The MLS off season has and will be busy with drafts, but a larger battle is taking place. A battle that will determine the direction and level of growth of MLS for next decade: The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The new CBA will resolve, complicate, and/or change rules on issues such as player salaries, roster rules, and player development. MLS fans will look for rulings or progress on soccer specific stadiums, expansion, and in some cases promotion/relegation.
Salaries look to be the topic most likely to be reformed significantly. Players want to get paid more (in some cases, want enough to live reasonably), while general managers want the cap to go up so they can improve their rosters. Of course, the owners want to limit salaries as much as possible, while still putting a quality product on the field. One of the hotly discussed topics is whether to add a fourth Designated Player (DP) slot or not.
MLS CBA Negotiations: A Fourth DP Is a Bad Idea
A fourth designated player slot is a terrible idea for MLS. I’m saying that as a Galaxy supporter. I agree that MLS needs to spend more money to catch up to the top leagues in the world. But adding a fourth DP would only exacerbate the wealth gap that is developing in the league. There will be a time for adding more DP slots, but now is not it.
Only eight of 20 teams (including the two expansion teams) are currently using all three DP slots. Of those eight, only five have all of their DPs as non-young DPs. A quarter of the league only has one DP. A DP over the age of 23 counts $387,500 against the salary cap, and can be paid any amount above that cap hit. A young DP must be 23 years old or younger and has different (read: lower) cap hit rules.
Furthermore, several DPs have not been effective. Very few of the young DPs have made an impact. Some of them are not even one of the best players on their team. Jerry Bengston couldn’t get on the field for New England and went on loan. Claudio Bieler (SKC) spent 2014 on the bench. Juan Luis Anangono (Chicago), Gabby Torres (Colorado), Eddie Johnson (DC), and Sebastian Jaime (RSL) have not lived up to expectations. Many of these more expensive players have been a waste of money.
Only 14 of 43 DPs in MLS made $1 million or more in 2014 (including Jermaine Jones, who’s extrapolated salary is more than $3 million for the full season). Of those 14, 10 play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders, or Toronto FC.
‘The Beckham Rule‘ started a new era for MLS. It brought in world class talent, soccer icons, and a lot of money. But there is an increasing wealth gap in the league. There is a small group of elites who will spend through the roof to bring top players. They will sell tickets, jerseys, and be the best players on the field. With few exceptions (Rafa Marquez and several Toronto FC DPs), the DPs that have made the biggest impact have been the expensive ones. Several teams have three huge impact players. The rest of the league have one or two, they aren’t as pricey, and they aren’t as effective.
There’s the Big Four (LA Galaxy, Seattle, Toronto FC, RBNY) who say “go get this top class player, we’ll pay whatever we need to get him.” With less than half the league using three DP slots, how many are really going to use their fourth? It might just be the Big Four and NYCFC (Lampard loan or not). A fourth DP slot is essentially gifting the big money clubs a top player. Another player who will regularly be better than most of the opponent’s roster.
There’s the ever shrinking middle class: your money ball teams like Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. They’ll use their three DP slots and use them well. But they won’t break the bank. They also have quality players just below that DP threshold, like Kyle Beckerman and Benny Feilharber. They spend within their means, and they succeed because they get great value out of their DPs. Alvario Saborio scores a goal every 147 minutes. Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry score every 138 and 203 minutes respectively. These teams put a quality lineup together, but even their $600k players have trouble matching the million dollar men head-to-head sometimes.
Then there’s the bottom (half) of the league. If they find a player they want who they can afford, they’ll go get him. Acquiring the player just happens to require playing him more than $387,500/year. So he just happens to take up a DP slot. They say “let’s get this player,” not “let’s go get a DP striker.” If they aren’t using three DP slots now, giving them another isn’t going to change how they do business. The Philadelphia Union brought in Maurice Edu for $650k/year to be a leader and a poster boy. But it ended there.
MLS has succeeded in part because of its parity. It’s competitive even when some teams have very expensive players. Jason Kreis said it best. But a fourth DP for the Big Four is going to widen that gap, decreasing parity, leaving the likes of Colorado and Chicago in the dust.
Yes, more DPs will bring more money and notoriety to the league. Yes, it will help some teams compete with the Mexican clubs in CCL better. But it will undermine much of the competitiveness and appeal that MLS has that the Bundesliga and company don’t have. Just because it’s a good idea for the long run doesn’t mean it’s a good idea right now. An argument can be made that over half the league has done a poor job in selecting and keeping DPs, regardless of price. These teams do need to be wiser about spending their money and the smart teams shouldn’t be held back because they scout and spend better. That will come with time and experience.
Kyle Beckerman, Benny Feilharber, Will Johnson, Sebastian Le Toux, and Bobby Boswell are not DPs. What will make MLS better: every team getting three more Chad Marshall level players or four teams getting a Steven Gerard?
When every club has a valuable DP (or multiple), most have three DPs, and are begging for the chance to bring another top international player or keep another top quality American at home, then it is time for more designated players. There are other CBA chances that must come first and time must be given to allow growth. Raise the cap and raise the minimum wage. Get better middle level players. Wait for the list of designated players to grow and improve. When the revenue is such that teams are starting to spend more, then we’re ready for more DPs. But until then, you’re just giving the big boys a bonus weapon.
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