Each sports league has their own set of quirky rules for signing different players. While it's easy to think of Major League Baseball as a sport primarily driven by the MLB Draft of high school and college players, there's a complicated international signings system. Individuals from the Dominican Republic continue to dominate these signings but other countries like Venezuela and Colombia are turning out top prospects. MLB.com's 4th Top International prospect is Italian. In the name of Mike Piazza, the end times might be near.
Italians following baseball might categorize MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball's posting system as the traditional transfer fee the soccer world employs. MLS fans following MLB might see some similarities in weird league drafts and rules (Rule 5 Draft? Trades via waivers after the trade deadline?). There are a couple of different tools that MLB front offices must use to the best of their advantage if they want to increase their odds of winning.
Free agency in the offseason and midseason trades during the season provide the most immediate boost to a team's talent. Both tools come with significant risk and the use of much capital. Free agency requires a lot of money. Midseason trades require parting with a lot of talent.
MLS' equivalent to free agency or the blockbuster midseason trade is signing a Designated Player. This tool allows teams to sign almost any player in the world regardless of price as long as they have about $350,000 of room available in the salary cap.
MLS trades are allowed but it's not the same. Teams don't have boatload of prospects to cash in for a player that can provide an immediate impact. When 10 of 19 teams make the playoffs, everyone can envision their team going to MLS Cup if not this season, at least the next. In addition, prospects in soccer are a dime a dozen. The universe of good talent for MLS is vast while the universe of good talent for MLB is smaller and more controlled. That's why you have to break out good money to get a designated player; the best tool in the toolbox for immediate help.
Thesigned one of the very first designated players on April 2nd, 2007 when they inked legendary Mexican international Cuahtemoc Blanco. Blanco went on to become one of the best players in the Fire's history, one of the best designated players to date, and a real catalyst for Chicago all around. The club very successfully used the designated player tool to their advantage during Blanco's tenure.
Since club owner Andrew Hauptman purchased the team in the summer of 2007, the club has not enjoyed the same success when newly using the designated player tool. This is the case despite the fact that the number of designated players allowed per team increased from one to two in 2010, and then from two to three in 2013. This lack of designated player success is not for a lack of trying either. Here are the stats for designated players in Chicago Fire history.
|2013||Juan Luis Anangono||0||0||0||0.00||0.00||0.00|
Freddie Ljungberg enjoyed a slightly higher assists per 90 minutes rate than Blanco but the Fire couldn’t re-sign Ljungberg at the end of the season. Sherjill MacDonald is not far off from Blanco in goals per 90 minutes but the Dutchman’s drop in form has been so bad this year that head coach Frank Klopas doesn’t even include MacDonald in the Gameday 18 for some matches. Rumors abound that the team would love to ship MacDonald somewhere else.
Juan Luis Anangono is a new player so maybe he will save the day. Nothing against our new Ecuadorian target forward but evidence suggests he doesn’t stand a chance. If MacDonald does get loaned out to another team, he will keep the streak alive as 3 designated players in a row have been loaned out shortly after their acquisition: Nery Castillo, Federico Puppo, and Alvaro Fernandez.
When the Fire sign designated players, they end up being players the team suddenly can’t wait to get rid of. No wonder an editorial gracing Chicago-Fire.com said signing a great designated player is ‘really hard’.
How Hard Is It?
The editorial also noted that fans should take notice that the Fire have signed as many designated players as any team in the league (a statement later corrected that the Fire are short one and now two with the signing of ). Chicago has signed almost as many designated players as the league leader, the so let's take a side by side comparison and see how designated players from both teams have performed.
The rates may be similar but Seattle crushes Chicago in overall production. Chicago's rates would be much lower if they had continued to play their designated players more often. Some Fire designated players have ended up being so poor, it makes you wonder how they weren't vetted more in the first place.
In the Fire's defense, Seattle didn't exactly hit a home run with Blaise Nkufo or Christian Tiffert but at least they produced some results and were played in the starting lineup. Why has Chicago paid a lot of money for a couple of players that ended up being on the bench? Shouldn't that level of talent and temperament be figured out before the player is offered a large contract?
The Rest of the League
Pitting Chicago and Seattle against each other might be a little disingenuous. After all, Seattle has a great deal of money. They have over 35,000 fans at every game. They don't pay for the stadium they play in and their operations are bankrolled by the Seattle Seahawks. I think Chicago should constantly be aiming for 35,000 fans at every game but one step at a time. Rome wasn't built in a day. In case Seattle's money is putting the team over the top, let's take a look at league totals sorted by average minutes per players.
