I think it’s time that we admit the reality about the league’s 2007 Designated Player rule.
The rule wasn’t instilled to bring young, creative talent from other countries to boost their game. It wasn’t created to lock in players already in the league to make sure they didn’t leave. And most certainly, it wasn’t invented to create greater parity across the league.
No, the DP rule was all about bringing in global superstars. No team has been able to do this better than the Los Angeles Galaxy. This is no knock against the Galaxy, either. The club is a perfect marriage between an internationally-respected market, ownership that is willing to spend, and leadership that has been able to temper egos. With a DP payroll that’s over three times larger than the average of the teams profiled so far and stars like Beckham, Donovan, and Keane, is there anything that can stand in the way of the Galaxy earning the crown in the Designated Report Series?
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.
Los Angeles Galaxy (founded 1996)
Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $5,083,333
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.647
Beckham is the all-time appearance leader for an outfield player on the English national team. Originally with the Tottenham youth system, he committed to Manchester United at age 14, working up their academy and onto their first team by the age of 16. He eventually evolved into a global brand, becoming one of the most valuable commodities in sports. After 265 appearances with Manchester United (and 62 goals), he moved to Real Madrid in 2003, continuing a Galáticos formula employed by Real as they signed the biggest stars in the world. He wore the #23 at Madrid, citing his fascination with Michael Jordan. Reaching the end of his prime in 2007, Beckham was without contract and was linked to teams like AC Milan. Not wanting to take a lesser role with Madrid, Major League Soccer saw a chance to pounce. The short of it: the league used one of their biggest markets to bring in a global talent and boost the league’s profile. There’s much more on this that the likes of Grant Wahl have written, and it’s certainly an investigation for another article.
Beckham’s tenure in MLS can be seen as a tale of two halves. During the first half, it was impossible to find the player in the celebrity. Beckham was truly an American A-list celebrity, making appearances at any gala or awards show that could bring him in. Surprisingly, a Galaxy team built around Beckham and Landon Donovan failed to make the playoffs in his first two years and fans were ready to move on from the experiment. Beckham only made 30 appearances from 2007-08, scoring 5 goals and notching 12 assists. Meanwhile, a controversial loan to Milan kept him from Los Angeles for the first half of 2009, leading fans to fully turn against Beckham. The club lost in a shootout to Houston Dynamo in the 2009 MLS Cup before sending him back to Milan on a second loan.
While in Milan, Beckham tore his left Achilles tendon. This knocked him out of the 2010 World Cup (ending his competitive international career while handicapping an English side that would draw with the United States in group play) and putting his 2010 MLS season in jeopardy. He was able to return for the final month and a half, as the club won the West and a Supporters’ Shield. A loan move to Tottenham was blocked by LA Galaxy in 2011, citing a desire to have Beckham for a full season with his contract due to expire at the end of 2011. Moving centrally for the first extended time in his career, Beckham helped LA win MLS Cup. He returned on a two-year contract despite offers from clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and at 36 he won a second consecutive MLS Cup, linking up well with Donovan and Robbie Keane. He left a year early, ready to make a move to long-rumored target PSG.
Beckham would play just ten games with Paris, donating his final five months of salary to a children’s charity. In his final match, he added an assist to a Blaise Matuidi goal before subbing off, marking the end to his career. He is spearheading the star-crossed MLS expansion in Miami, with the latest updates showing that the group has hit another snag in finding a stadium location. Meanwhile, Qatari investors have backed out, putting the plan in further jeopardy. He’s also a spokesperson for H&M among dozens of other companies.
Not a perfect score. Much like Charles Ponzi and his Scheme, he may be the name of the Beckham Rule, but he isn’t a perfect example. That said, there was no better player to handle the criticism and intense scrutiny than Beckham, and he was able to put together his two best seasons in MLS in the twilight of his career. Still providing a consistent source of assists, he was able to provide a key part of an MLS champion. The first three years were an utter failure on the field, making him impossible to grade completely. His impact will live on for decades to come, but he left much to be desired.
