The story of Major League Soccer is the story of the growth of association football in the United States in the years after the United States Soccer Federation was awarded the right to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. In the years since the league’s inception the sport has grown to a level never before imagined, besting average live attendance numbers for both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League and approaching the realization of a twenty-four-team league by the year 2020.
Once that dream has been achieved American soccer must make yet another giant leap. This Last Word on Sports series seeks to spell out how Major League Soccer must adapt after expansion, and profiles many of our writers’ varying opinions on where the league will spend most of its resources to continue its growth in recognition, talent, and renown. Last Word on Sports will also take a brief look back at the two major periods in the league’s history; the juxtaposition between these periods marks an important milestone in American soccer and helps set the stage for what Major League soccer will seek to become in MLS 3.0.
When David Beckham signed for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, it signified major changes in Major League Soccer. Among other things, it introduced the Designated Player Rule, which Roger Cleaves covered in his piece “MLS History 2.0 2006-present.” This rule change allowed teams to open up their checkbooks and go after big name players, players who would be a boost on the field and perhaps, just as importantly, be a boost in the box office. Recent trends in DP signings though suggest that teams are changing their strategy when it comes to DPs, and the changes look like they’ll be a benefit to US soccer as a whole.
Past: Foreign, Attacking Players
In the first few years of the DP rule, teams mostly focused on foreign stars near the end of their career, and attack minded players. Teams almost never signed defensive players to DP contracts. MLS even reportedly rejected Toronto FC’s attempts to sign defender Olof Mellberg back in 2012. Before the 2013 season, one defender and one GK had ever signed DP contracts. Both played for New York Red Bulls. One was defender Rafa Marquez and the other was GK Frank Rost, who played all of 11 games.
Teams also almost never signed Americans. Prior to Landon Donovan becoming a DP in 2010, the only American DP had been Claudio Reyna. Before the 2013 season there had been three American DPs: Reyna, Donovan, and Freddy Adu.
Present: Changing Trends
The 2013 season brought about winds of change in DP signings. You could say it began when San Jose rewarded 2012 MLS MVP Chris Wondolowski with a DP contract. Wondolowski was three things that very few DPs before him had been: 1) American, 2) an MLS veteran, and 3) a SJ Earthquake.
Among other signings, 2013 also saw the return of Clint Dempsey to MLS as a DP, and MLS veteran and LA Galaxy CB Omar Gonzalez given a DP contract. The 2014 season continued these trends, as MLS veterans Osvaldo Alonso and Eddie Johnson were rewarded with DP contracts. USMNT stars Michael Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley, and Maurice Edu returned to MLS, while Matt Besler and Graham Zusi turned down European offers to stay in MLS as DPs. Defender Liam Ridgewell also signed a DP contract with the Portland Timbers.
Those signings mean that there are currently 10 American Designated Players in MLS, and five defenders (I’m counting Edu, because he has played CB at times this year for the Union).
August of 2013 brought another landmark in the Designated Player story as the Colorado Rapids’ signing of Gabriel Torres meant that for the first time in league history, every MLS team had a designated players. In the early years of the DP rule, the teams that could afford to pay a DP were limited. While teams like the New York Red Bulls, LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, and DC United were using their DP slots, many teams simply could not. Currently, there are two teams who do not have a DP on their active roster (NE Revolution and Chicago Fire), though both teams have DPs under contract who are on loan in other leagues.
An American Designated Player?
Of the recent trends in DP signings, the two that I find most telling in regards to both the present and future of MLS are the increased number of American designated players and the increased number of defenders signed to DP contracts.
While the signing of more Americans as designated players may just be teams taking advantage of a World Cup year to bring in individuals who are looking for playing time, or those who are famous enough in North America to provide a boost at the box office but are relatively cheap for DPs (with the exception of Bradley and Dempsey), I think there’s more to it. The fact that players such as Bradley and Dempsey chose to return to MLS, despite clearly being good enough to continue in Europe, shows that they view the league as top quality. They certainly viewed it as adequate enough to maintain the level of quality needed to succeed on the world stage. The publicity around the signings of these American players also demonstrates the increased popularity of the USMNT. We now live in a world where American players are popular enough to be signed what they bring on the field, their box office benefits and jersey sale contributions.
With the league Collective Bargaining Agreement ending this season, it’s certain that there will be changes to roster rules and the salary cap in MLS. Among these changes, some have suggested that the addition of an American Designated Player slot could be on its way. Such a move would give teams more flexibility to sign an additional DP, and at the same time almost certainly further increase the number of American DPs in MLS.
Defense Wins Championships
There’s a famous quote that has been repeated for years that says “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” A similar quote, attributed to Legendary American College Football Coach Bear Bryant says “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”
Those words have played out on the field in MLS. Of the last four MLS Cup champions, two have had the least goals conceded, and 3 have been top five. With the increased number of DP defenders in MLS, it seems that MLS teams are starting to see the wisdom of investing in defense.
Statistically, investing in defenders appears to be a wise move. According to analysis of 10 years of Premier League play in the book The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally, a goal scored is worth just over one point for a team. However, a clean sheet – a goal not conceded, is worth on average 2.5 points per match, meaning not giving up a goal is more than twice as valuable as scoring one. Even conceding one goal gives a team about 1.5 points per game, still more than the value of scoring one. To simplify it, a team needs to score more than 2 goals to equal the value of not conceding a goal. While this data comes from the Premier League, similar results hold true in other top level soccer leagues.
So, while forwards and creative midfielders may be more exciting signings, and scoring goals makes more highlight reels than preventing them, investing in a DP defender looks like the smart thing to do, and more and more MLS teams are agreeing.
The future of the Designated Player
Eventually the Designated Player rule will go away. There will likely come a time when MLS gets rid of the salary cap, making the DP rule obsolete. Until that time, I expect that we will continue to see changes to the DP rule. The most likely changes coming in the next CBA are probably the addition of either a 4th Designated Player spot, or a specific, American Designated Player spot (or Canadian since we have three Canadian Teams). I also think that teams will continue to invest in DP defenders and Americans.
I think that more and more teams will sign DPs solely for what they provide on the field, rather than for the box office boost. Look at Portland this year, they didn’t sign Liam Ridgewell and Fanendo Adi to sell season tickets, they signed them to win games. While some DP signings will always be about both on and off the field, I predict we will see an increasing number like Ridgewell and Adi.
Together, I think all of these changes signify important changes in MLS and US Soccer, and I’m excited to watch how the league and the use of the Designated Player continues to evolve.
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