DP is the Answer; Fire May Not Know How to Wield the Tool

Jeff Gross

Designated players help teams in MLS, but you have to know how to help yourself

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.

MLS Tools

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.

Designated Players

The Chicago Fire signed 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.

Seasons Player G A M
GP90 AP90 G+AP90
2007-2009 Cuauhtemoc Blanco 16 26 5083 0.28 0.46 0.74
2010 Freddie Ljungberg 2 7 1200 0.15 0.53 0.68
2010 Nery Castillo 0 0 487 0.00 0.00 0.00
2012 Fedrico Puppo 0 1 216 0.00 0.42 0.42
2012 Alvaro Fernandez 2 1 943 0.19 0.10 0.29
2012-2013 Sherjil MacDonald 4 5 1612 0.22 0.28 0.50
2013 Juan Luis Anangono 0 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00

Total 24 40 9541 0.23 0.38 0.60

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 Clint Dempsey). Chicago has signed almost as many designated players as the league leader, the Seattle Sounders so let's take a side by side comparison and see how designated players from both teams have performed.

Seasons Player G A M GP90 AP90 G+AP90 Seasons Player G A M GP90 AP90 G+AP90
2007-2009 Blanco 16 26 5083 0.28 0.46 0.74 2009-2010 Ljungberg 2 12 3067 0.06 0.35 0.41
2010 Ljungberg 2 7 1200 0.15 0.53 0.68 2009-2012 Montero 47 34 9450 0.45 0.32 0.77
2010 Castillo 0 0 487 0.00 0.00 0.00 2009 Nkufo 5 0 942 0.48 0.00 0.48
2012 Puppo 0 1 216 0.00 0.42 0.42 2010-2012 Fernandez 13 3 4238 0.28 0.06 0.34
2012 Fernandez 2 1 943 0.19 0.10 0.29 2011-2013 Rosales 10 30 5062 0.18 0.53 0.71
2012-2013 MacDonald 4 5 1612 0.22 0.28 0.50 2012 Tiffert 0 3 978 0.00 0.28 0.28
2013 Anagono 0 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00 2013 Joseph 0 0 428 0.00 0.00 0.00
Total 24 40 9541 0.23 0.38 0.60 2013 Martins 6 3 905 0.60 0.30 0.90
2013 Dempsey 0 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00
Total 83 85 25070 0.30 0.31 0.60

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.

Team G A # MINS GP90 AP90 G+AP90 MINPP
RSL 72 61 2 18754 0.35 0.30 0.64 9,377
NE 43 36 3 25767 0.15 0.13 0.28 8,589
LAG 141 144 4 31364 0.40 0.41 0.82 7,841
SJ 70 18 2 10954 0.58 0.15 0.72 5,477
CLB 58 56 3 13378 0.39 0.38 0.77 4,459
NYRB 104 56 6 25055 0.37 0.20 0.57 4,176
PDX 13 15 3 10070 0.12 0.13 0.25 3,357
SEA 83 85 8 25070 0.30 0.31 0.60 3,134
SKC 31 21 3 9274 0.30 0.20 0.50 3,091
FCD 34 46 5 15340 0.20 0.27 0.47 3,068
MON 16 5 1 3029 0.48 0.15 0.62 3,029
DC 52 18 5 10860 0.43 0.15 0.58 2,172
TFC 21 9 5 10785 0.18 0.08 0.25 2,157
HOU 6 13 2 3496 0.15 0.33 0.49 1,748
CHV 15 1 3 5073 0.27 0.02 0.28 1,691
VAN 23 8 4 6418 0.32 0.11 0.43 1,605
CHI 24 40 6 9541 0.23 0.38 0.60 1,590
PHI 5 1 2 1738 0.26 0.05 0.31 869
COL 0 0 1 200 0.00 0.00 0.00 200

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.

Individual Success

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.