Age When Signed: 27
Average Base Salary per Season: $2,700,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.817
Seen as one of the brightest prospects the United States had produced in decades, Donovan signed with Bayer Leverkusen at age 17. However, he found it tough to acclimate to the German way of life and spent four years on loan with San Jose Earthquakes. During that period, his stock soared as he won three consecutive U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year awards and a pair of MLS Cup titles. After a seven-game stint with Leverkusen, he turned down interest from Portsmouth to come back to MLS, landing with Los Angeles through the MLS allocation order.
In his first year with Los Angeles, he won MLS Cup and made the MLS All-Time Best XI to cap off the league’s first decade. However, the Galaxy went through a three-year slump, missing the playoffs from 2006-08. Once Bruce Arena joined LA as head coach for 2009, the club began to match Donovan’s individual play, riding his MVP performance to the Cup final before losing on PKs. He also had loan stints with Bayern Munich (2008-09) and Everton (2009-10).
Understandably, there was some outcry for Donovan to get a pay-raise considering how much more consistent he was than Beckham. Further, teams like Everton were swarming, looking to use the attacker in their ranks. However, Los Angeles made him their second Designated Player in 2010, signing him to a four-year contract. Over his final five seasons, Donovan led Los Angeles to three MLS Cup titles, captaining a side while providing an average of ten goals and ten assists a year. He capped his career off with a title in 2014, notching a career-high 19 assists and setting league records for career goals and career assists (144 and 136, respectively).
After a long retirement tour in his final year, the league named their annual MVP award after Donovan. Along with starting a family, Donovan was the coach of MLS’ Homegrown Game team, a match during All-Star week between the best young MLS talent and another young side. He stepped into FS1’s commentary booth during the Copa America Centenario, and continues to be an ambassador for soccer across the United States and beyond.
All-told, his (re-)signing may have had a bigger impact on the league’s trajectory than the initial Beckham deal. It allowed the league to keep the nation’s best player in its ranks during his prime. There’s no way that the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, or Jermaine Jones come to MLS if Donovan hadn’t shown it to be a viable option, both financially and professionally. Likewise, guys like Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Omar Gonzalez have also developed in the league and helped it grow. This was a pivotal moment for the league, and allowed Donovan to build a legacy as a league’s first great player instead of being a journeyman.
Age When Signed: 35
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,000,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.237
We covered Juan Pablo Ángel’s background during the New York Red Bulls’ Designated Report. The Colombian striker played in his home nation and Argentina before scoring 62 goals in six years with Aston Villa. He headed to New York at age 31, scoring 19 goals in his debut year before getting plagued by injuries and falling off the pace from there. After RBNY let Ángel go, Los Angeles snagged him in the Re-Entry Draft.
While his rights were claimed because of the special draft, the club showed full faith that Ángel would be able to recover and gave him a multi-year contract and a DP’s salary. Across 22 matches that spring and summer, Ángel scored 3 goals, failing to connect with Donovan up front despite the team being in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield. On August 17, he was traded to Chivas USA for a third-round pick in the following year’s Supplemental Draft.
He lasted a year and a half with Chivas USA before going undrafted in the post-2012 Re-Entry Draft. He then signed with his first club (Nacional), taking a 90% pay cut to retire at home in 2014.
Hey! An outlier! Ángel was clearly over the hill by the time that Los Angeles signed him, and the fact that he failed to contribute to the league’s eventual table-toppers is as clear an illustration as one can get. That said, he is the club’s cheapest DP at a million dollars, and they were able to offload him without much of a hassle to the club. Especially considering who they replaced him with later that week…
Age When Signed: 31
Average Base Salary per Season: $3,722,414
Goals+Assists per 90: 1.101
Robbie Keane, the all-time leading scorer for the Republic of Ireland, has been representing the Boys in Green as long as he’s been a professional. Signed at 15 by the Wolverhampton Wanderers academy, he scored 24 goals in two years with Wolves before he turned 19, prompted a move to Coventry City and another transfer to Inter Milan the following year. After failing to make an indelible mark in Italy, he returned to England, spending a couple of seasons with Leeds United before landing with Tottenham Hotspur in 2002. He was able to finally capitalize on his long-held potential, carving a legacy as a club legend to the tune of 91 goals in 238 competitive matches. In between his two tenures with Tottenham was an unremarkable season with Liverpool and a couple of loan stints to Celtic and West Ham.
