As MLS grows as a league, the braintrust keeps referring to a goal to become “one of the top leagues in the world” by 2022. Along with expansion, player compensation has seen a massive overhaul in the past five years. Player salaries are increasing thanks to many undefined mechanisms like GAM, TAM, WHAM!, AM, and MA’AM (only two of those are made up).
However, the most prominent rule adjustment in MLS history was the “Beckham Rule,” later named the Designated Player. As the original name suggests, the rule was used to bring David Beckham into the league by allowing the Los Angeles Galaxy to spend freely outside of the salary cap limitations for a marquee player. You can find better descriptions here and here.
As alluded to earlier, expansion has given the league a major facelift and Minnesota Shruggie FC is expected to join the fray in 2017. If the team is joining for next season, we’ll be bombarded with our own DP fantasies (stop laughing) and be thrown into the rumor mill.
Over the course of the next several weeks, I’m going to look how each of the 21 MLS franchises (viva Chivas USA, baby) have used the DP rule to various levels of success and failure. Analyzing a different team every week, we’ll hopefully be able to see trends that make for successful signings, closing the series with my personal observations and a couple of players on my wishlist.
(Note: I was going to do this alphabetically, but Chicago Fire SC’s history is too beautiful to analyze immediately. That’d be like having a film festival, opening the festival with The Godfather, and showing nothing but Land Before Time sequels afterward. Instead, I’m going to look by league entry date, starting with the Class of 1996 and working my way toward the present, noticing trends for expansion teams as we get closer to Minnesota making their own announcements.)
We’re going to start with the first MLS Cup champions and proceed from there. This should be fun.
Every player will be looked at, starting with their pre-DP careers, their MLS on-the-field production (look away, NYCFC fans), their off-the-field impact, and what they did after their DP status resolved. Looking at some statistics and their salary averages over the length of the contract, we’ll be able to tell if they were worth it or not. Report cards will follow from there.
Players like Chris Wondolowski that were in the league as a non-DP before getting a pay raise will only be analyzed for their DP years.
I was going to do this alphabetically, but Chicago Fire SC’s history is too beautiful to analyze immediately. That’d be like having a film festival, opening the festival with The Godfather, and showing nothing but Land Before Time sequels afterward.
(NOTE: With each player who gained or lost DP status mid-season, I’ll be considering their stats for the entire season, as the timeline of these contracts starting or transferring to below the threshold is often muddled. (For example – Diego Chara was bought down from his DP contract with allocation money in the second half of 2013, but will be shown with his entire 2013 stats.)
All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt. All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys. Let’s head to the nation’s capital.
D.C. United (founded 1996)
Favorite Fruitless Rumor: Samuel Eto’o, Dec. 2013
Age When Signed: 28
Average Base Salary per Season: $568,333
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.651
Pre-DP: Despite not starting playing soccer until age 16, Emilio’s rise to prominence was a swift one. After only a couple of years in native Brazil, Emilio signed with Bundesliga’s FC Koln, where he only saw the field six times over a three year span. After gaining seasoning with Koln’s second team, he bounced around teams in Germany, Honduras, and Mexico. His most prolific years came in Honduras, notching 83 league goals across 126 matches with Real Espana and Olimpa between 2002-2006.
DP Years: Despite having a lower profile than his inaugural classmates as an original DP, Emilio took the league by storm. He scored 20 goals and captured the Golden Boot (over New York’s Juan Pablo Angel and New England’s Taylor Twellman), the league’s MVP award, and helped DC United win the Supporters’ Shield.
Emilio didn’t keep his blistering form over the next few seasons however. He ended up with 21 goals over the rest of his tenure, with 11 in 2008, 10 in 2009, and none in four games in 2010. The club, meanwhile, never saw the playoffs again but won the U.S. Open Cup in 2008. His final contract had only been for the first three months in 2010, and he was offended by the salary decrease he was offered and ultimately left.
Post-DP: Emilio was a nomad for the rest of his career, spending a year in Uruguay, two in Mexico, and one in Honduras before retiring back home in Brazil. He currently has his US Class B coaching certification and is overseeing youth side IFK Maryland.
He may not have had the pedigree of Beckham, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, or Angel. However, his impact was immediate both individually and as part of the team. Over time he was less prolific, but winning the MVP is nothing to sneeze at.
Age When Acquired: 29
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,500,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.543
Pre-DP: Gallardo was a prodigy in his time. Coming up with historic Argentian side River Plate, Gallardo also spent time at Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain while representing his country at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups (at the ages of 19 and 23, no less). A true playmaker, Gallardo was creative in attack but disappointed at only seeing 22 games for PSG, forcing a buyout and looking toward MLS.