Blanco played 5,083 minutes for Chicago but the average minutes for Chicago designated players has fallen to 1,590 minutes. There's been no consistency from our designated players whatsoever. Only Philadelphia with Freddy Adu and Kleberson and the Rapids with 200 minutes from Claudio Lopez average less minutes from their designated players.
In the source data for the teams, some people might have qualms with how the data is put together. Here is the list of designated players I'm referring to and what seasons I'm counting their stats for.
|2007-2010||CLB||Guillermo Barros Schelotto||33||41||8182||0.36||0.45||0.81|
|2009-2012||TFC||Julian de Guzman||2||3||4817||0.04||0.06||0.09|
|2012-2013||HOU||Oscar Boniek Garcia||4||10||2700||0.13||0.33||0.47|
|2011-2012||CHV||Juan Pablo Angel||11||0||1799||0.55||0.00||0.55|
|2011||LAG||Juan Pablo Angel||3||1||1519||0.18||0.06||0.24|
|2012||FCD||Julian de Guzman||1||2||929||0.10||0.19||0.29|
|2009-2010||HOU||Luis Angel Landin||2||3||796||0.23||0.34||0.57|
*Recent signings like Clint Dempsey and Juan Luis Anangono are not on this list
Shalrie Joseph, Chris Wondolowski, Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales, and others' stats might seem unfair since they didn't become designated players until after they signed with their MLS team. However, those teams developed that player to a designated player level. Even if you want to take those players out of consideration, you still have 5 Fire designated players that don't even crack the top half of the minutes played list. Chicago has not developed any players into DPs while other teams have.
The Fire want to tell us it's really hard but here's a list of players signed since 2011 that I would like to see in Fire red. I'm limiting this list to one player per team and players that were brought in as designated players.
|2012-2013||HOU||Oscar Boniek Garcia||4||10||2700||0.13||0.33||0.47|
|2012-2013||MON||Marco Di Vaio||16||5||3029||0.48||0.15||0.62|
If you took any of those 11 players, I believe they would start for Chicago right away. That's 11 quality designated players signed just since 2011 and the only one that is getting ‘Keane-like' money is Robbie Keane. A couple of these players make less than $750,000.
DP the Answer
The teams remaining after that list of 11 are, Colorado, D.C., New England, Philadelphia, Salt Lake, and San Jose. Salt Lake didn't sign a DP off the foreign market in the last 3 seasons but they did make two of their current players DPs; Saborio and Morales. Salt Lake only trails Montreal in PPG at this point in the season. Philadelphia is the only other team in this group that would qualify for the playoffs based on current PPG right now and they are clinging.
Of the 11 with the DPs I would like to have on the Fire, only Columbus,, and Toronto would miss the playoffs right now based on current PPG. It appears if the question is 'To DP or not DP', the answer is surely 'To DP'.
The Right Use of Tools
The odd thing about the 'To DP or not DP' editorial is that's the question. It seems like a better group of questions would be:
Why the heck do you keep signing designated players when your track record is so poor?
Why does it seem like the same people in the front office are signing the same kind of designated players again and again?
Should I bother to get excited about a MLS team that can't effectively use MLS' most effective (and only?) way to acquire the best players in the world?
Why are we paying a seven-figure transfer fee for a player like Juan Luis Anangono when we could be paying a six-figure salary to dozens of other more effective players that would help a team that is primarily made of players closer to 30 than they are to 20?
Is the answer to the last question that MLS is paying transfer fees for multiple moves these days and the Fire are getting the label of designated player without spending the total amount of money?
Perhaps the biggest question of them all comes in response to the last line of the editorial.
At what point will someone in the Fire organization take responsibility for the repeated failure of meeting that challenge and when will we see change?
Right now I view the Fire as a baseball team that is unable to sign big free agents so they sign mediocre ones to tell the fans they are trying. The Pittsburgh Pirates did that for years when Dave Littlefield ran the show between 2001 to 2007. Finally enough was enough and Littlefield was fired. The new general manger Neil Huntington has used different tools to build the Pirates back to the top of the league. Maybe the Fire need a Neil Hungtington but a perspective on using the strengths of the organization would be a nice start.