After a one-game stint with New York Cosmos (playing on a global all-star team as a part of Paul Scholes’ Manchester United testimonial), Keane signed with LA on August 20th–just three days after Ángel’s trade. Unlike his predecessor, Keane immediately clicked with Donovan and Beckham, scoring his first goal with the Galaxy as a part of a California Clásico match against San Jose. After only seeing the field four times during the 2011 regular season, he assisted on Donovan’s MLS Cup-winning goal against Houston later that year. From 2012-2015, Keane was a model of consistency, scoring between 16-20 goals each season alongside between 8-14 assists each year. This has made him a four-time MLS Best XI honoree and the 2014 MLS MVP. Despite some injury woes this spring, he has scored 6 goals in 8 games and hasn’t shown signs of losing his bite.
Yes, other players have earned and will continue to earn an A+ rating during this series. However, when considering international reputation (he’s still getting Irish call-ups), consistent league results, and leadership within the club, there hasn’t been a more important Designated Player than Robbie Keane. Henry proved that aging players could still provide on-the-field results. Donovan blazed a trail for players in their prime to set up shop in the United States. Keane combined the two, moving from the Premier League when he still had a couple of good years left and establishing his place among the league’s all-time greats.
Age When Signed*: 24
Average Base Salary per Season: $1,100,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.171
The Dallas-born center back played youth soccer for Dallas Texans and at the IMG Soccer Academy before attending the University of Maryland for three years and being named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2007. He was taken 3rd overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft (after Steve Zakuani and Sam Cronin) by the Galaxy, becoming an instant starter and the 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year. As an attempt to further his growth, the team loaned him to FC Nürnberg. However, he collided with fellow USMNT defender Timothy Chandler in his first training and ended up tearing his ACL, ruling him out for the year. After returning for 14 matches in 2012, he became a coveted commodity from teams in Mexico and Europe looking for a young center back with starting experience.
With an open DP slot and a need to keep their defense intact, Los Angeles made Gonzalez the first center back-DP in MLS history in August 2013. Unlike his defensive DP counterparts like Matt Besler and Jose Goncalves, Gonzalez was able to make an impact on the scoresheet, scoring 4 goals and adding 2 assists in a 2014 that also saw him start two matches in the World Cup (against Germany and Portugal). He returned for the 2015 year, getting a career-high three assists before Los Angeles was knocked out of the playoffs in the wildcard round.
During the 2015 season, Gonzalez had been bought down by TAM to fall below the DP threshold to accommodate the additions of the next two players. In a more shocking twist, Gonzalez was transferred to Mexican powers Pachuca in December for (say it with me, everyone!) an undisclosed transfer fee. Gonzalez was a key part of the Pachuca defense, starting both legs of the Clausura 2016 Liga MX championship final as Pachuca beat Monterrey 2-1.
Making Gonzalez a DP prolonged the inevitable for the Galaxy, allowing them to keep the foundation of their defense for two title runs while he was entering his prime. Again, this raises a question of whether or not center backs are smart investments for DP slots. Whether you believe it’s a good strategy or not, Gonzalez delivered on his promise when he was in Los Angeles.
