Without thinking, name your favorite world soccer superstar. Messi? Ronaldo? Zlatan? Odds are good that they’ve been linked to one of three MLS markets: Los Angeles, Miami (coming soon! Maybe?), and New York. While the salary cap has done wonders to keep parity in the league, the Designated Player rule is a key way to make sure that these major markets are able to stay a leg up. It allows them to spend far more than the smaller clubs can on three main players of their choosing. New York Red Bulls are the first of these types of clubs to go under the microscope as I continue my Designated Report series.
Last week, we went to the center of the nation as we continued our tour of MLS’ Designated Player history. Much like Columbus, Kansas City isn’t seen as a destination for many potentially-sexy signings. Therefore, the organization has relied on a mix of savvy pickups (like Claudio Bieler and Omar Bravo) and using the slots to lock down their marquee domestic players (Matt Besler and Graham Zusi) to utilize the rule. Also like Columbus, Kansas City has found a passing grade, though they’re far from unblemished in their history.
This week, I’ll be profiling New York Red Bulls. This will mark the first of the marquee franchises (i.e. prestige and location) and will prove a very different beast in terms of analyzing. I’ve added a separate article (in bold in my customary link list below) which will allow us to compare salaries, G+A/90, average age, and ratings for each team I cover. You’ll notice that New York has a massive advantage in terms of budget. There will be a couple of major successes, but how far will the ill-advised signing of Rafa Marquez tank this team’s rating?
All transfer sum numbers from Transfermarkt.
All salaries thanks to MLS Players Union surveys.
An asterisk (*) indicates a player who signed their DP deal mid-tenure with club.
Age When Signed: 33
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,000,008
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.124
The first DP to come from the United States, Reyna had as impressive a pedigree as any marquee signing in the early stages of the rule. After spending three years at the University of Virginia, Reyna parlayed a call-up to the 1994 World Cup into a contract with Bayer 04 Leverkusen (and ultimately being named Soccer America’s male player of the century). He struggled for minutes with the first team, being loaned to Wolfsburg in 1997. Despite being a loanee, he ended up captaining the side, starting a trend of being a major cog in the team’s attack and defense. In 1999, he was transferred for $3.5 million to Rangers in Scotland. Here, he gained UEFA Champions League experience, transitioning from attacking to being either a right back or a defensive midfielder.
Despite not playing a minute in the 1994 World Cup due to injury, Reyna made the Cup squads again in 1998, 2002, and 2006. While he was a key contributor in the 2002 version of the tournament (being named to the World Cup all-tournament XI), he sprained his MCL in the 2006 group match against Ghana, directly leading to the African nation’s first goal and forcing his retirement from international play with 111 caps and eight goals.
Continuing his tour of Europe, Reyna was sold to Sunderland for $4.2 million in 2001. Just as he saw regular minutes, Reyna injured his ACL, with the knee injury keeping him out for the majority of 2002-03. After agreeing in principle to join Fulham after the year, Manchester City swooped in with a $4 million offer to sign Reyna. Again, injuries followed Reyna and he saw stretches of time on the trainer’s table. He finished his stay in Manchester with 87 appearances, ultimately being a fan-favorite along the way and earning the moniker Captain America.
Looking to return home after a few rough years abroad, Reyna signed with local club New York Red Bulls in January 2007. Unfortunately, injuries followed him across the pond, limiting him to 21 games in 2007 where he was fully anchored to a defensive midfield role. 2008 saw him face a herniated disc, limiting him to 6 matches before he was forced to retire in July.
Reyna is still a very active personality in the United States. He manages his personal Foundation, which focuses on giving soccer training to underprivileged US youths. He was elected to the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2013, he took over as the first Technical Director in New York City FC history. We’ll look at his work there in a couple of months.
Similar to the Eddie Johnson saga at DC United, the low grading has nothing to do with his on-the-field play. He didn’t contribute any goals, but he did well to anchor the RBNY midfield while drawing fans from the NY/NJ metro who may have abandoned the club during the rebrand from the MetroStars. That said, he played for just over half of a season and was never at peak condition with his injuries. A marketable personality gets you so far, and his club reputation is tarnished a bit by his work with cross-state rival New York City FC, as well.
Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,530,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.736
Ángel began his professional career in his hometown of Medellin (Colombia) with Atletico Nacional. At 17, he got his first full senior start, scoring 45 goals for the club by the age of 22. He was sold to Argentinian club River Plate in 1997 and immediately made an impact, scoring 45 goals in 96 league matches. After proving his mettle in South America, Aston Villa swooped in at the beginning of 2001, signing him for a $16,365,600 transfer fee. In six years with the Premier League club, he made 205 appearances and scored another 62 goals. Ángel proved to be a fan favorite, peaking in 2003-04 with 23 goals across all league and cup competitions. His contract expired at the end of the 2006-07 season, seeing him leave as the club’s third all-time leading goalscorer in the Premier League era.
Quickly jumping to make an impact with the new Designated Player rule, New York signed Ángel as their second DP (having acquired a second spot in a trade with Chivas USA). It took awhile for his work visa to clear, but he made his debut on May 8 in a US Open Cup qualifier against LA Galaxy. It didn’t take long for him to make an impact, scoring in six straight games and being named the 2007 MLS All-Star Game MVP against Celtic. In 24 matches, he scored 19 goals and added 5 assists, narrowly losing the Golden Boot race to DC United’s Luciano Emilio. He made some notable comments about “not understanding American playoffs” and the importance being taken from the regular season, but you could argue that few in the Red Bulls’ history know what it takes to succeed in the playoffs.
After an injury-plagued 2008 season, the Red Bulls were mired in an awful 2009 season. He broke the club goal-scoring record held by Clint Mathis along the way, and the team returned in 2010 to clinch the Eastern Conference regular season title. After losing to San Jose in the first round, New York decided to let Ángel go.
Ángel elected to stay in MLS, participating in the 2010 Re-Entry Draft and signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy as their third designated player. He then was traded to Chivas USA and lasted a year and a half with each club before going undrafted in the 2012 Re-Entry Draft. He then signed with his first club (Nacional), taking a 90% pay cut to retire at home in 2014.
Ángel’s best years came in New York, and from an individual standpoint they’re among the 20 best DPs the league has seen. However, his second and third years were marred by injury and kept him from being a regular contributor even when fully healthy. Couple that with being a part of the club’s worst year in recent history and it’s hard to say Ángel was an outright success.
Age When Signed: 32
Average Base Salary per Season: $4,500,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.805
Thierry Henry is undoubtedly a member of the soccer pantheon. Born in France, Henry came up with AS Monaco, making his senior debut at 17 in 1994 and receiving tutelage from Arsčne Wenger. After five years at Monaco, he was sold to Juventus for $15.4m. However, being played out of position on the wing and forced into a slower, more defense-based system in Italy, Henry had his only club-career failure. He was quickly moved after six months to Arsenal for $16m, where he reunited with Wenger. The two were the cornerstones for one of the greatest club dynasties world soccer has ever seen, as Henry scored 26 goals in his Premier League debut season while finishing as runners-up in both the BPL and the UEFA Cup. He won league trophies, cup trophies, and European trophies while scoring 174 goals in 254 games between 1999-2007.
As the club looked to rebuild around young talents like Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, Henry was shipped to FC Barcelona for $27m, where he teamed up with the likes of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, and Ronaldinho to set all kinds of records in terms of hardware and goals scored. Once 2009-10 rolled around, Henry started to see his time slip as Pedro came up the ranks, and began to look for options elsewhere.
Rumors about Henry coming to New York had been cropping up since before the 2009 season, and by the time he began negotiating with the Red Bulls in earnest, people honestly thought it was just another ruse. However, Henry signed in July, and was a rare midfield signing to make an immediate impact, making two assists in his MLS debut and scoring four weeks later. However, the club was knocked out in the early stages of the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, despite winning the Eastern Conference by a single point over Columbus in 2010.
