MLS ’11 Preview – Has the Beckham Rule Improved American Soccer?

Note: As part of the MLS Talk preview, we will be examining some of the major trends in MLS that will have an impact on the league this year.  Feel free to suggest other big picture topics in the comments.

Four years ago, MLS swung a deal to bring David Beckham, the world’s most recognizable soccer player, to MLS for a very lucrative compensation package.  Seeing the increased crowds and buzz surrounding the acquisition, as well as needing a budget rule to account for his huge salary, MLS created the “designated player”, or the “Beckham rule” as it is commonly called.  Over the past four years, teams could go out and seek big names and add them to payroll without having them bust the very tight MLS caps.

The Beckham rule hasn’t quite turned out the way it was expected, though.  Instead of seeing major stars flock to the U.S. and boost the league’s image internationally, teams have used the cap relief to either lock-up their big name stars or attract non-star international players and matching their inflated European salaries.  Currently, there are twelve designated players under contract in MLS.  Only three can conceivably be called international stars: Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Rafa Marquez.  A fourth, Landon Donovan, is the most famous American soccer player in the world.  The others are mostly pretty good international players from small leagues who have come to the U.S. to raise their profile.

So, is the Beckham rule helping the league or holding it back?  I’d argue the former, even though it is not helping as was intended.

No matter how much money MLS throws at them, major European stars in their prime will not play in MLS.  In the near future you will not see Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi in a Sporting Kansas City shirt, but realistically that should not be expected.  Europe is where the game was born and players naturally want to play where competition is the best.  I find it amusing that some American soccer fans bemoan American players going overseas to hone their craft, but when it comes to U.S. dominated sports we never have the same concerns about a French point guard coming to the NBA or Dominican catcher playing in the American League instead of improving the game back home.  Talent will always flock to where the game is at its best, and MLS isn’t that.

But that doesn’t mean the designated player rule has failed.  When European countries throw so much money into their soccer leagues MLS has to recognize (and has) that every thing else being equal, money will sometimes win out.  This is especially true of players from smaller European leagues or countries, who would want to play soccer in the U.S. for a while to raise their profile and make a little more money.  Take Branko Boskovic, who early in his career was a big name for Red Star Belgrade, a good club with a good European history.  After failing to get playing time at Paris Saint-Germain, he played in second-tier European leagues.  He is the kind of good international player MLS should attract, not a huge name but someone with skill and a solid reputation (setting aside his poor play last year).

Teams are increasingly using the DP rule in a new way: keeping their players who are growing in star-power and otherwise would go overseas to make more money.  Landon Donovan is the obvious example of this but Fredy Montero may be a better example.  Montero is indelibly linked to the Sounders, having scored the first goal in the current franchise’s history, and at 23 is young enough for a decent European club to swoop in and offer a tryout and contract.  Seattle and MLS are using the designated player rule to keep him in Seattle and buy out his original contract with Deportivo Cali (remember, he was originally on loan to Seattle).  Increasingly, I think we will see clubs in “less glamorous” markets using the Beckham rule to keep players instead of attracting big-name older players.

So currently we have three tiers of designated players: DPs who are older big names, DPs who are good European players from smaller leagues, and young MLS players who are receiving interest overseas.  All three categories of players improve the competitive quality of the league and give their teams an added dimension that would not be financially available otherwise.  But the league would be smart to expand the designated player rule in one way: MLS should create an American designated player rule.

As I have stated prior, some American players will go play in Europe and should play there to see if they can compete with the world’s best.  But some Americans are overseas playing in leagues or teams of lesser quality than MLS, but are being well compensated for doing so.  When Edson Buddle leaves MLS a year after being an MVP finalist for a second-division German team about to be relegated, it showed that MLS needs a way to keep its continental names in the league.  How can the U.S. national team build its profile in this country if its player toil away from the public eye in second division leagues?  What I would like to see is MLS grant every team an American DP (or American/Canadian) slot which would allow any team to handsomely pay American nationals what they deserve and try to at least be financially competitive with European leagues for our own talent.

