By Grant Wahl
April 01, 2010

Hoping that Thierry Henry joins the New York Red Bulls? Or that the Los Angeles Galaxy might add a third international star to go next to Landon Donovan and David Beckham? Friday's news in Major League Soccer made those possibilities more likely to happen.

As expected, MLS announced that it has changed its designated player rule, providing more incentives (in theory) for teams to bring increased star power into the budget-conscious soccer league. But what we didn't expect was how much bigger those incentives would be.

Each MLS team will now be able to have up to three (instead of two) designated player exceptions, stars who can be paid however much a team is willing to give them without counting more than $335,000 each against the $2.55-million-per-team salary cap. What's more, each DP will now take up around 13 percent of a team's salary budget, as opposed to around 18 percent previously (when a DP counted $415,000 against a $2.315-million-per-team cap).

The idea is that the new rule will spur more MLS owners into action when it comes to signing big-name talent. Under the old rule, MLS had only four DPs on its 16 teams when the 2010 season began last week. In fact, the league's star power had actually gone down from last season. MLS's two best-known and highest-paid players in 2009--Beckham and Chicago's Cuauhtemoc Blanco --were no longer on the field, Beckham having gone on loan to AC Milan until after the World Cup (his ankle injury will keep him out of a Galaxy uniform until at least September) and Blanco having departed to the Mexican league.

The big questions for me with today's news are simple: Will MLS owners go and sign more stars now that they have bigger incentives to do so? (Perhaps, but in this economy the league maintains that only two teams, Seattle and Toronto, are profitable.) And will any MLS teams ever start paying transfer fees to become real players on the international transfer market?

So far, I haven't found a single one of MLS's 13 DPs whose acquisition has involved a transfer fee. Not Beckham (who came on an unusual free transfer), not Blanco, not New York's Juan Pablo Angel and not D.C. United's 2008 acquisition Marcelo Gallardo (whom MLS exec Todd Durbin thought might have received a transfer fee but in fact did not, according to the Washington Post).

The point is that not many elite international soccer stars play out the length of their contracts and become free agents. That doesn't mean it's impossible for MLS to find useful additions on free transfers -- Angel, Blanco, Seattle's Freddie Ljungberg and to some extent Beckham have been successful on the field -- but it certainly limits the pool of potential DPs, mainly to players over the age of 30.

That's the biggest question I have about New York potentially signing Henry, whose contract with Barcelona doesn't run out until the end of the 2010-11 season. If Henry is to join the Red Bulls this summer, they would become the first MLS team to pay some sort of transfer fee for a designated player. Will they? Who knows?

What we do know is that MLS teams have to be smart in how they pick their Designated Player targets. Here's a quick rundown of the 13 DPs in league history:

Juan Pablo Angel, New York (2007- ): Probably the finest performance on the field by a DP. Has scored 45 goals in 72 games while becoming a leader on the team.

David Beckham, Los Angeles (2007- ): Had a huge influence on the Galaxy's business side in 2007 and '08, selling more than 300,000 jerseys and tickets galore. The Galaxy lost money in 2009, though, as Beckham spent the season's first half on loan at AC Milan. Wretched results on field in 2008 (when the Galaxy tied for league's lowest point total) improved in 2009 when the team reached the MLS Cup final. Had a role in '09 playoff run, but will almost surely fail to make MLS Best XI for fourth straight year in 2010. Injuries limiting his play in 2007 and '10.

Julian de Guzman, Toronto (2009- ): Joined Toronto at end of 2009; too early to judge.

Landon Donovan, Los Angeles (2010- ): Reigning MLS MVP only became a DP officially on Friday. Had been grandfathered as non-counting salary (an exception to the DP exception) before Friday's rule change.

Luis Angel Landín, Houston (2009- ): Dynamo's first DP has been a bust so far and didn't even start in season opener last week. Has good ball skills, but is clearly overweight and out of shape.

Freddie Ljungberg, Seattle (2009- ): Former Arsenal star made MLS Best XI in 2009 and been a solid addition to a (so far) model franchise.

Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chicago (2007-09): Mexican star drew team new fans and was often the star on the field. Never did make an MLS Cup final, however. May return after World Cup.

Denilson, Dallas (2007): An absolute disaster. Came and went in the blink of an eye.

Luciano Emilio, D.C. United (2008-09): Became a DP in '08 after league MVP season in '07 but never regained '07 form as a DP.

Marcelo Gallardo, D.C. United (2008): Plagued by injuries and left quickly to go back home to Argentina.

Claudio Lopez, Kansas City (2008): Viewed as a good teammate, El Piojo never performed at a level worth DP money and even took a pay cut to lose DP status in '09.

Claudio Reyna, New York (2007-08): Injuries kept Reyna from doing much for the Red Bulls before he retired midway through the '08 season.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus (2009): Guille led the Crew to the championship as a non-DP in 2008, got a raise to DP status in '09 and is no longer a DP this season. Still has his mojo, though.

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