Age When Signed: 26
Average Base Salary per Season: $3,250,004
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.920
As one of the most highly recruited young players out of Mexico in decades, dos Santos joined the FC Barcelona ranks at age 11, eventually making his first-team debut at 18. Despite scoring a hat trick in the league’s final match in 2007-08, Giovani was sold to Tottenham in 2008 for a $7.2 million transfer fee. Giovani struggled for playing time, spending periods of time loaned out to Ipswich Town, Galatasaray, and Racing Santander while only appearing in 15 matches for Tottenham. In 2012, he was sold to Spanish side Mallorca, where he rebuilt his reputation to the tune of 10 goals before a 2013 sale to Villarreal. (Oddly enough, he was linked to the Galaxy before committing to Villarreal.) Just entering his prime, Giovani took off in 2013-14, scoring 11 goals and adding 8 assists. While the following year wasn’t as successful on the stats sheet, he was able to work on his passing and became an asset in the midfield (alongside his younger brother Jonathan) as well as in his usual striking position.
After something of a down-year, dos Santos was attracting interest from teams in Spain and beyond. Most notably, he turned down a move to Mexican giants UANL Tigres, deciding not to head to his home country. It was a surprise, then, that he signed for Los Angeles Galaxy. Much like Sebastian Giovinco’s move to Toronto, this was an internationally-respected attacker just entering his prime who decided to set up his foundation in the United States. To his credit, he’s been a revelation for LA. Through his first 24 matches, he has 10 goals and 10 assists, showing flexibility with his positioning among a loaded group of attackers and midfielders. He turned down a call-up for the Copa America Centenario, and there are questions about whether or not he’ll be in El Tri‘s plans for the future.
Giovani turned down rumored interest from Espanyol, Sevilla, and Club America to stay in Los Angeles, showing his dedication to boosting the team’s international (as well as his own) profile. His signing goes against the “retirement league” narrative (especially in contrast with our final entry for Los Angeles) and his game actually seems to have improved since he came to the United States. It’s a victory for player, club, and league alike.
Age When Signed: 35
Average Base Salary per Season: $6,100,000
Goals+Assists per 90: 0.601
Steven Gerrard is a Liverpool man through-and-through. He signed with their youth system when he was 7 years old, working up the ranks and getting his schooling until his debut at 18. By 23, he was the captain of The Reds, a title he would hold for a dozen years. His 504 league appearances are third in club history, and his 120 league goals are the most in the club’s Premier League era. Meanwhile, he’s the third most-capped player for the English national team, scoring 21 times in 114 caps. Once he hit 34, however, his playing time began to wane with Liverpool. When he didn’t receive a contract offer in the off-season, he took it as a sign to consider other options. As he didn’t see himself playing elsewhere in the Premier League, he looked abroad and found his new home.
Gerrard was signed to an 18-month contract in 2015, effective in the middle of the year. He scored in his debut and added an assist before failing to make an impact on the scoresheet for the rest of the year, save for a late-September goal against FC Dallas. While his stats have been better in 2016, he’s been vocal about the difficulty of getting used to the travel and schedule in the United States, and a quote about wanting to return to Liverpool sparked rumors that he’d leave his contract early to join Jurgen Klopp’s staff. However, he’s appeared much more comfortable in recent weeks and figures to play a crucial part of the Galaxy’s title chase, with a recent move to the #10 role proving to reinvigorate the British legend.
It’s an awfully lofty price-tag for a box-to-box midfielder with almost 1,000 matches on his legs already. While articles about his love of Liverpool have distracted, Gerrard has done well to put his best foot forward and be a key part of a title contender. His work on set pieces is one of the best the league has to offer, and he has been able to partner with former-Liverpool teammate Keane to bring greater international interest to Los Angeles.
Average Signing Age: 30
Average Base Salary: $3,279,393
Average Grade: B+
Only an over-the-hill half-season of Ángel keeps LA from the A-range. With a budget so large, it sets a new level of expectations on the club to find marquee talent. Beckham was nearly a failure on-the-field before a few redeeming years in his twilight. Donovan and Keane are two of the greatest DP signings the league has ever seen, and dos Santos has potential to join that pantheon. That said, it’s a wonder that their G+A/90 is actually 0.002 below the Columbus Crew’s solid, yet unspectacular approach with their four attempts. That said, Designated Players are supposed to bring in fans, and no team in the league entices the global casual fan as much as Los Angeles. Like them or not, they’ve done well to use the rule to their advantage.
Next week: Chicago Fire