The designated player rule will not go away, and although its usage has changed from its original intent, it has improved the quality of play within the league.  But the league needs to take the next step and realize that sometimes its own countrymen need a little special treatment as well.

33 Responses to MLS ’11 Preview – Has the Beckham Rule Improved American Soccer?

  1. It isn’t often I come across an online article as well written and balanced as this. Excellent stuff, Robert Hay. A very interesting and thought-provoking read.

    The DP rule has undoubtedly been a success for MLS. Just the fact that it has evolved at all shows it has been beneficial, rather than defeating any purpose. Bad ideas quickly go away, they don’t change and adapt. A few years ago MLS could boast no star names. They now have four of the world’s best players.

    I think it’s great that clubs are using the DP rule however they see fit. New or unglamarous teams like Chivas USA, Toronto or Sporting KC aren’t going to attract world stars. So the wise move would be to use their available slots to rewards their best players, keep them at the club and build upon that. Seattle have done that with Montero, and I think they might be the FC Dallas of 2011. Very capable of pushing the best MLS sides and going for the Championship. Toronto would be wise to tie De Rosario to a DP contract very quickly.

    A final point is that the American DP or American/Canadian DP (or Homegrown DP, which I think is a better, more concise moniker) is a GENIUS idea. Why should a club have to use DP slots – aimed at attracting world talent – to keep players they’ve already got? Sure, clubs are successfully doing that, as mentioned above, but they shouldn’t have to.

    Donovan at Galaxy and De Rosario/de Guzman at Toronto should be classed as the one Homegrown DP, allowing two or three marquee DP slots.

    Again, very good article.

  2. Evan K. says:

    Good article. I really like the idea of an American/Canadian DP. Teams won’t waste a DP slot to retain their young domestic players.

    Also, this is the one and only reason why I think Beckham’s time in America has been a GREAT success. I understand people getting angry with him due to his so called “lack of commitment” but the intangible assets he brought to the MLS was well worth it.

  3. MadFan says:

    A good article indeed. Agree with the writer on the overall, and totally agree with the American DP idea too! I find it a huge shame for MLS/USA to let Buddle go to play with a 2nd Division team in German, who is CLOSE to relegation to the 3rd Division!!

    I say the “Beckham Rule” is a great success merely because it improves to level and/or quality of play of the game for the whole league when they got these international stars to the league, especially world’s best players like Beckham and Thierry, and also got and keep other world class players like Rafa Marquez and Landon Donovan.

    I agree about the money thing. However, like the writer said, no matter how much money you thrown to the big international stars, they WILL NOT go to MLS now or in the near future while they are still in their prime, simply because the LEVEL of play of MLS is not higher or at the same par with those big European leagues. Until and unless MLS reaching the higher or same level of play as in Europe, no big international stars still in the prime will go to MLS to play. You see, sometimes it’s not about money for these kind of players.

    That said, this DP Rule is a baby step way for MLS to reach to that level. Money is not an issue for MLS. So the DP Rule together with more changes here and there, like probably a longer MLS schedule (so that players like Thierry and Beckham no longer have to go back to Europe to train to keep fit), or more competitions locally and internationally for MLS teams/players to increase their level of play AND the higher standards of refereeing, MLS will be at the same par with those big and best European leagues one day.

  4. Charles says:

    I have said this before, but it is worth saying…Robert Hay needs to move on to a bigger blog site.
    I visit this web site daily, but it is time for him to take on bigger challenges 😉

    All joking aside, great article again. When MLS hits it big, you really should cash in, I hope it happens.

    As a “bemoaner” that you mention in the article. I just don’t get people that WANT talent to leave their league. I do get it now, as the ones that wanted Landon to leave don’t watch MLS (or maybe they do, but they like EPL better)

    The Beckham rules has improved “American Soccer” as you asked.
    There are two ways to look at that questions:
    “Americans” or “Soccer in America”

    One, I think Landon and many others are WAY better off here. I will be in the minority, I don’t care, I am smarter than all of you put together anyway.
    But it also improves the pipeline of players coming up. You CAN make big money playing soccer IN THE US. You can’t discount that.

