As MLS culture evolves, teams change course with DP investments

The average age of Designated Players in MLS has dropped substantially since 2008, an indication that MLS teams are going about their business in a different way.
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MLS turned a corner in 2007, when David Beckham left Real Madrid for the LA Galaxy. It was a transformative moment that sparked increased engagement from the public, unprecedented attention from the media and an enhanced reputation among players abroad. The 8.2% jump in attendance that year remains the third-largest in league history, and many of those fans showed up to see the English icon—even away from home. The Galaxy’s road attendance average surpassed 28,000, which was 61% higher than team No. 2.

But it was back in L.A., where glitz and glamor are supposed to reign supreme, that there were signs of real maturity. After a slow start to an MLS sojourn that included injuries, losses and a loan to AC Milan, Beckham finally felt the heat in his new home. And at a game in July 2009, Galaxy fans made their priorities clear. Instead of cheers, Beckham was met with abuse.

One banner hung at StubHub Center read, “Go Home Fraud” and another said, “Here Before, Here After, Here Despite 23.” At halftime, a fan climbed from the stands to confront Beckham on the field.

“I’ve played the villain quite a few times in my career,” Beckham said toward the end of his time in LA. “[But] I’ve never been booed by my own fans."

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The culture was changing. Big names followed Beckham, from Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane to Rafa Márquez, Obafemi Martins and Tim Cahill. Some were better than others, and some who are still out there playing at say, Bayer Leverkusen or Manchester United, could appeal. But overall, it’s become clear that the emotions on that July day in Carson now are far closer to the norm. Attendance and investment in American and Canadian pro soccer at all levels has surged in the past 10 years and winning on the day and in the global transfer market now takes precedence over selling jerseys and booking talk-show appearances. If you can handle both, great. But if you can’t do the former, the latter is an afterthought.

“The Designated Player rule started because you needed them to have a dual purpose. They needed to have an impact on your marketing piece as well as an impact on the field,” said Galaxy president Chris Klein, who was a Beckham’s teammate before moving to the club’s front office.

“We have an educated fan base that’s smarter and more knowledgeable about the game than they’ve ever been, and they’re demanding quality and they’re demanding that we have players that can play the game at the highest level,” Klein continued. “That’s part of the shift in clubs around our league. They know that. Look at Atlanta, over 30,000 season tickets, and they’ve built a roster that they think can win. Our league is changing for the positive.”

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Yes, look at Atlanta with its three DPs in their early 20s. Only dedicated followers of South American soccer would have been familiar with Miguel Almirón (23 years old), Héctor Villalba (22) or Josef Martínez (23) before they signed with the MLS expansion team. But the club hopes they’ll be household names soon. Entertain and win—as the likes of Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Javier Morales discovered—and legendary status will come to you. The acquisition of Atlanta’s young attacking trio is testament to the league-wide change Klein referenced. More players at or near their prime are considering MLS as a viable step in their careers. Clubs have reduced patience with older athletes who struggle, regardless of their name. And they’re willing to take a chance on younger, less experienced DPs who won’t have an immediate impact at the cash register.

“The league over 20 years has built this reputation slowly, so that’s absolutely not to say that the way DPs have been signed is wrong. We didn’t get where we are today with the players that were signed,” Atlanta president Darren Eales said. “At this stage you’re coming to a tipping point. You can go to players and say, ‘Come to MLS to develop and progress your career. It’s not just for the end of your career.’”

Keane, who can make a case that he’s the best DP in MLS history, is gone. Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who can’t make that case, have left as well. Some A-listers remain, like David Villa, Kaká and Giovani dos Santos. But most DPs now are either Americans who’ve earned that status or foreigners who were identified, scouted and offered the opportunity to use MLS as a stepping stone, to take on more professional responsibility or to thrive under more hospitable conditions.

There were 13 DPs new to MLS who signed during the off-season. Only one, New York City FC’s Maxi Moralez, is in his 30s–and he turned 30 this week. The average age of those 13 players is 25.3. Meanwhile, the average age of all the league’s DP has plummeted. In 2008, the year after the rule was introduced, it was 33.5. It didn’t dip below 30 until 2013, and this year it’s the lowest it’s ever been by far—27.6. It’s dropped six years. That’s half a career.

MLS executive VP of competition and player relations Todd Durbin has been with the league since the start, and described the evolution as “nothing short of remarkable.”

He told, “When we first launched [the DP rule], we had a view that we were going to be not only giving teams the chance to improve quality on the field, but also make splashy announcements when they signed a really high-profile, internationally known player …. Fans know that if your team is better when you go out and sign a Higuaín, a Valeri, a Piatti, that’s what they really want to come and see. That’s what happens. We’ve had this evolution. It’s what fans are demanding and what our teams are demanding.”

