This offseason, there is a Designated Player revolution happening throughout Major League Soccer. It is going to change the very fabric of MLS. Here’s why.
The Designated Player rule changed the entire fabric of Major League Soccer. Inspired by the Los Angeles Galaxy’s wage-breaking acquisition of world superstar David Beckham, the parity obsesses MLS needed to implement a rule that allowed the top teams to invest heavily in star players but restricted their ability to pull away from other teams in the league. The DP rule was born.
A DP is a player who can be paid whatever the club can afford but is only charged a specific amount against the salary cap, as determined by the wage structure of the league and the age of the player. Last year, a veteran DP would be charged against the salary cap at around $500,000. Even if a team had agreed to a multi-million contract with the player, the charge was still the same.
It started with just one DP per team. Within a decade, that number tripled, the league quite aware of the growing desire and ability of organisations to invest heavily in some of the top talent from around the world, understanding the need to loosen the rules to further the growth of quality of the league.
Typically, this saw teams chase the big names, usually ageing European stars who were looking for one last payday before they retired. Beckham was a prime example. Some of these moves worked out well for the teams involved, including Beckham, Robbie Keane and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, all from the same team. Others were less successful, like Steven Gerrard, also an LA Galaxy luxury investment.
However, as the overall quality of the league has improved, greater investment has surfaced, and a willingness to accept the need to sell has arrived, something that Commissioner Don Garber was always hesitant to concede about his league, never quite grasping the global element of the sport he conducts his league in, the way teams have used the DP slots has changed. That has never been more noticeable than in this current offseason.
Thus far, the oldest DP signing this offseason is Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez at 31. He is replacing a 38-year-old Zlatan and is a very different case to many signings given his commercial potential in the Mexican market — he will be effective on the pitch, of course, but the Galaxy are signing him as much for his off-field impact.
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Bar Hernandez, the next oldest DP signings are Yimmi Chara, Alan Pulido and Robert Beric, all 28. They are still in the primes of their careers and can be expected to perform at a high level within MLS for four, five, six years, as well as carrying re-sale value throughout that period.
Similarly, D.C. United signed 25-year-old Edison Flores, the New England Revolution acquired 23-year-old Adam Buksa, while Lucas Zelarayan and Lucas Cavallini of Columbus and Vancouver respectively are only 27.
This all comes in the aftermath of teams like Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC investing heavily in young South American talent. Diego Rossi, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Brian Rodriguez. There has been a clear intent to get younger, both because of the added energy and longevity younger players provide on the pitch and the financial re-sale potential they offer off it.
It is a major shift in approach from MLS teams more generally. They have taken the DP rule and are exploiting its advantages in a completely new and revolutionary manner. Just like when Beckham first arrived all those years ago, it will change the very fabric of the league.