    Soccer in US
    You mentioned Montero, that is THE example of how to do it.
    Buddle, Holden, and a few others SHOULD have been examples also.
    For whatever reason they were not.

    The only danger of this improvement is something that we are ALL ( or should be ) aware of. If it is not league wide, you are in trouble. When the Cosmos teams are drawing 50k + and the other teams aren’t winners or ever going to be, things can collapse. And they do so VERY fast. Shockingly fast.

    IF you don’t remember 1980-83 here is a recap:
    “Man I really am glad the soccer in the US is succee…..what just happened.”

  5. Tom says:

    “But the league would be smart to expand the designated player rule in one way: MLS should create an American designated player rule.”

    Amen, Amen, Amen. It is very frustrating as a fan of the Red Bulls, to watch all of our good prospects get signed away by foreign clubs. If Juan Agudelo turns out to be the phenom every one is expecting, how long will he be around? The same goes for Tim Ream. There absolutely should be a separate DP rule for American players. Robert, get Garber on the phone and talk some sense into him please… lol.

    • Charles says:

      But Landon is a DP ( of course he had his own rule for many years ).

      Teams CAN sign Americans. Vancouver signed one as a DP just recently….and one of the smartest DP signings too.

      I don’t want MORE DPs slots for obvious reasons. So are you saying add DP spots or make one of the three an American only slot ?

    • montana lucky says:

      Having a DP rule specifically for Americans would imply that the other DP spots are not for Americans. How about let the clubs decide how they want to use their DP spots? Red Bulls might be smart to us that 3rd DP spot on Juan. They also might be smart to sell him for big money and use that cash on development opportunities.

    • Clampdown says:


      As a fellow RBNY supporter, it pains me to say this but I disagree. I want Ream and Agudelo to become great players and elevate our national team. To do this, they will need to leave MLS and play against better competition week in and week out. I hope one day this will not be the case, but right now staying in MLS will not provide the level of training and experience they need.

      Buddle is a different story as he is older, and quite frankly not a great player. He’s certainly not a poor one, but the fact that he had to find employment in a second-tier league overseas shows how little foreign clubs think of his ability.

      And there is no way Holden should have stayed in MLS at this stage of his career.

      All that being said, I like the idea of a DP slot specifically for Americans/Canadians, with guys like Buddle and DeRo in mind.

      • Abram says:

        I’m not a NYRB fan, but I agree with your assessment on Ream and Agudelo. However, I don’t want to see them head overseas until they are ready for it. If they could be kept in MLS until they are fully developed, and not lose out financially, it would be good for MLS, good for the National Team, and good for the players.

  6. Robin says:

    I agree with you 100%.

    For example the Red Bulls have Agudelo who might leave in the near future (hopefully to Arsenal FC) but if they want to keep him and add a 3rd big name they could use their US DP spot and maybe use the third spot for Robin van Persie in the future

  7. Big T says:

    Im all for a US DP. But heres the problem. All these International DPs want to play for NY or LA. Thats not good at all. Thats NBAesque. We need to find a way so that we all get DPs before LA/NY get 3 DPs (that are actually worth a damn). Outside of NY/LA what DPs have really panned out anyways?

    • Charles says:

      Forlan “wanted” Seattle, not NY or LA.

      I actually agree with you somewhat, but there have been DPs that have suceeded outside of NY/LA.
      GBS was close to having more success than all the DPs put together (he wasn’t a DP the whole time )
      Blanco was great, annoying but great for Chicago. Even Ljungberg, who wasn’t worth even close to $1.3 million had moments ( he did make the AllStar game )

      Montero will succeed now that he moved up. Sabirio will too.

      The point is heard loud and clear in terms of what you and I both want, but MLS capped it at 3 for a reason. Not saying it is the right number, just saying MLS has the same idea.

