Ability Plus Adaptability Equals Suitability

The MLS Designated Player (DP) rule allows teams to sign players that would normally fall outside their salary cap, thereby providing opportunity for the league’s 16 teams to compete for star players in the international football market. In 2010 there were 14 DPs competing in MLS, including David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez, the latter two players coming fresh from competing at the World Cup in South Africa. Signing players still near the height of their football prowess, rather than some aged, last chance football tourist, as was the practice of the original NASL, has helped MLS raise its profile and increase its legitimacy around the globe. For example, on the day Beckham announced he would be signing in LA, worldwide traffic to the MLS website increased by over 250-percent. Since the Galactico’s arrival in LA, attendances have been up, as have television viewing numbers in games when he appears. The Galaxy has also sold an estimated 600,000 Beckham replica game jerseys.

While there is little doubt the addition of Beckham, Henry, Márquez and other DPs has helped boost attendances and bring MLS into the consciousness of people who might previously have known nothing about football or MLS, their impact on the league’s level of play has been somewhat more mixed.

In addition to the hype and mania generated by the signing of Beckham, Henry, and Márquez, there was also hope their addition to MLS would help elevate the play of those around them. To varying degrees, this has no doubt happened. Young players cannot help but improve playing and practicing everyday with athletes of Beckham, Henry and Márquez’s quality; players who have achieved almost everything there is to achieve in the game. However, analogous to the way a small breakaway group in elite cycling is often pulled back into the peloton, in many ways, the play of many DPs has tended to level back towards the mean standard of play in MLS.

Part of the problem, as we see it, has to do with unreasonable expectation their arrival created in the first place. We are sure there were many who believed signing the likes of Beckham, Henry, and Márquez would help usher in a new gilded age in North American football. What many fail to understand, however, is at their previous clubs Beckham, Henry and Márquez were only one in a constellation of star players. It is one thing to play a one-two with former FIFA world player of the year Zinedine Zidane or a through-ball to a streaking Raul, it is quite another to try and pull it off with a new teammate who is on $30,000 a year, and who’s previous highest level of play was in the NCAA.

Additionally, compared to other sports like NBA basketball or NFL football, star players have less opportunity to influence the outcome of a game. Whereas a Kobe Bryant or a Tom Brady are involved in almost every offensive move, the same is not true in football. Ask the most casual North American football fan how long, in a 90-minute game, a top player is in possession of the ball and you often hear 10-minutes or 20-minutes. The reality is even the world’s best players are lucky to have the ball in their sphere of control for one minute.

Top-flight football is now equal parts on-field performance, business and show-business. The signings of players like Beckham, Henry and Márquez has helped MLS generate a great deal of interest off the field. In the future, however, these off-field commercial interest need to be better weighted with improving the on-field performance; otherwise their signings are just artifice. One way to enhance the league’s quality of play and entertainment is to improve the technical ability of the North American player, something we plan to discuss in a future posting. The other, which we believe could bear fruit faster, is to improve upon the quality of the league’s non-DP international cohort.

Approximately 50% of the current playing squads of MLS teams are now made up of foreign-born players. It is this group, the league’s second-tier artisans, and not its DP artists, who we believe can have the greatest influence on improving the league’s level of play in the near-term. For example, players in the mold of Joel Lindpere, whose addition to the NY Red Bulls this season helped not only to elevate the play of his North American teammates, but also throw into higher relief the talent of his DP teammates.

Unfortunately for fans of MLS however, for every Joel Lindpere, there are a few too many Raivis Hš?anovi?s playing in the league; international players, who in our opinion, would struggle to find a roster spot in some local amateur leagues. If an MLS team elects to sign an out of country players, it would seem that it would be most advantageous for them to recruit players that are technically excellent and who can positively impact games with creative and attractive play.

Trying to piece together a team of quality that fits within the league’s current salary structure is admittedly not easy. Especially given that we live in a football world where a player’s worth is too often judged by price rather than value. Operating within the tight constraints of the league’s salary cap, MLS teams need to be proactive when investing in their playing squad, not relying solely on agents to bring them prospects, but rather looking to uncover value themselves in underdeveloped markets, like Central and South America, and Asia.