After a brief loan stint return to Arsenal in winter 2012, Henry was in peak form, winning MLS Player of the Month in the opening March. The next season, he led the Red Bulls to their first trophy, the Supporters Shield. Playing at least 25 matches in all four of his full seasons, Henry retired after the 2014 season, scoring 51 goals and setting the club record for most assists with 42.
Since retiring, Henry has worked as a pundit for Sky Sports, proving his ability to read a match while also using his knowledge of managers like Wenger and Pep Guardiola to predict their transfer moves with great insight. He also played a key role in MLS’ announcement of their 2016 All-Star Game opponent, Arsenal.
This one doesn’t need much of an explanation. He’s one of the great signings in league history while also still serving as an ambassador for the league to an English audience. He outperformed Beckham on the field and has a legitimate case for being the league’s best DP signing ever.
And on the other side of the scale…
Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $5,064,667
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.261
Rafa Marquez might be the most successful Mexican international of all-time, so let’s give him credit where it’s due. Coming through the ranks in Mexican side Atlas, Marquez was sold to Monaco at age 20 for $7.9m in 1999. In just his first season with Monaco, the club won Ligue 1. After seeing 87 games with Monaco, he made a move to Barcelona in 2003, setting up shop for an eight-year run, winning the Champions League in 2006 (over Henry’s Arsenal) among the club’s other accolades.
More known for his work with the Mexican national team, Marquez has captained El Tri at the last four World Cups, dating back to 2002. He has 17 goals for Mexico, including a beauty against Uruguay at the nation’s Copa America Centenario opener. He’s built up a reputation as a hothead, dating back to his mid-air headbutt on Cobi Jones in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16 match against the USA.
Because of the aforementioned play against a United States player, among other accusations of being a dirty player, many fans were left scratching their heads when Marquez signed with New York in 2010. Released from Barcelona, Marquez thought he was on the downside of his career and looked to cash in while staying in a global market.
He certainly cashed in, earning over $15m in base salary alone while being a part of the Red Bulls’ 2010 Eastern Conference regular season victory. That, however, was just about the only success he found in New York. In two-and-a-half years, Marquez made only 44 appearances with the club, missing plenty of time with injuries and unknown scratches.
Marquez signed with Liga MX side León and played for three years before a brief stint with Italy’s Verona. He signed with Atlas once again this previous winter and is a regular with the club.
Quite simply, he may be the worst DP signing that MLS has ever seen. In a 2014 interview, he called his move to New York “the worst decision he ever made,” and few will disagree on either side. He never showed a commitment to the club, and ultimately his club career has paid the price as he’s failed to return to a more prominent European club despite his wishes.
Age When Signed: 38
Average Base Salary per Season: $3,500,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.000*
As people gear up for former MetroStar Tim Howard to join Colorado, it’s good to look at the league’s first goalkeeper DP as a cautionary tale. Rost was an incredibly solid net-minder in his day, starting over 130 matches each for Werder Bremen, Schalke, and Hamburg. He famously lost his spot with Schalke to young prospect Manuel Neuer (who has since gone on to be the foundation for Bayern Munich) in 2006 before moving to Hamburg. He’s one of three goalkeepers to score in the Bundesliga, along with Jens Lehmann and Marwin Hitz. He only made four international caps, the result of being a part of the same generation as the legendary Oliver Kahn.
Highlight video complete with German techno.
When Rost signed in 2011, New York was desperate to make a deeper push in the playoffs after losing to eventual champion San Jose early on. Rost started eleven games after joining the club in August, winning four and earning another three draws. He allowed 14 goals in 11 starts despite keeping five clean sheets. A truly feast-or-famine goalkeeper in New York, his contract demands for 2012 were not met by the Red Bulls’ ownership and he retired at the end of the season.
Though far less derided than Marquez, Rost greatly failed to live up to his paycheck. Making nearly twice as much as Howard will, Rost failed to tip the scale in New York’s favor as the club won in the Wild Card round before losing 3-1 to Los Angeles in the Conference Semifinal. Rather than using their third slot to fill a more pressing need, New York gambled on an aging goalkeeper and failed miserably.
