Note: As part of the MLS Talk preview, we will be examining some of the major trends in MLS that will have an impact on the league this year. Feel free to suggest other big picture topics in the comments.
Four years ago, MLS swung a deal to bring David Beckham, the world’s most recognizable soccer player, to MLS for a very lucrative compensation package. Seeing the increased crowds and buzz surrounding the acquisition, as well as needing a budget rule to account for his huge salary, MLS created the “designated player”, or the “Beckham rule” as it is commonly called. Over the past four years, teams could go out and seek big names and add them to payroll without having them bust the very tight MLS caps.
The Beckham rule hasn’t quite turned out the way it was expected, though. Instead of seeing major stars flock to the U.S. and boost the league’s image internationally, teams have used the cap relief to either lock-up their big name stars or attract non-star international players and matching their inflated European salaries. Currently, there are twelve designated players under contract in MLS. Only three can conceivably be called international stars: Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Rafa Marquez. A fourth, Landon Donovan, is the most famous American soccer player in the world. The others are mostly pretty good international players from small leagues who have come to the U.S. to raise their profile.
So, is the Beckham rule helping the league or holding it back? I’d argue the former, even though it is not helping as was intended.
No matter how much money MLS throws at them, major European stars in their prime will not play in MLS. In the near future you will not see Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi in a Sporting Kansas City shirt, but realistically that should not be expected. Europe is where the game was born and players naturally want to play where competition is the best. I find it amusing that some American soccer fans bemoan American players going overseas to hone their craft, but when it comes to U.S. dominated sports we never have the same concerns about a French point guard coming to the NBA or Dominican catcher playing in the American League instead of improving the game back home. Talent will always flock to where the game is at its best, and MLS isn’t that.