Clubs won’t necessarily stop going after high-profile players—Atlanta was eyeing Andrés Guardado—but teams like Portland and FC Dallas have proven you can win without players who arrived as household names. If it's possible to succeed without one, it means that if you do invest in a superstar, you’d better be doing it for more than a publicity bump. And you’d better get it right.

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“This is a different MLS,” Nelson Rodriguez said. “The pressure to win is real, and I have to believe that my colleagues are first and foremost thinking, ‘I need to win and who’s going to help me win?’ I’d like to believe they’re making their decisions based on that.”

Rodriguez was a long-time MLS executive before leaving the league office to run Chivas USA. He’s now the GM of the Chicago Fire, a former powerhouse that’s fallen on very hard times. Chicago has missed the playoffs in six of the past seven years. Rodriguez signed before last season and was charged with making it right. He hired head coach Veljko Paunović, and together this winter they signed their first DP, Hungarian forward Nemanja Nikolić (David Accam was already with the club).

Nikolić, 29, wasn’t the player Fire fans were demanding. But he’s been a prolific goal scorer in the Polish and Hungarian leagues, and if Chicago got this right, he’ll become a player Fire fans love.

“In general around the league, scouting and recruitment has drastically improved,” Rodriguez explained. “Teams have invested more—more in scouts, more in acquisition and interpretation of data—and I think that’s played a part in finding other players who teams believe are a better fit for them. I think the second reason for the change is the first big tranche of DPs were so high profile and truly had global recognition, that they helped raise the profile of the league and now, some younger players started to view the league differently. I think they’re more attracted by the opportunity and the challenge.”

Rodriguez said that when the Fire first spoke to Nikolić, he already was familiar with MLS and could name the league’s top forwards. He mentioned Villa, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Fanendo Adi.

“He was in Poland and was that tuned in. That speaks to how the league is seen, how it’s being watched, and I think that’s only possible because of what came before,” Rodriguez said.

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Klein is hoping French winger Romain Alessandrini has a similar impact. It’s been a position of need in L.A., and the Galaxy attack will evolve this year absent the dominant and domineering Keane. The club set the DP tone a decade ago, and famous names are a big part of its identity. But with one slot DP remaining for the time being (Jelle Van Damme likely will be bought down at some point), the Galaxy chose a 27-year-old midfielder from Olympique Marseille unfamiliar to most North American fans.

“We needed to find a player who fills a positional need,” Klein said. “It’s not as simple as teams just wanting younger players. There’s a confluence of circumstances that have led to this. It still wouldn’t surprise me to see some other big names that still want to come to his league. They may just come at a younger age. It’s an interesting dynamic. I don’t know that we’ve seen the full picture yet.”

Among those circumstances are the investment in scouting that Rodriguez mentioned and the increased profile of the league. Purchasing power helps as well on multiple fronts. Eales said Atlanta was willing to pay transfer fees to acquire its three DPs. Older players often come when they’re out of contract or can be acquired at a reduced cost. That’s money that comes from club ownership, and the trend toward younger DPs likely is a sign of both a willingness to spend more now and an interest in profiting from a resale.

“To take a player at the end of his career and pay him those wages, those wages are dead money,” Eales said. “You go younger and sign players with a transfer fee, the salaries are lower and the upside is when those players are traded, you get the transfer fee back.”

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In 2012, the DP rule was amended to reduce the budget charge of DPs in their early 20s. That’s an incentive to go young. The introduction of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) also has made a difference. Established in 2015, the mechanism provides $1.2 million to each club beyond this year's salary budget this year that it can use to sign non-DP players who exceed the maximum charge or to convert a DP into a non-DP, thereby opening one of the three spots. TAM has the affect of improving the talent just below the DP level, which in turn creates better teams and allows clubs to sign DPs who fill a role rather than DPs who must win games on their own. That widens the potential pool. 

The evolution will continue. Identities will solidify. NYCFC may always want star power. Rodriguez said the Fire will always look for players who “understand they have to punch the clock.” Interest in MLS among older players may grow following next summer’s World Cup, when international retirees look for a change of scenery or a different challenge. MLS clubs will have to decide whether to take that chance. They know now that selling jerseys won’t be enough.

“They’re out. They’re scouting. And they realize that in order to have a bit of stability long term, that the ability to sign players that are a bit younger is probably good in terms of managing their team,” Durbin said of the league’s clubs. “What you see now is sort of a collision of policies that I think are really starting to bear fruit.”