The three designated player (DP) slots every Major League Soccer team has are the most important roster spots to fill. The DP slot allows a team to spend however they want on three players. Unlike other salary budget mechanisms, such as Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), these slots are guaranteed every year to each team. In other words, it’s a mechanism a club with resources or pull can use to create a meaningful competitive advantage.
It’s no surprise then, that every MLS team that’s won MLS Cup has leveraged the DP slots better than others.
Theoretically, if a club had the resources and pull, it could sign Messi, Mbappe and Neymar using the DP slots. This, of course, is not realistic. Teams have to deploy strategies on how to use their DP slots. I believe there are three different DP strategies teams employ: Hype DP (bringing buzz to the team), Field DP (being top-10-percent player in the league) or Asset DP (ability to produce revenue and allocation by selling later on).
Historically, the Hype DPs are the original designated players. Take a look at the first generation of DPs from 2007-2009 with players such as David Beckham, Freddie Ljungberg, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Denílson or Claudio Reyna. There’s a running theme — teams hoped they would be elite competitors in MLS, but more importantly that they would sell tickets and bring fame or buzz to the club. There will always be a place for Hype DPs in the league, whether they’re older Europeans or a returning American or Mexican national team player (See: 2019 Orlando City signing, Nani).
The second type of DP was an elite MLS player regardless of name — the Field DP. To be truly elite means being considered among the top 10 percent (today, that’s about the top 30 players in the league when considering an 11-player lineup for 24 teams), which means being a perennial All-Star and a possible MVP threat. It started with David Ferreira signing with FC Dallas in 2009, but Field DPs today — Seattle’s Nico Lodeiro, Portland’s Diego Valeri or Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti — are the face of the league and provide their clubs a true competitive edge.
With the introduction of TAM, this became a bit more complicated. Now you have teams with the ability to buy down potential DPs with TAM. This allows ambitious teams like Atlanta or Sporting Kansas City to have six to nine players who actually make more than the maximum budget charge.
But some teams would rather not spend the TAM and keep the DP tag for budget reasons. Philadelphia and Alejandro Bedoya seems to be a good example. Bedoya is an excellent player and would start on almost any MLS team in the league. But he’d almost certainly be a TAM player (top-100 player) and not a DP (top-30 player) if he played for one of those previously-cited ambitious clubs. This is not a bad use of a DP slot by Philadelphia, but it’s also not maximizing the slot — and the difference is important.
The newest type of DP is the Asset DP. The idea of signing a player as an asset to create future revenue and allocation from selling the player started with the Young Designated Player rule, which was created in 2012 and allows teams to take a smaller cap hit for high-quality players under the age of 24.
In order to be considered an Asset DP, you have to have the right age, potential and a low enough salary and transfer fee to create allocation in the future. The last requirement is an important one because an MLS club only creates allocation on a sale once it recoups all costs from transfer fees and salary.
Ideally, a DP signing today could be all three at the same time, but those are few and far between.
Arguably, Miguel Almiron was the only one last year having the potential to be an asset, while also easily ranking among the top 10 percent on the field and bringing hype and buzz to Atlanta.
But many designated players do fit multiple categories, and when a team has all three DP slots filled with players who fit more than one category, it’s built a true competitive edge. The reverse is also true. Even worse than not using the designated player slots available is using them poorly, which becomes a salary-budget nightmare.
I’m categorizing every DP today heading into the 2019 season to get an idea which team is best using its DP slots. For comparison’s sake, I’ve also assigned points to each category.
A true Field DP is worth 3 points. An Asset DP is 2 points. A Hype DP is worth 1 point. A DP who is a very good player but outside the top 10 percent is labeled as a TAM-level DP and gets 1 point.
Below is how I’ve categorized each DP:
For those who don’t like Venn Diagrams, below is the list with some explanation:
HYPE DP — 1 point: Tim Howard, Chris Wondolowski
- Howard is a below-average MLS keeper today, but his signing brought much-needed reason to watch the Colorado Rapids and allegedly was an integral part of procuring sponsorship.
- Wondo should be a super-sub on a decent MLS club, but his chase of the all-time MLS goals record should be a needed draw for the San Jose Earthquakes
TAM-LEVEL DP — 1 point: Bryan Acosta*, Jozy Altidore, Fanendo Adi, Paul Arriola, Michael Bradley, Ale Bedoya, Dom Dwyer, Roger Espinoza, Carles Gil*, Jan Gregus*, Federico Higuain, Sacha Kljestan (since writing this, he’s been bought down with TAM), Tomas Martinez, Nikola Nikolic, Saphir Taider, Vako
- This list shows how hard it is to remain in the top 10 percent of the league. Bradley, Altidore, Kljestan, Nikolic and even Higuain would’ve been top 10 percent a year ago.
- Bradley and Altidore were also easily Hype DPs when they signed with Toronto. But with the World Cup failure and how much fans (unfairly in my opinion) put it squarely on those two, I’m not sure they bring hype anymore.
- Any name starred means they’re new to the league and I’m projecting based on YouTube clips and past performance, so it’s very likely they could need to be recategorized as the year progresses.
HYPE + TAM-LEVEL DP — 2 points: Jonathan Dos Santos, Bastian Schweinsteiger
- Both Dos Santos and Schweinsteiger bring credibility with their names and on-field performances, but are just outside the top-10 percent cutoff. In other words, if their names were Jonathan Des Moines and Basti Winedrinker, they’d be TAM players in this stage of their careers and not DP players.
ASSET DP — 2 points: Allan Cruz*, Carlos Gruezo, In-Beom Hwang*, Andre Horta, Santiago Mosquera
- This list may feel like either players that are too new to MLS to judge or had slightly disappointing first steps in MLS. You’re not wrong, but each one has the potential to be sold for profit fairly easily. For example, as much as Horta’s debut last year was a disaster, he’s also a stellar performer for the Portugal youth sides.
