MLS's Designated Player policy was introduced to make it possible for clubs to sign players otherwise unaffordable, given MLS's salary structure, but the results so far have been mixed. For every Juan Pablo Angel there has been the Spaniard Mista, waived by Toronto after half a season.Most players near the end of their careers might be affordable by MLS standards, but big-name players like a Lionel Messi or Didier Drogba (the cornerstone of our son's PES team) or the real Spanish stars remain out of reach.Elevating the likes of Fredy Montero and Alvaro Saborio to DP status was a start in the right direction -- getting the stars MLS already has and keeping them.But only one American -- Landon Donovan -- is signed to a DP contract. Stuart Holden, now thriving with Bolton in the EPL, got away last year, and Edson Buddle, Jeff Cunningham and Robbie Findley are all looking to complete moves abroad.I'm not saying Buddle, Cunningham and Findley all deserve DP money, but they are among MLS's top American strikers, and if in the long term MLS can't keep its best American strikers it has a real problem.If MLS can't attract the great foreign stars of yesterday, it must work on keeping the great American stars of tomorrow.
If I am reading this right, and I think I am, Kennedy seems to be suggesting that MLS needs to consider signing more young foreign AND American players to DP contracts. Aside from the rules based problems, i.e. there being only a maximum of three DP slots per team, there are some other concerns here.
My impression of the purpose of a DP was to do three things: 1) put a brand name on the pitch, 2) put butts in the seats and sell jerseys, and 3) improve the quality of play. To be sure, really only Beckham did the first two and it is not like Beckham spent that much time on the pitch, less than 60 games in 4 years. As for the third goal, a few players have done that, Angel, Blanco and Schelotto come to mind. Now if those goals remain, it is possible that big American stars, like Landon Donovan could do all three, but really, can we expect the other Americans to do the same. Stuart Holden is an exciting player, but he only got really exciting when he moved to Bolton--where, in playing against some of the best players in the world, his game has improved.
Kennedy's missive seems to indicate that the reason players like Findley, Buddle and Cunningham are looking elsewhere is just about money. It is not and probably never was. Players like these men have something to prove, either to themselves (commendable) or to their critics (stupid), that they can play at the next level and succeed. Whether they do or not is irrelevant at this point, they may want the chance. Of course, if they can make more money playing in Denmark or the Championship in England--they would be foolish to pass that up.
Therein lies the problem of an adolescent league like MLS. While the quality of play has grown significantly in the past five years and I would say it has taken a leap forward in the past two years, the league is still growing. America is producing better talent and MLS has more avenues to pursue players who are exempt from the salary cap anyway, including homegrown players and Generation Adidas players. I can see, one day in the future, MLS teams being like Barcelona--fielding a majority of homegrown players.
Now, if MLS is looking to change the purpose of the DP to one of developing and keeping top quality American talent, then a reformation of the DP program will have to happen. For example, you may have to create two types of DP's, much like there are types of players on an MLS squad now, that is American DPs and foreign DPs and limit the number that you have on any given team. (MLS owners are still very gun shy of a non-cap league and a potential old NASL arms race for talent). The problem that Kennedy has highlighted is a league problem that will have to be addressed in the long term and really, the only way that is going to happen is to improve the quality of the game on the pitch.
But truth be told, until MLS gets to be a better league in terms of play we are not going to be able to keep players in this league.
How will we know MLS has arrived--when we start beating Mexican teams in the CONCACAF Champions League at home and in Mexico; when MLS teams are beating established clubs regularly in friendlies with the foreign club fields a legitimate first team; when MLS teams start drawing 25-30,000 fans each game, every game in every stadium.
Would I like to see more American DPs? You bet, but it ain't gonna happen in the next 10 years.