Age When Signed: 32
Average Base Salary per Season: $3,500,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.446
Cahill is widely regarded as the greatest player in Australia’s history. Born in Sydney, Cahill spent the first six years of his career with Millwall in the lower divisions of England. He was sold to Everton for around $2m in 2004 and wasted no time in adjusting to the Premier League. He lead Everton in goals in his first year along the way to earning a significant pay raise and being shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or in 2006. Cahill ended up being something of a utility man for the Toffees, playing all over the midfield and front line as players fell to injuries. Along the way, he continued to feature for the Australian national team, playing in all four World Cup matches for the Socceroos and scoring twice against Japan in the 2006 World Cup. He was shown a red card in the first match of the 2010 World Cup after 56 minutes, causing him to miss the second match. His goal in the third made him the only Australian to score in multiple World Cups.
Despite having the respect of the fans and the locker room alike, manager David Moyes started to phase Cahill out of the lineup for newcomer Steven Naismith in 2012. In the end, Moyes seemed to be fed up with how much time Cahill spent with the international team (25 appearances from 2009-11) and didn’t think he was reliable enough to make up for lost time. When New York offered around $1.3m for Cahill, Everton agreed to send the eight-year Toffee to the Big Apple.
As with Henry’s and Marquez’s moves, this was seen as Cahill admitting his best days were behind him and wanting to cash in while he could. In some regards, that may have been the case. Cahill was slow to get his feet settled after a summer transfer, making 12 starts for New York in 2012 and scoring just once while adding three assists. After a full off-season with the Red Bulls, Cahill had a return to form in 2013. His 11 goals and 5 assists helped earn him a spot in the MLS Best XI midfield, coinciding with New York’s Supporters Shield triumph, and despite losing in extra-time in the club’s first playoff matchup, he did add a goal and an assist. Part of Cahill’s reliability came from a dip in international duty, getting only 7 matches in two years between 2012-13 (including only 2 in the latter year).
That said, Australia’s qualifying for the 2014 World Cup took him out of New York more than coach Mike Petke would’ve liked. Cahill made a career-high 14 appearances for the Socceroos in 2014, scoring in a third World Cup. While this certainly helped on an international level, it robbed New York of a proven midfielder. In all, he started 18 matches and made 5 more substitute appearances, getting 2 goals and 2 assists and earning his only red card as a Red Bull. As New York made a playoff run to the Conference Final that year, Cahill was a relative non-factor, starting two of five matches and adding one goal with his seven shots. By mutual decision, Cahill left the club in February 2015.
There’s no need to worry about Cahill’s financial well-being despite being released. Cahill has played the last two seasons in the Chinese Super League as a marquee player, first with Shanghai Shenhua and currently with Hangzhou Greentown.
Making the Best XI in a season is nothing to scoff at. However, he was a non-factor in the club’s post-season and did much less to get the team to the top of the standings than Henry did. Further, his frequent international call-ups may have cost the team some momentum in 2014. Given his high salary hit, a player should be more of a cornerstone than a role player, and Cahill was a role player by the end of his time in New York.
Age When Signed*: 29
Average Base Salary per Season: $625,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.759
The son of former English international Ian Wright, Wright-Phillips came through the Manchester City academy. After leading the reserve team in goals in 2003-04, he made his full senior debut in December 2004. Over two seasons, he scored twice in 32 appearances, leading to a transfer to Championship side Southampton in July 2006 for $625,000. (Fun fact: over $300k of that was won in a Coca-Cola contest by a fan who turned it into a starting striker. Looks like everything really IS better with Coke.)
He won over the Southampton faithful, scoring 25 goals in 121 appearances with the club. However, once the club was relegated at the end of 2008-09, the club couldn’t afford his contract and released him. He signed with Plymouth Argyle in the Championship and scored 17 goals in 32 appearances between a few knee injuries. He was sold to League One (still England) side Charlton Athletic in the January transfer window in 2011 and immediately turned the club’s fortunes. In 2011-12, he led Charlton to the League One title and promotion to the tune of 22 goals. However, a year later he was released once again.
