Tuesday September 23rd, 2008

The man who brought the "Beckham Rule" to Major League Soccer now wants to change it in a dramatic fashion. And if Tim Leiweke gets his way, David Beckham and MLS' other marquee players wouldn't count a dime against the league's salary cap.

Leiweke is the president and CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Galaxy. In 2006, Leiweke persuaded fellow MLS owners to pass the Designated Player rule -- a.k.a. the Beckham Rule -- which gave each MLS team one slot to sign a player who would be considered outside the league's miserly salary cap (which is slightly more than $2 million per team).

A few months later, the Galaxy became the first team to exercise the Beckham Rule by signing (who else?) David Beckham.

But the Galaxy (7-10-8) have struggled mightily this season, enduring a 12-game, three-month-long winless stretch that only ended with last Saturday's 5-2 victory over D.C. United. Jettisoned along the way were former Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit and team president Alexi Lalas, whom Leiweke forced out and fired, respectively, before naming Bruce Arena as the new coach and general manager in August.

Amazingly, L.A. is still only two points out of a playoff berth in the anemic Western Conference with five games remaining in the regular season. Yet, Leiweke sees the small number of Designated Players currently in MLS (six in a 14-team league) and thinks the current Designated Player rules don't give teams enough incentive to sign big-name stars.

Namely, he thinks DPs like Beckham should no longer count $400,000 against a team's cap number and instead count nothing at all.

"Within our structure as a league, are we penalized for going out and taking the risk we took on [signing] David? And I think we are," Leiweke told SI.com in an interview in the L.A. offices of AEG. "And so that's something that we as a league are going to have to deal with, is the ditch that [the Galaxy] find ourselves in the day we announce David Beckham based on the cap."

When MLS first announced the Beckham Rule, it decided to make DPs count $400,000 against the cap (and $325,000 for a team's second DP, which could be acquired via trade) as a way to make teams think hard about whether they wanted to go for star power (and be forced to scrimp on other players) or forego a superstar and spread out their limited cash more evenly among their players.

The question is whether the conservative forces in MLS are penalizing teams too much for being bold enough to drop serious cash on name players and raise the league's profile at home and abroad.

So far, the teams that have avoided signing DPs have had more success on the field. Houston and New England (neither of which has a DP) reached the MLS Cup final in '07, and Houston and Columbus (no DPs on either team) are leading their conferences in '08.

But let's be honest: Many opposing fans around the league (and maybe even a few owners) will laugh when they hear that Leiweke wants to change the ground rules now that the Galaxy are tied for the second-worst record in MLS. League owners already helped Leiweke last year when they agreed to let Landon Donovan not count as the Galaxy's second DP this season since his DP-level salary ($900,000 a year) was agreed to before the DP rule went into effect. (Had the owners not done so, the Galaxy would have been forced to trade something valuable for a second DP slot before the '08 season.)

What's more, the Galaxy have made their share of poor personnel decisions with the cap space that they did have entering the season. L.A. traded veteran defender and team leader Chris Albright to New England to help create cap room to sign forward Carlos Ruiz. But Ruiz was a flop (he was traded to Toronto FC in August) and the Galaxy ended up signing a defender in Argentine Eduardo Domínguez for more money ($192,000) than they were paying Albright ($160,000).

Domínguez, too, has flopped, as have Galaxy castoffs Celestine Babayaro (who didn't survive the preseason) and Abel Xavier -- who was waived in midseason after clashing with Gullit, even though Xavier's guaranteed salary still counts against L.A.'s cap number.

Leiweke says he's aware of all that: "There are some in the league who argue, 'Yeah, but you're spending the same amount of money on the rest of your team that some of the other teams are spending on their entire team. So you made some bad personnel decisions.' I think we probably did. I'm not an expert, but I think we spent some money and brought some guys in that ultimately aren't very good. So they are right: We've made some bad decisions.

"That said, why does David [Beckham] count against the cap when you see the impact that David has created for everybody else in the league? Why do we get penalized for that? Every team should have the ability, I think, of pulling in a Designated Player and making a decision to pay that player outside the cap, and it shouldn't have an impact on the cap."

What happens now that Leiweke has gone public? Expect him to lobby hard with his fellow MLS owners to change the Designated Player rules at the next Board of Governors meeting, which takes place over MLS Cup weekend in late November.

It remains to be seen, though, whether Leiweke will be successful. No doubt it will help him to have billionaire AEG head Phil Anschutz in his corner, since Anschutz is viewed to have saved the league from extinction by taking over as many as six teams when MLS was struggling to survive earlier this decade. Presumably, Leiweke will also point out to owners how much they have benefited from the big crowds that have come to see Beckham, and he will argue that the league is better off having more star power than the six DPs currently in MLS.

But that doesn't mean the MLS owners (who are in business together as part of the league's single-entity structure) will want to change an important league rule at the behest of the Galaxy, no matter how conservative the existing DP rules might be.

Sometimes Leiweke wins these lobbying efforts, and sometimes he doesn't. In '05, the Board of Governors voted down the Beckham Rule. In '06, the Board passed it. In '07, the Board grandfathered Donovan's salary to help out the Galaxy.

And in '08? We'll see if Leiweke gets his way this time around. The battle might be almost as entertaining to watch as the one the Galaxy now faces to make the postseason.

I'll be doing a soccer Mailbag soon, so if you could post your questions, comments or other pithy insights in the box above, I'd appreciate it. Have a good week.

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