Lionel Messi may, or may not, be walking through that door. For months, Inter Miami CF have been pursuing the Paris Saint-Germain superstar (and pending free agent) to join MLS‘ South Florida project. Bringing the 35-year-old Argentina international to the North American league has obvious appeal, on and off the field.
“If we can get a top star player who fits our vision and the player profiles of what we’re looking for, if those all fit together, then great,” Inter chief soccer officer and sporting director Chris Henderson said last month. “Let’s get that player, and then the benefits that come with it; increasing ticket sales and the notoriety around the team, that’s all a positive and a plus.”
Meanwhile, MLS commissioner Don Garber is encouraging the club to think “outside the box” to secure the World Cup winner’s signature.
Whether Messi arrives remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: if he does come, he’ll be signed as a Designated Player, allowing Inter to pay well over the league-mandated salary cap of $5.2 million. The rule, adopted before the 2007 season, allowed the LA Galaxy to sign David Beckham — who is now part owner of the club trying to recruit Messi. They paid the English phenomenon $6.5m a year, more than three times the then-cap of $2.1m. (He also received the option to purchase a franchise at a reduced fee, leading to his stake in Inter Miami.)
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In the intervening 16 years, the MLS landscape has changed dramatically. The league’s 29 teams boast 78 DPs across their 2023 rosters. In 2022, 12% of the players in the league earned annual wages of more than $1m, up from 5% in 2017, and just four total players — Beckham, Claudio Reyna, Juan Pablo Angel and Cuauhtemoc Blanco — in 2007.
The ways in which teams use their now-three Designated Player slots have changed, too. Some, like Toronto FC who last summer brought in Italy international Lorenzo Insigne on a $14m-a-year salary and Azzurri teammate Federico Bernardeschi for a little less than half that, try to hit home runs with stars in their later prime. Case in point: according to MLS Players Association data, Toronto, Atlanta United, LAFC and Miami spent more on their trio of DPs than the Colorado Rapids and the New York Red Bulls spent on their entire rosters in 2021.
These big spenders boosted the transfer market, making MLS the highest-spending league on transfer fees in the Americas with a record $159.9m in 2021, but the strategy of bringing in big names has been hit or miss. For every Carlos Vela, who has been electric for LAFC when healthy, there’s a Douglas Costa of the LA Galaxy, who has been… well, not.
“There are a number of DPs that have come into the league who are very recognizable for what they’ve done in the past, but then didn’t have the impact on the field [in MLS],” said Padraig Smith, executive vice president and general manager of the Colorado Rapids.
Then there are clubs, the Rapids being one of them, that are taking a different DP path. Smith cited newly signed center-back Andreas Maxso as an example of a player who won’t break the budget, but will, he hopes, make a big impact.
“He is somebody that we had real visibility on, from a character perspective,” Smith said. “We had a member of our staff who had worked with him for an extended period of time, so we knew the type of man we were bringing into the group and that gave us confidence in terms of the type of person he was going to be. And then you have everything else that goes into it as well: the analytics, the eyes-on scouting, talking to people that have played with them. All of these things factor into the decision-making process.”
MLS’ focus on the youth ranks is altering the makeup of how some teams approach the DP process. FC Dallas, a club known for their robust academy ranks, promoted homegrown signing Jesus Ferreira to a DP deal in 2022. It’s good business, and a beneficial example.
“It’s a great message to our academy players,” said FCD chief soccer officer and technical director Andre Zanotta, “to show them we’re not afraid to make our own players the designated ones.”
Or take a club like the Chicago Fire with some successes — notably, the transfer of teenager Jhon Duran to Aston Villa for an $18m fee just a season after he joined the league, and homegrown goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina to Chelsea for $10m — and some big misses, like Xherdan Shaqiri. During the 2022 season, the Switzerland star produced 0.4 goals plus assists minus penalties per 90 minutes and 0.44 non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists per 90 in 27 starts for a Fire team that finished 24th in MLS.
Brenner of FC Cincinnati led the league in the former category with 1.01 G+A-PK/90 while former New York City FC striker Valentin Castellanos topped MLS in NPxG+xA/90 with 0.81. Shaqiri’s numbers are fine, but hardly the type of return one might want or expect from a man who held a spot as the league’s highest-paid player.
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Fire technical director Sebastian Pelzer hopes Shaqiri will improve this season, noting the success he had last year when he was on the field, and also points to how much easier it is to recruit players than in the past.
“The Apple deal is an interesting part that was also very helpful,” Pelzer said. “You can watch MLS matches all over the place in Europe and people also see that the stadiums are full.”
Pelzer also noted the path of Adam Buksa, the Poland international who joined the New England Revolution as a DP in 2020, poured in 29 goals in 64 matches, then moved back to Europe, signing with Lens in Ligue 1. DPs aren’t just retirement projects anymore.
Taking a big swing on a DP risks more than simply a missed opportunity or poorly spent cash. It can hamper youth development, too, as a promising young player can find his playing time blocked by an expensive import. Dallas’ Zanotta noted this was the case when they signed Franco Jara, only to see Ricardo Pepi improve dramatically and push for playing time.
“Jara was a great guy and he really helped us push our young players,” Zanotta said. “But we didn’t expect Pepi to have the success he had [so quickly]. It’s hard to to plan in advance.” He added that FCD have already decided not to sign a player because they felt one of their youth prospects in the same position was close to first-team playing time.
In the end, the DP rule remains a work in progress. Enacted to do one thing — land Beckham — it’s now being used in different ways by different teams. This represents progress, and teams building their rosters in various ways will increase efficiency within the league.
There will always be a need for MLS teams to be able to spend in excess of the salary cap, otherwise clubs will miss out of the possibility of getting a player of Messi’s caliber. At the same time, many are chaffing against league-imposed restrictions. “If you would be able make the total budget more flexible, that would be interesting to see,” Pelzer said. “This is why the MLS is so interesting, because there’s always room for improvement.”
Earlier this year, LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo expressed a hope that the league would take the “next step” in loosening salary restrictions. Others hope this is the case too, both on and off the record. For the league to reach its potential, perhaps it’s time to think “outside the box” again.