      Interestingly enough a DP has never won MLS Cup, but 9 were signed in 2010 ( including Landon ). 15 before that.

      • Dave C says:

        Forlan wanted Seattle

        Yawn…you’re still going on about that? Seriously when is Forlan going to sign? Oh yeah that’s right, he isn’t, because the whole thing was just a minor internet rumor based on the mistranslation of a throwaway comment in a Spanish interview.

    • DomiNate says:

      I’d like to think that internationals would play for 5 or 6 MLS clubs (Seattle, Chicago, Boston if they get a stadium), but I see your point. The small clubs won’t be able to compete. Better to keep things as they are for now.

      Non NY/LA DP’s that have panned out? This year you will see three in Seattle. Montero has already proven his value. N’Kufo and Fernandez have had a full off season to recover from World Cups and gel with players.

  8. Charles says:

    Completely O/T, but funnier than heck.

    MLS fantasy league on ESPN has a salary cap.
    As American as apple pie itself !!!!

    While the Euridiots watch Fuhlham or another meaningless game, like the Carling Cup Final, they should get their fantasy team together…,…..with training wheels, please.

    • Joe says:

      “…another meaningless game, like the Carling Cup Final”

      It’s comments like this that make me think you like being sanctimonious more than you like soccer. The Carling Cup Final was a GREAT soccer game. It’ s sad that everything has to be some sort of pro-America political statement for you. The rest of us will have a fine time enjoying the game no matter where it takes place.

  9. Leigh Sanders says:

    A good article that. It’s interesting to see the American game bow and break to financial pressure to compete with major European leagues despite their intentions to keep it “equal” like other American sports. It is good that they recognise the need for change.

    As a Cardiff City fan (Welsh side playign in the English Championship) I am sick and tired of seeing our young talents moving on to bigger and “better” things. But if you think this can easily be prevented you may be a little naive. Unfortunately money talks and we may continually be watching our biggest talents go “abroad” (this term used loosely in Wales’ case). The “big six” (England, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Holland) is where all the big players want to play and you may be watching your stars move there for years. Just ask the fans of Croatian, Portuguese, Scottish, Bosnian, Polish or Scandinavian football how to combat this. They have been failing for years.

    The few leagues to break this rule: Russia where their stars are bankrolled by oil magnates so are enticed to stay. Also Brazil/Argentina where the culture and togetherness of the people usually keeps stars in the country until the biggest of the big in European clubs come knocking. However many players also go against this loose and slightly unsteady theory – Messi being the biggest example leaving at a very young age.

    • DomiNate says:

      Just stirring the pot a bit, but do you think if every Welsh international played for Cardiff that they would compete in the EPL?

      The MLS set up is completely different than second tier Euro leagues. I am a Croatia fan and pay close attention to the league. The key to lesser league glory comes from Europe, so if a club can make it there they can keep top talent. The proven method for these leagues is to have two quality teams. Scotland, Portugal, and to a lesser extent Croatia have all done well in Europe. That is the effort needed to combat big money transfers. I wouldn’t consider them “failing”, but they certainly could be better.

      Ukraine also breaks the rule. Shaktar are a good club and look on there way to the champions league quarter final. Two Croatians on the team, that’s why I pay attention to them.

  10. The original Tom says:

    I’d make that extra “American” spot an extra CONCACAF spot. With our ethnic communities, we can home grow Carribean and Central American players as well- and a better CONCACAF will make our national team better. Not to mention the Canada and the Canadien teams.

    Charles- The Carling Cup final was great. But thanks for the mentioning the fantasy league on ESPN, I didn’t know about it, I’ll set up a team. Should we make a MLS Talk league?

  11. Tom says:

    By the way, in answer to original question- yes the DP has made the MLS, and thus, American soccer better, because it has distinquished teams from one another. Five to ten years ago all the teams seemed the same. Now, some teams have used DP’s, some haven’t. Some can attract them, some can’t. This, to me, has made the league a lot more interesting. I say that as a Colorado Rapids, a team that can’t attract DP’s easily, but obviously has found a way to win anyway!