Determined to make his impact in England, the 27 year old had been loaned to League One side Brentford for a few months in 2013. After he failed to land in Brentford and was released from Charlton Athletic, Wright-Phillips took a leap of faith and signed with New York in July. Playing time was hard to find for BWP, as he only made seven appearances during the Supporters Shield run. However, a goal in the 2013 playoffs helped solidify his place in the squad for 2014. A true career year, Wright-Phillips tied the MLS record with 27 goals on the way to winning the Golden Boot. He scored another four in the post-season, bringing his total to 31 for 2014.
To nobody’s surprise, New York locked down their new talisman, giving him a significant pay raise and making him a DP. Playing every match in 2015, he scored 17 goals and added a career-high 7 assists while leading New York back to a Supporters Shield and the Conference Finals. Teaming with a complete midfield led by USMNT #10 Sacha Kljestan, Wright-Phillips has been one of the most reliable goalscorers in the league since joining MLS.
He may not have the profile of Henry or the flair of Ángel, but BWP is as consistent a goalscorer as any the league has ever seen. In this season’s first fifteen matches, he has 8 goals and 2 assists, showing that his record-tying 2014 was no fluke. Still only 31 years old, he should be able to keep this form up for another few years. He’s a great investment at a very reasonable price.
Age When Signed: 25
Average Base Salary per Season: $350,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.512
The young winger made his professional debut at 19 for Argentine second-division Sportivo Italiano in 2009. During his formative years, he made 61 appearances, scoring 6 goals off the wing in three years. He moved to the Primera Division in 2012 to major club San Lorenzo, looking to make an impact and boost his profile. There, he teamed up with Ignacio Piatti and co. to lead a lethal attack, scoring his first goal in May 2013 and continuing his streak over the course of four months. Just as he was turning heads internationally, he tore his right ACL in October and wasn’t able to return until the following summer. It took another half year after returning before he reclaimed his starting spot, making thirteen starts in 2014 and scoring a pair of goals. He drifted in and out of the starting lineup, and by the time he hit 25, he seemed ready for a change of pace.
New York purchased Verón for a $2.2m transfer fee in August 2015, making him a late addition to a title contender. Eleven days after flying into New York, he scored his first goal, acting as a super substitute as the club put the finishing touches on a Supporters Shield campaign. Subbing into all four post-season matches for New York, he added an assist while averaging just 17 minutes per match. He missed the opening few weeks this season with a hamstring injury, and has started three games while subbing into another three, scoring a goal in the process.
It’s too early to give a true diagnosis for Verón, but opening returns haven’t been pretty. He adds a spark off the bench, but given his impressive younger years, his glorified status as an Argentinian winger, and his pay grade, he should be able to stake a starting place. Even when Lloyd Sam faltered this spring, Verón was injured and unable to supplant Sam from the lineup. He averages a goal/assist every 180 minutes, but that’s due to his combined 527 minutes over nearly 12 months. It’ll take a long stretch of good health to get him to crack the Starting XI, but the team has every reason to have expected better from Verón.
Average Signing Age: 31.4
Average Base Salary: $2,139,392
Average Grade: B-
Even knocking the Henry and Wright-Phillips signings out of the park isn’t enough to fully overcome some major flops in the early portion of the decade. Marquez’s tenure deserves every criticism that it still gets, but Rost’s 11 game stint was every bit as foolish from a club standpoint. Guys like Ángel and Cahill were solid-but-unspectacular and missed extended periods of time with injury or international duty. Despite having a far larger budget than sides like Columbus or Kansas City, New York is a bit of a cautionary tale about signing the right player, regardless of budget. Their current pair of DPs aren’t budget-breaking players and represent the more savvy signings that clubs like Dallas and Sporting KC have been trending toward. It’s also a far cry from their cross-state competition’s trio. Whoever they sign next as a DP will say a lot about their club mentality moving forward.
Next week: San Jose Earthquakes