DP Year: Gallardo was the third highest paid player in the league for 2008, only behind Beckham and Blanco. He scored his first goalon April 5 and ended up netting 4 goals before mid-July. However, he suffered a sports hernia on July 17 and required surgery which kept him out for the rest of the year, effectively ending his time in MLS.
Post-DP: Gallardo returned to River Plate before retiring with Nacional de Montevideo in Uruguay. Three days after retiring (in 2011), Nacional offered him their manager position, holding the post for two seasons. He currently manages River Plate, where’s he’s won four official titles since 2014.
Don’t get me wrong – Gallardo was a very talented player with an international pedigree. However, he was paid $100,000 per appearance when all was said in done. That’s terrible value, and DC United haven’t come close to spending that much on a player ever since.
Age When Acquired: 30
Average Base Salary per Season: $380,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.364
Pre-DP: The Yugoslavian attacking midfielder spent much of his career in his native country, starting with Mogren before getting 123 games for Red Star Belgrade. From there, he headed to France with PSG and rarely got first team minutes, ultimately earning a loan to Troyes before leaving Paris for good. After four years with Austria’s SK Rapid Wien, Boskovic joined DC United in June 2010.
DP Years: Over two and a half seasons, Boskovic made it onto the field 43 times, with 21 of those being starts. Injuries kept him from getting regular minutes, but he did have occasional moments of brilliance – particularly in an US Open Cup matchup against New England in 2011 where he scored a brace and nearly curled in another pair off of free kicks. Unfortunately, he only mustered a single goal in league play, adding seven assists before mutually parting ways after the 2012 season.
Post-DP: Boskovic returned to familiar territory with Rapid Wien, getting 29 appearances in two seasons before his contract wasn’t renewed. Though he hasn’t formally retired, he hasn’t seen a field since 2014, seemingly putting an end to his playing career.
While he wasn’t able to see as many minutes as one would hope from a DP, he was on a friendly salary number and was loved by the DC United faithful. Fans still comment on “Brankostock” (his US Open Cup moment of glory) as a highlight of the club’s darker years. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t able to stay on the field.
Age When Acquired: 33
Average Base Salary per Season: $512,500
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.749
Pre-DP: De Rosario was seen as the Canadian answer to Landon Donovan in some fans’ eyes. After turning down an offer from AC Milan at age 14, DeRo carved out a career in MLS, signing with San Jose at 22 and going to Houston and Toronto later, being a consistent playmaker every step of the way. In his three years in Houston, he was a 3 time All Star, leading the Dynamo to consecutive MLS Cups before being traded for current Ft. Lauderdale Striker Julius James and allocation money. He spent three years in Toronto, where injuries kept him from reaching his usual lofty heights.
DP Years: After spending three months with New York Red Bulls, De Rosario was traded to DC United in exchange for Dax McCarty. In 17 games with DC United, DeRo notched an incredible 13 goals and added seven assists, capturing the MLS MVP award for his contributions.
That season marked his sixth and final entry into the MLS Best XI for a given season. He had 10 goals and 14 assists over the next two seasons, mired by a mere three goals in 2013 for the team that finished 19th in the league.
Post-DP: Due to falling to the bottom of the league, DC United held a major housecleaning, declining De Rosario’s option. He fell to Toronto in the Re-Entry Draft, playing for one more season before hanging up his boots. He’s currently an ambassador for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, a real estate company based out of Toronto.
While his best days were behind him by the time he hit the bulk of his contract, his incredible form at the end of 2011 was a rare highpoint during their six year dry spell. De Rosario is one of the more respected figures in MLS history and continues to have a major level of fan support.
Age When Acquired: 28
Average Base Salary per Season: $305,460
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.571
Pre-DP: Hamdi “The Bomber” Salihi was a regular for the Albanian National Team, earning 37 caps and netting 9 goals before joining MLS. After a short spell with his hometown club Vllaznia Shkoder, Salihi headed to Greece and Austria, including a prominent three year stint with Austrian powerhouse SK Rapid Wien (see a trend yet?), scoring 57 goals in 96 games.
DP Years: Expectations for him were sky-high, as a major player in his prime coming from a UEFA Champions League side. Salihi’s one season in MLS was also the club’s only berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs between 2008 and 2013. He saw the field 22 times, scoring six goals while coming off of the bench in 12 of his appearances. .
Post-DP: Salihi’s short stint in the nation’s capital culminated in his sale to Chinese Super League team Jiangsu Sainty. The journeyman left after a year, heading to Israel for a few years before landing with Albanian UCL representative Skënderbeu Korçë for this current season.
While a 0.571 goals+assists/90 isn’t a bad number for a forward, Salihi didn’t see enough of the field to make a difference. This may have been due to Ben Olsen over-coaching with such a talent at his disposal, but the fact remains that he didn’t make near the impact that fans expected when he entered the lead. Still, he was a part of a playoff team and can’t be called an outright failure.
