Waiting for the summer international transfer window to open in the middle of this Chicago Fire season has brought back the anxious feelings of the last off-season and pre-season. The combination of a continuously frustrating season and having far too much time on my hands at work has me scrutinizing rumor sites, blogs, and foreign newspapers for any hint of what might be in the works. In this altered state of mind, a number of seemingly unconnected events have gotten me thinking about the Designated Player system and how MLS teams might use this rule in a new way. Follow me after the jump for some rumors, speculation, and analysis of the state of the DP system.
A few things conspired to get me on this train of thought: the Gold Cup final, commentary on the divergent performances of Giovani dos Santos and Pablo Barrera at the club and international levels, a far-fetched rumor about Inter midfielder Sulley Muntari being interested in MLS, the Gold Cup final, and Thierry Henry and NYRB in Chicago last Sunday. I'll address these pieces in reverse order, as that's what it took for me to put this together.
Henry, like David Beckham before him, represents the typical approach to the Designated Player position -- an older player with high- or top-level European club experience who brings world-class talent and veteran leadership, if in a slightly-worn package. While only a few other DP's even approach the same heights as these two, most of the 15 active DPs (that is, excluding FCD's Fabian Castillo, who only qualifies because of his transfer fee) fit the same bill. 10 of the 15 are 30 or older and 12 have club experience in Europe. The average guaranteed salary for these players 30 and up is $2.275 million, with Beckham, Henry, and Marquez leading the group at $6.5, $5.6, and $4.6 mil respectively.
In contrast, the average salary among the 5 DPs under 30 is $750,000, a figure which is skewed upward by the inclusion of Landon Donovan (age 29), who makes $2.3 million. If we exclude him, that figure drops to about $363,000. Also in this group is Alvaro Saborio, who is also 29. So there are really only three young DPs currently on league rosters: Fredy Montero (SSFC, 23), Alvaro Fernandez (SSFC, 25), and Diego Chara (Portland, 25). These three represent a different approach to the DP, enticing younger, talented players (Fernandez and Chara) and rewarding those who have performed well (or, usually well -- Montero).
What if there were a third approach to the DP, combining the salary of the old guys with the promise and talent of the younger ones?
This rumor about Sulley Muntari got me started thinking about this. It only claims that Muntari would be open to offers from MLS, nothing more, but he certainly would be a fantastic addition to any team. Though Muntari has fallen from grace a bit of late, he is still only 26, has world-class experience, and is no doubt quite talented. The obvious obstacle here is that he is still under contract at Inter for another year, and unless his value has absolute plummeted or the club is desperate to unload him, it seems incredibly unlikely that any MLS franchise could afford the probably $10-15 million transfer fee (based on value listed at transfermarkt.co.uk), let alone his salary.
This brings us (finally) to the Gold Cup and Mexico's young, dynamic attackers Giovani dos Santos (22, a Barcelona youth product) and Pablo Barrera (24, Pumas youth product), who put on quite a show against the US in Pasadena. Yet both have struggled for playing time and consistent form at their respective clubs (Tottenham and West Ham). Michael Cox did a good piece on dos Santos for ESPN, delving into the complex reasons behind this.
Most likely due to these inconsistent club performances, dos Santos and Barrera are valued much lower on transfermartk.co.uk; they are listed at €3.5 million ($5 mil) and €5 million ($7.2 mil), respectively. These are still very high numbers for MLS and I am by no means suggesting that either of these will or would come to the US any time soon. Furthermore, both remain under contract; dos Santos is in year four of five at Tottenham and Barrera is in his second of four at West Ham, though both have been discussed as possible summer movers (particularly Barrera, with West Ham taking the drop to the Championship). Since they remain under contract, this means transfer fees, which MLS notoriously does not like to pay (because they are incredibly expensive).
What I do mean to suggest is that there may be an opportunity to spend larger DP salaries on very talented young players. There are lots of top-notch youth products from the best clubs in Europe who don't ever make it to the first team, but are still very, very talented and could be worth the investment. While Henry remains a dangerous player, watching move at Toyota Park last Saturday was sometimes painful. I would think that 23-year old version of Henry with even half the talent would be worth at least a quarter of what the former Barca star is making in New York.
Of course, there are some risks. Paying a young talent a few million and putting him in a squad with seasoned vets making $100-200K could cause tensions. And younger, less-proven players are riskier investments; with an Henry, you know you're getting a talent that's been proven time and time again on the world stage; a young dos Santos or Barrera could be as big of a disappointment in MLS as in the Premiership.
Nevertheless, I think there could be something to this possibility. It could potentially do more to improve the quality of play and the image of the league than bringing in stars on their last legs, even if you lost some of the name recognition and brand power. Even better would be some combination of both. A dos Santos or Barrera could be a huge draw in a market like Chicago, just like Blanco was -- except this would be a Blanco who could play for years or be sold to a top-flight European team for big money.
Will this happen in Chicago? I don't think so, at least not right not now. I can't really see it happening anywhere in the league at the moment. The current focus seems to be on youth development, growing our own young stars, which is also fantastic. If it works, we wouldn't need to buy them from elsewhere.
I'm fairly certain Chicago will bring in Grazzini. As best I can tell, he's out of contract at All Boys in Argentina and his price tag (again, per transfermarkt) is much lower -- he's listed at €500,000 ($720,000) and is 30 years old. This puts him in line with DPs like Branko Boskovic (31, DCU, $525,000/yr), David Ferreira (31, FCD, $705,000/yr), and Andres Mendoza (33, Columbus, $595,000/yr). These players, Ferreira especially, have made significant contributions at their clubs and I would expect that Grazzini could do the same. I'd be happy and excited to see him bring some central midfield composure and creativity to our young team.