Seasons Team Player G A Minutes GP90 AP90 G+AP90
2003-2012 NE Shalrie Joseph 37 34 22866 0.15 0.13 0.28
2005-2013 LAG Landon Donovan 95 85 17933 0.48 0.43 0.90
2007-2013 RSL Javier Morales 25 50 11523 0.20 0.39 0.59
2009-2013 SJ Chris Wondolowski 69 15 10177 0.61 0.13 0.74
2009-2012 SEA Fredy Montero 47 34 9450 0.45 0.32 0.77
2009-2013 FCD David Ferreira 22 36 8963 0.22 0.36 0.58
2007-2010 NYRB Juan Pablo Angel 58 14 8806 0.59 0.14 0.74
2007-2010 CLB Guillermo Barros Schelotto 33 41 8182 0.36 0.45 0.81
2007-2012 LAG David Beckham 18 40 8066 0.20 0.45 0.65
2010-2013 RSL Alvaro Saborio 47 11 7051 0.60 0.14 0.74
2010-2013 NYRB Thierry Henry 38 24 7001 0.49 0.31 0.80
2007-2010 DC Luciano Emilio 41 8 6778 0.54 0.11 0.65
2011-2013 PDX Diego Chara 2 7 6621 0.03 0.10 0.12
2007-2009 CHI Cuauhtemoc Blanco 16 26 5083 0.28 0.46 0.74
2011-2013 SEA Mauro Rosales 10 30 5062 0.18 0.53 0.71
2009-2012 TFC Julian de Guzman 2 3 4817 0.04 0.06 0.09
2008-2009 SKC Claudio Lopez 13 15 4766 0.25 0.28 0.53
2011-2013 FCD Fabian Castillo 10 7 4419 0.20 0.14 0.35
2010-2012 SEA Alvaro Fernandez 13 3 4238 0.28 0.06 0.34
2011-2013 LAG Robbie Keane 25 18 3846 0.59 0.42 1.01
2010-2012 NYRB Rafael Marquez 1 9 3454 0.03 0.23 0.26
2009-2010 SEA Freddie Ljungberg 2 12 3067 0.06 0.35 0.41
2012-2013 MON Marco Di Vaio 16 5 3029 0.48 0.15 0.62
2012-2013 CLB Federico Higuain 10 13 2970 0.30 0.39 0.70
2011-2012 TFC Torsten Frings 2 3 2793 0.06 0.10 0.16
2011-2012 VAN Eric Hassli 12 5 2762 0.39 0.16 0.55
2012-2013 HOU Oscar Boniek Garcia 4 10 2700 0.13 0.33 0.47
2012-2013 NYRB Tim Cahill 7 6 2665 0.24 0.20 0.44
2010-2011 CLB Andres Mendoza 15 2 2226 0.61 0.08 0.69
2012-2013 CHV Oswaldo Minda 2 0 2194 0.08 0.00 0.08
2007-2008 NYRB Claudio Reyna 0 3 2184 0.00 0.12 0.12
2011 SKC Omar Bravo 9 2 2150 0.38 0.08 0.46
2011-2013 TFC Danny Koevermans 17 3 2020 0.76 0.13 0.89
2010-2012 DC Branko Boskovic 1 7 1976 0.05 0.32 0.36
2012-2013 NE Jerry Bengtson 3 0 1910 0.14 0.00 0.14
2012 PDX Kris Boyd 7 1 1893 0.33 0.05 0.38
2011-2012 CHV Juan Pablo Angel 11 0 1799 0.55 0.00 0.55
2013 SKC Claudio Bieler 9 3 1787 0.45 0.15 0.60
2012-2013 VAN Kenny Miller 8 1 1785 0.40 0.05 0.45
2012-2013 CHI Sherjill MacDonald 4 5 1612 0.22 0.28 0.50
2013 PDX Diego Valeri 4 7 1556 0.23 0.40 0.64
2011 LAG Juan Pablo Angel 3 1 1519 0.18 0.06 0.24
2011-2012 PHI Freddy Adu 5 1 1468 0.31 0.06 0.37
2012 VAN Barry Robson 3 2 1421 0.19 0.13 0.32
2013 TFC Matias Laba 1 0 1245 0.07 0.00 0.07
2010 CHI Freddie Ljungberg 2 7 1200 0.15 0.53 0.68
2008 DC Marcelo Gallardo 4 3 1161 0.31 0.23 0.54
2012 CHV Shalrie Joseph 2 1 1080 0.17 0.08 0.25
2011 NE Milton Caraglio 3 2 991 0.27 0.18 0.45
2012 SEA Christian Tiffert 0 3 978 0.00 0.28 0.28
2012 DC Hamdi Salihi 6 0 945 0.57 0.00 0.57
2011 NYRB Frank Rost 0 0 945 0.00 0.00 0.00
2012 CHI Alvaro Fernandez 2 1 943 0.19 0.10 0.29
2009 SEA Blaise Nkufo 5 0 942 0.48 0.00 0.48
2012 FCD Julian de Guzman 1 2 929 0.10 0.19 0.29
2013 SEA Obafemi Martins 6 3 905 0.60 0.30 0.90
2009-2010 HOU Luis Angel Landin 2 3 796 0.23 0.34 0.57
2010 SJ Geovanni 1 3 777 0.12 0.35 0.46
2007 FCD Denilson 1 0 606 0.15 0.00 0.15
2011 SKC Jeferson 0 1 571 0.00 0.16 0.16
2010 TFC Mista 0 1 544 0.00 0.17 0.17
2010 CHI Nery Castillo 0 0 487 0.00 0.00 0.00
2011 VAN Mustapha Jarju 0 0 450 0.00 0.00 0.00
2013 SEA Joseph 0 0 428 0.00 0.00 0.00
2013 FCD Eric Hassli 0 1 423 0.00 0.21 0.21
2013 PHI Kleberson 0 0 270 0.00 0.00 0.00
2012 CHI Federico Puppo 0 1 216 0.00 0.42 0.42
2010 COL Claudio Lopez 0 0 200 0.00 0.00 0.00
2013 DC Rafael 0 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00

*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.

Seasons Team Player G A Minutes GP90 AP90 G+AP90
2012-2013 CLB Federico Higuain 10 13 2970 0.30 0.39 0.70
2011-2013 FCD Fabian Castillo 10 7 4419 0.20 0.14 0.35
2012-2013 HOU Oscar Boniek Garcia 4 10 2700 0.13 0.33 0.47
2011-2013 LAG Robbie Keane 25 18 3846 0.59 0.42 1.01
2012-2013 MON Marco Di Vaio 16 5 3029 0.48 0.15 0.62
2012-2013 NYRB Tim Cahill 7 6 2665 0.24 0.20 0.44
2013 PDX Diego Valeri 4 7 1556 0.23 0.40 0.64
2013 SEA Obafemi Martins 6 3 905 0.60 0.30 0.90
2013 SKC Claudio Bieler 9 3 1787 0.45 0.15 0.60
2011-2013 TFC Danny Koevermans 17 3 2020 0.76 0.13 0.89
2012-2013 VAN Kenny Miller 8 1 1785 0.40 0.05 0.45

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 Chivas USA, 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, FC Dallas, 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.

"Yes, that is a big challenge, but it's one that the fans of the Fire deserve to have met."

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.

I'm sick of our designated player tool being blunt and our DPs being the Lowe'st while Home Depot gets all the hardware.

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