Age When Acquired: 21
Average Base Salary per Season: $220,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.272
Pre-DP: A strong Brazilian striker, Rafael had a lot of promise before joining MLS. Playing for Bahia (eponymous with the name of the Brazilian state), Rafael was seeing regular minutes with the first team by the time he was 18 years old. He also earned three caps with the Brazilian U-20s.
DP Years: In an attempt to further his growth, Rafael was loaned to DC United with a negotiated purchase option available. He scored in his debut against Columbus in March and looked to be making good progress in becoming a regular. However, a concussion during training later that spring was a major setback, and he never saw the field for DCU again.
Post-DP: Rafael was loaned out to a Brazilian Serie A team (Atletico) for 2014 but was only run out 4 times. He attempted to jumpstart his career in the Chinese League One with Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard, where he had six goals in 12 games in 2015.
The major thing that sets his injury-riddled season apart from that of Gallardo is cost. There was little risk in loaning in the young forward, and while he didn’t have an impact on the season (and the team’s season probably failed in part to losing his potential contribution), the team’s budget wasn’t shattered.
Age When Acquired: 30
Average Base Salary per Season: $505,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.460
Pre-DP: This marks the first of two times we’ll have to relive The Tragedy of Eddie. Johnson was one of the youngest MLSers in league history, signing a contract with the league at the age of 17 and starting off with FC Dallas. He turned down a $5 million dollar move to Benfica in 2005, ultimately going to Kansas City for a couple of years before heading off to Fulham. With only 19 full-team appearances and no goals, Johnson was loaned to Cardiff City, Greek side Aris, and Preston North End before coming back to MLS in 2012 with Seattle. More on that in a later installment.
DP Years: This is where things get sad real fast. He was traded for TAM before the 2014 season and was seen to be a major piece in the team’s revamp. He got his final two USMNT callups that year for World Cup qualifiers and was a dark horse candidate for the World Cup side before missing out. In the league, he had seven goals and three assists in 26 games (22 starts) before a mysterious absence knocked him out for the end of 2014 and 2015.
Post-DP: It turns out that he had a heart condition and had been fighting for a recovery to full playing fitness. However, it wasn’t in the cards, and Johnson retired at the end of 2015, getting a major ovation from many in the US Soccer community. He moved to Orlando, where he plays the occasional charity friendly between coaching kids in the Orlando area.
There’s no doubt that anyone who’s watched US Soccer over the past decade wishes things could have worked out better for Johnson, but he had a remarkable level of success in his fourteen years. With Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Chris Rolfe leading the charge, DC United won the Eastern conference after finishing last in MLS in 2013. That marked a major success.
Age When Acquired: 29
Average Base Salary per Season: $187.500
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.744
Pre-DP: Espindola had spent plenty of time in MLS before coming to DC. Coming up with legendary Boca Juniors, Espindola floated around with Argentinian and Ecuadorian teams before sticking with Real Salt Lake in 2007. With a minor stint in Ecuador between 2008 and 2009, Espindola added 35 goals in 125 appearances with RSL, including an MLS Cup in 2009. He was traded to New York Red Bulls with defender Jamison Olave in exchange for allocation money, and he added nine goals in 28 games before heading to DC in 2014. In his first season in the District, Espindola had 11 goals in 27 games before earning a raise in pay due to leading the team back to the MLS Cup Playoffs.
DP Years: The club’s only current DP, Espindola missed a good portion of 2015 with injuries and a red card suspension. Over the past year-plus, he’s had an impressive tally of 8 goals and 7 assists, helping DC get back into the knockout stage of the MLS Cup Playoffs last year and keeping them relevant despite an aging roster again this year.
In the prime of his career, Espindola adds a stability at a key position when he can stay on the field. He has a proven track record in this league and adds a great veteran presence because of it. His very fair price tag solidifies his value.
Average Signing Age: 28.5
Average Base Salary: $522,350
Average Grade: C
There are a couple of trends you can take from DC United’s previous signings. First, they greatly prefer to use the DP slot on attackers, which proved to be the nail in the coffin for Perry Kitchen as he looked for a raise this past season. Second, they trend toward South American talent, looking for flair and technique.
Perhaps most uncanny, though, is the trend that their players have bad luck with staying on the field. Gallardo and Rafael were injured before getting through a full season; Johnson had a major health scare that forced his retirement; current DP Espindola has missed time with knee and hamstring injuries in the past few years. It isn’t certain how much this reflects on the scouting staff or the trainers or if the poor conditions of RFK Stadium take their toll on players. With a list of uninspiring players, DC United looks to harness a steady-but-uninspiring method to signing these players.
Next Week: FC Dallas