(Good morning all. It has been a long time coming, but the weekly SBI series Monday Morning Center Back is and I will be looking to keep it as permanent weekly fixture in the post rotation. The MMCB will be a weekly piece on pressing topics of the day as I give my take on issues relating to MLS, the U.S. national team and international soccer. Today's subject is the designated player slot and the question is whether teams can really succeed with two designated player slots.)
When is having two expensive stars not better than having one? When you are in Major League Soccer and you are a team trying to build a team using the league's modest salary guidelines. Only one team, the New York Red Bulls, has signed two designated players before (D.C. signed a DP and upgraded a player to a DP slot) and now that club is facing the very difficult question of whether to trade a slot in order to add some depth, or keep the second slot and try to sign a foreign star this summer.
Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio has already stepped forward and stated his preference for dealing away his second DP slot (Juan Pablo Angel fills the clubs first DP slot) in order to strengthen a team in need of depth and the improvement of several positions. Such a move seems misguided to those who point to the looming opening of Red Bull Arena next summer as a reason to keep the slot, with the idea being that the club could land a high-profile player to help boost ticket sales in the new stadium.
You know what boost ticket sales just as much, if not more, than a marquee player? Winning does. The Houston Dynamo has never had a Designated Player, but does have two MLS Cup titles and did manage to draw 30,000 to its home playoff loss vs. the Red Bulls. Real Salt Lake hasn't had a designated player but the combination of the team's first playoff run and the opening of Rio Tinto Stadium have rejuvenated the fan base.
Does this mean having two Designated Players and fielding a successful team are mutually exclusive? It just might if you realize what having two DP slots mean to a team. If you have two DPs, that means that $725,000 of your $2.3 million salary cap is devoted to two players. You don't have to be a math wizard to know that is almost one third of your cap space, leaving approximately $1,575,000 of space to pay 16 players. That number increases to 18 in 2009 when senior rosters go from 18 to 20. As for the overall increase in salary cap space for 2009, team officials throughout the league are calling it a relative drop in the bucket.
Then there is the gamble you are taking with those huge chunks of cap space. When you consider that most (actually all to date) Designated Players are older players, you run a greater risk of those players being injued, which can ultimately mean a higher risk of losing a greater portion of your salary cap. Red Bulls fans and D.C. United fans know this all too well after last season. Now while not all DPs get hurt, if you have two of them it significantly increases your exposure to a costly injury or two.
So what does it all mean to MLS? Is this really a league-wide issue considering several teams don't even use one DP slot, let alone two? It is a league-wide issue because teams are being faced with the dilemma of having to choose between star power and roster depth. That applies to those teams considering using one DP slot for the first time, as well as to teams with two DP slots like D.C. United and the Red Bulls, which just made an improbable MLS Cup run but which will very likely struggle in 2009 if significant upgrades aren't made to their roster.
It is a shame that MLS teams have to make that choice, when even a modest salary cap increase could help make the decision easier.
What do you think about the DP dilemma? Do you think it's virtually impossible for a team to succeed with two designated player slots, or do you think the right team could pull it off? If you were the Red Bulls, would you trade your second DP slot for roster upgrades, or would you keep it with the hoping of adding another star this spring (or potentially summer)?
Share your thoughts below.