Story by Alex Baker
SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Didier Drogba made waves this week when after not being named to the starting eleven for Montreal Impact’s game against Toronto FC, he refused to accept a role on the bench and ultimately, refused to play. As shocking as it may seem, Drogba’s move, which would be unthinkable in any of Europe’s top leagues, is not without precedent in Major League Soccer.
Legendary Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry refused to take part in any matches contested on turf during his tenure with New York Red Bulls. David Beckham’s consecutive loan spells with AC Milan – in 2009 and 2010 – overlapped with regular season play for LA Galaxy.
Even Drogba himself raised eyebrows earlier this season by refusing to take part in the Impact’s regular preseason and instead training on his own – first in Qatar and then in Northern California with Sacramento Republic FC.
It’s now approaching 10 years since Beckham signed for the Galaxy and ushered in the era of the designated player, with each team allowed to sign three players above the salary cap. In that time, we’ve seen the model generate mixed results for MLS.
Cases like the Drogba situation, where a player seemingly places their own interests above those of the team, or even seemingly declares himself bigger than the team by his own actions, have been rare for the most part. But the fact that they’re still occurring, a decade on from the Beckham signing, should be something of a concern.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Beckham signing in 2007 was the most significant development in MLS since the league’s founding in 1996. Beckham made the world sit up and take notice of the American top-flight league. And he opened the door for the signings that would follow; first the likes of Henry, Robbie Keane, Tim Cahill and Torsten Frings, and the current crop of DPs, which in addition to Keane includes Giovani Dos Santos, Kaka, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Steven Gerrard.
Designated players have had an undeniable value to the league in terms of marketing. It’s much easier to attract neutrals and avid followers of the European game when you’ve got aging superstars like Villa, Pirlo and Gerrard on the pitch. But beyond attracting gawkers and local members of the Liverpool supporters club, the question is, do the DPs add real value on the pitch?
It’s a tricky question and perhaps the most clear-cut answer for it is, yes.
Beckham was hampered by injuries during the early stages of his Galaxy career. Later, when he was fit again, he seemed to regret the move and looked to be angling for a way back to Europe. It was only after being injured while on loan with Milan and bypassed for England’s World Cup squad in 2010 that he finally seemed to buckle down and contribute for the Galaxy.
But buckle down he did, as he became an integral part of the Galaxy team that won back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012. His Galaxy teammate Robbie Keane, who could be regarded as the most successful DP ever, required no such settling in period and helped the Galaxy to another MLS Cup in 2014. Keane, a no muss, no fuss Irishman, has also for the most part been a team player.
Other DPs have made similar contributions with Villa and Lampard leading the scoring for NYCFC this season and Pirlo leading in assists.
Back at the Galaxy, Dos Santos has unquestionably been the team’s best player this season and leads in both goals and assists. Meanwhile, in Toronto Giovinco also leads in goals and assists and is continuing to stake his claim as perhaps the best player to have ever played in MLS.
Even Drogba has managed 10 goals and six assists for Montreal, although it’s interesting to note the Impact have a better record without him than with him this season.
But elsewhere, there are DPs whose stories have not been so successful. Gerrard, despite good intentions, has been something of a disappointment overall for the Galaxy. Kaka has been pretty good for Orlando City although at times, the team’s tendency to try and play everything through him has been a hindrance.
Then there’s the case of the American DPs; leading players for the United States men’s national team, who not too long ago would’ve been (or actually were) playing in Europe, but have returned to, or remained in, MLS, lured by the big money of DP contracts.
Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi, and Tim Howard are all examples of such players. All of them have contributed to their teams relative successes in MLS, mostly justifying their price tags. Although U.S. soccer fans, and certainly U.S. soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann, would probably prefer to watch such players on TV plying their trades in one of Europe’s big leagues.
Despite its obvious shortcomings, it’s hard not to argue that MLS still needs the designated player model. Not every DP is a success but then again, every season we see big players go to big clubs in Europe and flop just as hard. It also provides clubs a means to inject a bit of class, quality and experience into their lineups that might not otherwise be possible under the current MLS salary cap system.
And as much as MLS fans might not like to admit (this writer included), DPs can bring a quality and spectacle to the league that despite having improved by huge strides in recent years, can still produce games that are badly lacking in the kind of quality we see in top-flight games in England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
So for the time-being it would seem that MLS needs its designated players, although perhaps the league does need to send a message that no player is bigger than his team, or the league itself. Buying out the remaining months of Drogba’s contract and unceremoniously releasing him would be one good way to send that message.