  12. Tony King says:

    How about a rule for big name foreign coaches. It’s not just the players we need, imagine Jose Mourino coaching the US world cup team……

  13. razz says:

    I hope Beckham performs really well this season. He should have gone to Blackburn or Tottenham football club when he had the chance. Read more blogs at

  14. Alan says:

    I believe that the DP rule has improved soccer. Hopefully the players making 50 grand a year can get a raise soon. The fact that they earn so little has to hurt the league.

    • Charles says:

      Don’t you think that might be correlated though ?

      Assuming you are going to have a salary cap ( and they are riff-raff ),
      and not spend beyong the revenue….paying someone else big money means not paying someone mediocre-good money.

      Not saying don’t do it, just that there are positives and negatives to the DP.

      • Alan says:

        I do think they are correlated somewhat. I’m just saying that some players will find it hard to earn a living based off that salary. One day when it is higher (maybe 80 or higher at least), more youth might see it as a career option. I agree that the DP spot can and should be used for really good American players too.

  15. Alan says:

    Oh, and by the way, excellent article Robert. Also, excellent discussion from all the posters. These are the kind of meaningful discussions fans should be having about the league.

  16. Charles says:

    Bringing back the Riff-Raff !

    sorry if this accomplishes that, but very interesting interview with The Don.

    Did Beckham help MLS ?

    Yes “That’s fact”

    BTW, big surprise he says they are focused on NY for number 20 and other teams they are in discussion with would be 21 on up.
    He mentions that he believes Beckham WILL invoke his right to a franchise.

    Me talking: They will blow through 20 teams VERY quickly.

  17. Charles says:

    That is VERY funny what The Don says about “not” being a soccer guy.

    He said that there are times that he wished he had followed NASL and high school soccer 30 years ago, because it would have given him perspective.

    The Don and the “soccer guys” ripping on him, are exactly the same. The Don is just smart enough to realize it.

    Don’t worry for the most part you are in the same boat.

  18. Steve says:

    Interesting article, some good conclusions, but I have to quibble with a couple things:
    – The original intent of the DP rule was not to bring in nothing but stars in their prime. In fact, I remember Garber mentioning the possibility of using the rule to both retain Americans, and bring in smaller name contributors at that time.
    – You skipped over the biggest advantage of the DP rule. It’s paid for itself, literally. Beckham’s entire salary was cost justified during his first year alone due to increased ticket, merchandising, and advertising revenue.
    – Every team already has 3 DP slots. If a team uses all three, almost half their salary cap will be spoken for before getting to the other 17 senior roster spots (remember, DPs still count $335,000 against the cap). That stretches the rest of the roster thin enough. A fourth “American DP” would lead to the rest of the roster being USL castoffs. No thanks. Besides, DPs should have a huge influence on the pitch, and hopefully some level of impact at the ticket counter. Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream, Brek Shea, etc aren’t on that level, and shouldn’t be paid by MLS as though they are. There’s no shame in lesser leagues like MLS selling prospects to Europe to drive profits. That’s just good business, in fact I’d criticize MLS for standing in the way of European transfers too often.

    • Steve says:

      I don’t want to see MLS sell my favorite player to Europe.
      Money in the hands of the billionares that own the teams does nothing for me.
      Especially when we are competiting against those teams in the Club World Cup. It will happen. Judging by the way Salt Lake looked last night on a brutal field, it might not be far off.

      While selling players to Europe might make “good business sense” my Sounders signing Montero makes BETTER business sense.

  19. Count says:

    I believe the MLS should complete adopt the European way of going about football. Don’t try to hinder US Soccer with stupid salary caps. It doesn’t help US football nor does it help our leagues grow. Money is key to a thriving league. With that you bring in better players and better competition. With that more US fans will go see MLS games.

    With a salary cap, the MLS will just sit in a state of mediocrity and forever be a footstep for players to go to the Premier League.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *