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.

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