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Thursday 18 August 2011

Thoughts? – Changes to the DP Rules

     MLS announced age-ranged designated player cap hit reductions designed to encourage more youthful signings. Designated players between the ages of 21 and 23 will see their cap hit fall from the standard $335,000 to $200,000, while those 20 and under will be further reduced to $150,000.

     While this should help combat the stereotype of an older player coming over to North America for one last payday and could potentially garner the league some transfer money in the future, there are a few questions that must be asked, namely which players will the cash be splashed upon and will they grow in MLS?

     The DP rule has been a useful tool for the league to draw attention and fans – both domestic and abroad – to MLS. One difficulty with the system though is who is worthy of the ‘big’ money? Many of the league’s stars – who feel they have not been properly compensated for their profile – such as Dwayne De Rosario and Shalrie Joseph have been worthy of increased wage packets but have not been given them. Landon Donovan and Julian de Guzman remain the only domestic players to be rewarded with these moderately lavish wages and received them largely off the back of their time spent in Europe and as poster boys for their respective countries, to varying success. Many of the more high profile players have been limited to the league maximum.

     The question becomes will this new sub-rule be used to keep domestic talents here or to entice foreign talents from elsewhere?

     Both options have merit. Each year MLS loses several of its top draft eligible prospects to the lure of European football. Mike Grella (England), Marcus Tracy (Denmark), and Dominic Cervi (Scotland) were all drafted but chose to forego time in MLS in search of a career abroad. The Generation Adidas project is meant to stem this flow, but has been insufficient in the above cases, while how academy prospects will be treated has yet to have been devised. The much criticized decision by Toronto FC to release the highly-touted Kevin Aleman upon his refusal to commit his future to the club is an example of how unclear the pathway and finances of the route remain.

     Alternatively, there has been moderate success in prying promising young players away from cash-strapped clubs in South America – particularly Columbia – for a small fee. Seattle’s Fredy Montero was the first and most celebrated example, and Fabian Castillo of FC Dallas has so far been a solid acquisition as well.

     The MLS as a stepping stone for promising young players, the final laps of a glorious long career, as well as a breeding ground for American and Canadian domestics is a solid strategy for the time being. There has been some success, a large proportion of the US National Team pool has spent some time in MLS before moving on to more lofty destination, but will an extended stay in the league really be of benefit to a player developing into a top professional?

     The athleticism and physicality of the league will well prepare the more slight and skillful players produced in Central and South America for an eventual trip to Europe. Whether it would be a detriment to get too comfortable and stay too long has yet to be seen. Montero has not pushed on from the player he was when he arrived. Until all the clubs in MLS have the facilities and resources to produce the highest class players extended stints could well limit a players potential.

     Collecting prospects in a visitor-friendly, polished place such as the USA will allow prospective transfer targets to be showcased more than an obscure, remote, and underfunded second division or reserve side would, but it would also raise the cost of the eventual purchase, as MLS has shown itself to be a demanding and shrewd seller.   

     Most likely, as with the initial implementation of the DP rule, the increased wages will be used on foreign talent; domestic players are at times still undervalued in a cost conscious league. While it is a good step, the inherent flaw is that not all teams are using the system, and that three players - especially as production is not guaranteed - do not automatically make a team better.  Real Salt Lake has been commended on the strength of their squad which features several well-paid players as opposed to a few overpaid ones.

     The Australian A-League uses a similar system of 3 ‘special players’: a marquee (Robbie Fowler), an Australian – usually a returning National Team player - and a young domestic player, as exceptions to the rigidity of the salary cap. As in MLS many teams have been reluctant to invest in single players as the strength of the team is more important in soccer than in most sports. 

     As the league grows and the salary cap increases, the number of slots available for these over-cap luxuries should rise too; only when taking a risk on a young player does not drastically limit the ability to go after more proven talent will this new direction prove fruitful and worthwhile.

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