Rumours that Toronto FC is close to signing former AC Milan stand-out Alessandro Nesta have heated up a healthy debate about the value of bringing in big name designated players in Major League Soccer.
It’s a debate that has been had in Toronto and elsewhere throughout the rule’s five-and-a-half year history, and one that won’t likely disappear anytime soon. There are still some in the league that claim that the DP rule is for fools and that the most successful teams in a salary cap league are those that spread the $2.81 million cap equally across the 24-player roster.
Certainly the success of Real Salt Lake and, to a lesser extent, the Columbus Crew has lent some credence to that argument. However, one must also admit that the fall of the New England Revolution from perennial contenders to also-rans corresponds with the start of the DP era.
At this point the debate has shifted slightly with most in the league accepting that there is some value to having the option of using a DP slot. Even Salt lake and New England have used the rule, albeit in a modest way.
All three Canadian teams have embraced the rule with six of the nine possible slots used. Toronto employs Julian de Guzman, Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans, with Vancouver adding Eric Hassli and Barry Robson. Montreal added its first DP this week when Marco Di Vaio made his debut.
The Canadian list is a good microcosm of the way the DP debate has evolved in MLS in recent years. Rather than whether it’s a good idea to have a DP at all, the conversation now centres on what type of DP is most effective and whether having the maximum of three is a good idea.
The latter point is what’s driving much of the debate in Toronto. From the beginning TFC has been accused of being a club that’s more about the sizzle than the steak and that having three DPs speaks to that. When criticized for a lack of success, management can point to the expenditure its put out on the three big names and suggest that it is doing all that it can.
However, when you consider that TFC has never had a proper centre-back and has always struggled with a lack of depth, you can question whether spending more than one-third of the salary budget on three players is a good idea.
This is especially the case in Canada where it is more difficult to convince solid, middle-of-the-road American players to uproot their families for a great Canadian adventure at $85,000 a year (with mom unable to work) . Although those type of players rarely find their names on the backs of fan’s replica jerseys, they are vital to the success of any MLS team.
The LA Galaxy may have had David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan but they also had Mike Magee. Toronto has always struggled to attract the Mike Magees. The sample is smaller with Vancouver and Montreal, but there likely is a good reason that Bob Lenarduzzi is collecting international slots like some people go after Panini stickers.
The reluctance of some American players to come north is an often unspoken disadvantage the three Canadian teams face, and it’s what forces their hand into the DP pile more quickly than they might otherwise want: it’s an area they can compete with American teams on an equal footing.
So, there is little point debating the need to carry DPs in Canada.
It’s necessary. However, you can debate what kind of DP you should be carrying.
And this is where Toronto differs from Vancouver (it’s likely not fair to identify a Montreal strategy just a half season in). Whereas the Whitecaps seems to be using the DP slot to fill needs and bring in specific types of players that fill them, Toronto is starting to use the rule in the way that it originally was used league-wide: to go after names.
Although Nesta is expected to not come in as a DP immediately (Toronto must wait until de Guzman is off the books to add another), he’s the latest example of that thinking. You don’t have to be a cynic to draw the lines between the horns honking on College Street following Italy’s win in the European Championship yesterday and a struggling MLS teams desire to sell season tickets.