ASSET + TAM-LEVEL DP — 3 points: Jesus Medina, Diego Rossi, Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino
- This is a list of really exciting players who could potentially be sold for a lot down the road. It would not be surprising if any of them are elite this year and then sold for a very tidy profit in the future. It would not be crazy to see both Medina and Rossi as their teams’ main attackers with rumors of suitors offering $10 million transfer fees at the end of the year.
ASSET + HYPE DP — 3 points: Ezequiel Barco
- Barco is a bit of an enigma, so it’s fitting he sits by himself in his own category. When Atlanta bought Barco last year, he was seen as one of the top talents in South America, if not the world. There was no doubt that brings a level of hype to the Atlanta region and again raises the club’s prestige on the world stage.
- Barco’s performance on the field was less than expected, but his underlying numbers show he could still be an asset. His very large transfer fee means that in order to be an asset, he has to be Almiron-level good in the league. So if he doesn’t turn into an All-star level player soon, he could easily fall off this list.
FIELD DP — 3 points: Romain Alessandrini, Sebastian Blanco, Felipe Gutierrez, Nico Lodeiro, Maxi Moralez, Ignacio Piatti, Darwin Quintero, Raul Ruidiaz, Diego Valeri, Bradley Wright-Phillips
- Most of these players are no-brainer picks as top-30 in the league. Quintero and Ruidiaz certainly made their cases in Year 1, and if you look at Alessandrini’s goals and assists per 90 without penalties, he was easily in the top 10.
- Of this list, Gutierrez is probably most controversial as a top-30 player in the league. In my book, he’s one of the top, if not the best box-to-box midfielder, especially in Sporting Kansas City’s system, which requires coverage.
- Blanco and Moralez would’ve been in the TAM-level group last year, which again shows this is a fluid list.
FIELD + HYPE DP — 4 points: Marco Fabian*, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Josef Martinez, Nani*, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Vela
- Zlatan, Rooney and Vela are no doubt top-30 players and bring acclaim to their clubs from an international stage.
- Josef Martinez might not bring as much hype on the world level, but he’s well known in South America, and whenever your hometown team’s fans are talking about making a statue of you and you’re on the cover of local magazines, you’re a Hype DP.
- There’s a question on why Martinez is not seen as an asset. This is based off my assumption that Martinez’s new salary will make it prohibitive to make a large enough transfer fee possible. If his salary is less than $3 million/year, then he’s an asset. If it’s higher, he’s no longer an asset for selling.
- I’ve projected out Fabian and Nani. While Nani’s signing has received lukewarm reception in MLS circles, his goals and assists per 90 in the last three years were all very healthy. He has a lot to offer, and past history says he should be excellent in MLS.
FIELD + ASSET DP — 5 points: Luciano Acosta, Alberth Elis, Kaku, Alexandru Mitrita*, Milton Valenzuela
- First three on this list have had very large bids during this last offseason already. Acosta, when paired with Rooney, is probably a top-10 player in the league. Elis has shown underlying numbers similar to Almiron. A playmaking Kaku has the ability to be a top-10 player that’s worthy of a $10 million transfer, that makes him an asset.
- I know Lucho Acosta isn’t a designated player yet, but with the PSG transfer falling through and D.C.’s open slot, he will be very soon.
- Valenzuela is out with an ACL tear, but before that he was a 20 year old who was at-worst the third best in the league in that position. He’s a top-30 player for me already, and I’m sure Crew fans are hoping he can come back at the same level.
- I’ve put Mitrita here based on expectations. His transfer fee level requires him to be a top-30 player in the league. If NYCFC want to sell him for a profit above his $9 million fee, then this expectation is doubly true. If he performs short of expectations, then not only does he drop down on the list, but he also he loses his asset status. Its a high risk, high reward purchase.
FIELD + ASSET + HYPE DP – 6 points: Pity Martinez*
- When you buy the reigning South American player of the year, he’s expected to be a hype player and a very top player in MLS. Martinez’s aspirations of going to Europe and taking note of the Almiron sale means that he’s an asset. It’s fitting then that Pity replaces Almiron as the only player who fits all three categories — even before playing an MLS match. Let’s see if he lives up to it.
There’s a few DPs who don’t make the list because they don’t fit one of the categories. This could be based on performance (ex. Gashi), being on loan (ex. Ardaiz) or my expectation that they won’t be DPs anymore (ex. Giovani Dos Santos).
Phew! So, given this point structure, how do teams fare with their DP strategies?
Below is the “DP Utilization Rankings.” Another way to think about it is: How much is a team using the Designated Player rule as a competitive advantage versus other teams? It is just one of many ways to have a competitive advantage in the league (See: academies), but it’s a useful metric to think about when projecting a team’s performance in the upcoming season.
DP Utilization Rankings
- Atlanta United – 13 points
- NYCFC – 11
- DC United – 10
- LAFC – 9
- LA Galaxy – 9
- New York Red Bulls – 8
- Orlando City – 6
- Houston Dynamo – 6
- Seattle Sounders – 6
- Columbus Crew – 6
- Portland Timbers – 6
- Real Salt Lake – 6
- Philadelphia Union – 5
- FC Dallas – 5
- Sporting Kansas City – 4
- Montreal Impact – 4
- Minnesota United – 4
- Chicago Fire – 4
- Vancouver Whitecaps – 4
- FC Cincinnati – 3
- Toronto FC – 2
- SJ Earthquakes – 2
- Colorado Rapids – 1
- New England Revolution – 1