried players. But of course owners perceive that a threat to their single employer setup and would never allow it.

    And sadly that brings me back to perhaps why success isn’t rewarded. If it were, then teams would want to get the better/best players to try to win, and that would result in the best players getting paid more.

    The owners forget that we fans are not really forced to put up with non-compelling competitions, and have lots of other leagues that provide very good competition (and much higher caliber players, to boot).

    Thinking about this depresses me about the MLS.

    1. The idea that MLS teams are not trying hard to win because the league doesn’t pay money for success is laughable… you can quit being depressed.

      1. Do you argue that the league rewards success on the field?

        Or that they don’t try real hard to win despite this situation?

        1. I don’t want the league to reward success on the field. Fans in seats reward success on the field. Fans buying jerseys rewards success on the field.
          IF the league rewards success on the field you end up with the Champions League scenerio. Too much money going to teams that win, means that they win again the next year. I wonder who wins LaLiga this year… I am joking, don’t answer it.

          The idea that MLS teams don’t try to win is just dumb. There is a huge problem confronting teams in MLS. It is the same problem all over the world in soccer….not enough money.

          1. Charles, with MLS’ set up, what you want, namely 1) fans in seats reward success on field, and 2) fans buying jerseys rewards success on field — just doesn’t happen.

            You are implying that the teams derive financial benefit when they get more fans to attend their games or more people to buy their jerseys, and this is a reward for being successful or having bigname players that people follow. But teams don’t get that revenue. For the most part, it goes back to the league, and the investors who invest the bare minimum in their teams can free-load on the teams that are successful in selling more tickets and jerseys. The league has chosen to reward cheapsters’ mediocrity, not reward success, by centralizing expenditures and revenues at the league level.

            I see nothing which from a business standpoint which incentivizes MLS teams (meaning owners – not players, who no doubt play their asses off) to be winners. I understand if you were under the belief that – like all other teams in the world I’m aware of – they kept revenues they generate for tickets and jerseys. But that’s mistaken.

            You say MLS’ problem is that there’s not enough money, but I think the owners have such a small vision for this league that they’ll never get soccer fans to open their wallets to give them the revenue to support a league with bigger aspirations.

          2. Teams don’t keep the jersey sales revenue ?
            You sure about that ?

            They do keep roughly half of the ticket revenue, so they do benefit from getting fans in the seats. Ask the Sounders.
            I would guess their franchise is worth $150 million right now.

            I guess we will see, if teams are trying, by which teams win, huh ? IF there are a lot of different franchises year after year, teams are trying, if not only a few will win every year.

            ….unless you think none are trying. Sorry, I just wouldn’t put it past people on this site to think that. They actually think pro/rel is going to happen someday.

        2. Let me restate my last post, which was confusing:

          Do you dispute that the league doesn’t financially reward success on the field?

          Or do you dispute that teams try real hard to win despite this situation? (I’m not talking about players, but rather owners)

          1. @PeterB: I think what Charles (correct me if I’m wrong) is getting at is that the way things are done in Europe (more wins = more money) tends to create a permanent upper class of clubs. And he doesn’t want to see that in MLS.

            As for the question of whether or not MLS’s system puts less pressure on clubs to perfom, compared to elsewhere in the world, I would say absolutely. But that doesn’t mean there’s no pressure to be competitive. After all, MLS is still professional league, a consistently strong club will eventually make more money than a consistently poor club. Not everyone can be the Chicago Cubs. 😉

            That said, I don’t think MLS does enough to reward its successful clubs and their fans, mainly:

            -The playoff system, while still undecided, remains woefully broken.
            -Teams competing internationally (i.e. playing more matches) have (had?) the same financial constraints as teams who aren’t.

  5. Findley is going to the interesting case.

    All of these DPs coming to the US to give MLS cred just isn’t going to happen. Ljungberg gets shut down = he is old, he was never that good, etc. it doesn’t mean MLS is great all of the sudden…and then some will argue it is pathetic.

    Findley going to Nottingham will be the interesting case for MLS credibility. (on record, I dont care about MLS cred, not one bit, but I am curious )

    One, the guys that hated him being on the Nat team, are the same guys that think League Championship is better than MLS.

    Two, he was a good player in MLS, but hardly MLS best XI last year, so if he succeeds there, it will say something.

    Three if they get promoted, we can get a sense of the bottom half of the EPL compared to MLS too.

  6. For the most part, I would say the DP rule has been a good thing for the league if merely for the fact that it loosened the purse strings a bit.

    I’m not necessarily a fan of labeling some players as “designated”, but the rule isn’t just for adding a famous international name to roster. Clubs have a little bit more flexibility when it comes retaining the quality players too. If it wasn’t for the expansion of the DP rule, I doubt clubs would be able hang on to their Monteros, Donovans, etc.

    I think it’s fair to assume that MLS will always have some limits on player wages (which is a good thing IMO). In the future, though, I’d like to see a more progressive (not sure if that’s the right word) way of handling wages like a luxury tax rather than simply saying, “you two/three can be bought at a discount”.

    On another note, I will say the homegrown player rule is the best thing since ecto cooler.

  7. Ljunberg did not put Seattle on the map. Most did not know who he was in the early games.

    Also I thought LA won the supporters shields once or twice with Beckham now. And Seattle won the open cup 1.5 times with Ljunberg. Why are you saying no team has won a championship with a high profile DP?

    1. The supporters’ Shield isn’t the Championship. The MLS Cup is the Championship.

      Salary-cap + generation adidas + dps = $10+M for the Galaxy/RB…So why not make the salary-cap $10M, scrap DPs and GA, then let unused money for one season roll over to the next season? Simple.

      1. Why not make the salary cap $10M? They don’t want to make it easy for any one owner to spend more – he might make the ones who want to spend the bare minimum look bad. With the DP rules, they have to sacrifice payroll to the rest of their team to have big team salary, so there’s a big disincentive to spend.

        1. You’re right. This reminds me of something I read last summer about American sports leagues. Up until the 70’s there were cash transfers in American sports, but the owners stopped them because they realized the players could derive their true value from the transfers, so they replaced cash trades with player trades to mask player values. This is a major reason why the Italian league players threatened strike action.

  8. In general spending more money on players is a good thing. However, I question the efficiency of spending huge amounts of money on a single player vs raising the cap and spreading that money out a little more. The quality of play would certainly improve more if teams were allowed to spend their money more freely rather than concentrating almost all of their spending on 1-3 players.

    I also think most teams have been too focused on using their DP slots to bring in foreign players and overlooking the top US players. The USMNT is much more popular in the US than any professional league, so having a USMNT player on the team would probably generate more fan interest and media attention in the US than bringing in some random European who has played on a Champion’s League team. It will be very difficult for MLS to become a true major league as long as 90% of the players on the USMNT are playing overseas.


      I like this Todd guy. He gets it. My older brother and I have been having an ongoing debate about whether American players going to Europe helps/hurts MLS. This past summer my brother admitted he changed his mind and having the top Americans in MLS would be optimal. Think about it:

      NE -Dempsey
      NYRB – Altidore and Howard
      CHI -Edu and Bradley
      Houston – Clark and Holden

      Demerit would’ve signed last year. Maybe Gooch/Adu take loan deals here. Yanks Abroad has stories about Jermaine Jones and Brad Guzan going out on loan. Where are the MLS clubs?

      1. “The supporters’ Shield isn’t the Championship. The MLS Cup is the Championship”.

        Yes. But the Supporter’s Shield and the USOC are still competitions with silverware, prize money, and offer a trip to the CCL to the winners.

        And with the way the season is set up now, i.e. balanced schedule + current playoff format, you’re always gonna have people who hold the Shield in higher regard than the MLS Cup.

      2. Doesn’t sound like either one of you get it. If you want the USMNT to advance, then we HAVE to have them play in solid leagues (overseas). I guess I’m just not naive enough to think that the MLS is even close to a top league like that in Europe or even South America. Beckham had to go back to Milan to even be considered to be “fit” enough to play on his National Team. We need our players to go overseas and get real training and real experience in order for the US to go anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love where the MLS is going and it’s been fantastic to watch it finally start to develop into something great, but it just isn’t quite there yet.

        Todd is absolutely right about raising the salary cap. It will attract more quality homegrown players instead of having them leave to other countries, and will improve the overall quality of play in the league. Having DP’s is essential in the MLS, it brings experience as well as attention and because right now, it’s the only thing going for it.

  9. The supporter’s shield does reflect on field success over 30 games, and LA did win two of those. This is not a “no play-offs” statement, I like the play-offs, winning the Shield does meant your a good team.

    I agree with Charles that the DP is not the problem, it just hasn’t been used well. I think the DP has been a good the league. 5 years ago, I could barely tell you who the Rapids were playing, all the teams seemed the same (except LA with Donovan). The DP brought a lot of color the league. Now some teams have stars, some don’t- but it seems like the teams are more distinct from each other now and that is a good thing.

    I hope the Rapids make Omar Cummings their first DP and pay him 500 thousand and extend his contract. I think he is headed for Europe, but I would love to keep him for 1 more season (or at least till July) first.

    1. “5 years ago, I could barely tell you who the Rapids were playing, all the teams seemed the same (except LA with Donovan).”

      The downside of parity. When the teams seem the same casual fans don’t care because, wait for it, they’re casual fans, so they do other things with their time. If you have a couple of glamor teams then the casual fans know who to pay attention to when football season ends…Yes or no, did the UConn women bring more or less attention to women’s basketball? EXACTLY!

      1. I agree and it is why I’m not a fan of parity. The Yankees are good for baseball. Of course, it can go too far in the other direction. (Cue Charles).

  10. I think the “success brings butts in the seats” argument will be tested by the Rapids this season. It will be interesting to see if we get any championship bump in attendance.

    1. It all depends – did the Rapids jack up the season ticket and game day ticket prices in response to getting the title? If so, then even if they hold attendence steady that will be a victory for them.

  11. I like how some teams in the league are using their DP options. RSL and Seattle are good examples. Instead of bringing in untested foreign name-power talent, they bring in a guy at a reasonable price and if he performs well then give him the promotion that he deserves and sign him to a bigger and better contract. Montero and Saborio are more clutch to their respective teams than bringing in a 37 year old has-been, and therefore these teams will have more success than teams with a much more unbalanced roster, like an LA or a NY.

  12. I heard a rumour that Adrian Mutu will sign with LA Galaxy for a salary about 3 MILION $ a year ,he is a fantastic player he’s only 31 he can easily play another 3-4 years, check him on youtube, he was a topscorer in Italy one of the top 3 soccer championships in the world

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