Are aging Designated Players a smart investment for MLS clubs?
The surprising success of the Montreal Impact is one of the leading storylines in early Major League Soccer playoff action. On Thursday, Mauro Biello's club went into the unfriendly confines of RFK Stadium and easily dispatched D.C. United 4-2. On Sunday afternoon, the Impact held serve at Stade Saputo and won 1-0 to hand the New York Red Bulls their first defeat since July 3. Not a bad four days for a team that has done little of note during its half-decade in MLS.
Notably absent from both matches was superstar Didier Drogba, who made headlines when he signed with the club midway through the 2015 season. The two-time African Footballer of the Year was electric for two months last year, scoring 11 goals in his first 11 games, but struggled with injuries and inconsistency during the 2016 campaign.
Although Drogba managed 10 tallies and six assists over 22 matches (18 starts), he lost his starting spot to Italian Matteo Mancosu and asked out of the 18 after learning he would come off the bench against Toronto FC on Oct. 16. He reportedly missed the match against the Red Bulls because of a back injury, but that might be a convenient excuse for a player who looks to be on his way out of Montreal.
The Drogba Saga is but the latest example of MLS' eternal question: Are Designated Players worth the cost? More specifically, are the Drogba-type DPs -- the aging superstars who join MLS for one last multimillion-dollar paycheck -- smart investments? Increasingly, that answer appears to be no.
According to Sportrac.com, there are 13 players making more than $2 million per season: Kaka, Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Giovani dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Tim Howard and Drogba. Of that baker's dozen, only the Toronto FC trio and dos Santos are under 30. Take a look at the remaining nine players: Villa and Howard are the two who earned their millions with their play on the field. The rest, while exhibiting moments of brilliance, haven't been consistent enough to justify their paychecks.
That's mostly because of injury -- what do you expect from players in their mid-to-late 30s? -- but there are other issues. When healthy, Keane has been exceptional, with 83 goals in 125 matches, but he has managed just 38 starts the past two seasons. Furthermore, as Taylor Twellman noted during the Galaxy playoff broadcast Sunday night, Keane and dos Santos haven't clicked on the field. In 2016, 14 of the Mexican star's 15 league goals came when Keane wasn't on the field. Sometimes, too much of a good thing can be just that: too much.
Yes, signing a superstar is about more than on-field considerations. There's the marketing angle to consider, promotional appearances to make and uniforms to sell.
On that front, the big-money men mostly succeed on some level, with all but Bradley and Altidore seeing their shirts among the top 15 sellers halfway through this season. (TFC fans, buy some jerseys!) Although I won't pretend to know how MLS's byzantine financial structure directs uniform revenue, it stands to reason that Montreal made back some of its investment in Drogba because he has the seventh-most purchased uniform. New York City FC does better with Pirlo first and Villa third, though both men cost nearly three times the former Ivory Coast captain, and Lampard, the best paid of the trio, is only ninth in jersey sales.
There's also a perception problem with signing aging DPs. When Drogba or insert-your-favorite-mid-30s-star-here comes to MLS and dominates, the talking point around the soccer world is that the quality of the league is low. If he struggles, however, it's because he's too old to succeed and made the decision to come only because he didn't have better options. There's no way for MLS to win. The focus on older players makes it all too easy to perpetuate the Retirement League narrative.
More than anything, though, the DP conundrum comes down to production and return on investment. In a league with limited resources, does it make sense to spend 20, 40 or 60 times more on one player than another, no matter how good the first man is?
Even a player such as Giovinco, who has been excellent since he arrived, is a stretch. Wouldn't you rather pay the Impact's Ignacio Piatti $425,000 per season than more than 16 times that figure to secure the services of the Atomic Ant? What about Drogba at $2,191,667 per season or Matteo Mancosu, the man who took his place and tallied three goals and an assist in two playoff games, for $189,000? Or Bradley ($6,500,000) versus Osvaldo Alonso ($941,667), Dax McCarty ($500,000)? Pirlo ($5,915,690) versus Sacha Kljestan ($687,500), or Diego Valeri ($605,000) or Mauro Diaz ($562,890)?
Those examples are cherry-picked, but DP salaries, especially those of more than $2 million, are so skewed that it is nearly impossible for a player making so much to offer a positive ROI.
All games aren't equal, and to paraphrase Bruce Arena, the playoffs are a time when your best players need to be your best players. There's some truth that a big-name DP can float through the year, only to show up in the postseason and deliver. Nelson Valdez scored a single goal in 1,313 MLS regular-season minutes, a horrific number for any striker and downright criminal considering the $1,455,000 Seattle paid him. Yet he caught fire last week and netted three in just 240 minutes.
If he continues the hot streak and helps the Sounders raise their first MLS Cup, will he have been worth the investment? Seattle fans might think so, and they might not be wrong. But even so, it's hard to argue the money couldn't or wouldn't have been better spent elsewhere. In a league in which the salary cap is $3.6 million, $1.4 million is a tremendous outlay on a player who shines for just six matches.
As MLS grows, there's a delicate balance to find when it comes to teams making massive outlays of cash. Get it right -- the Giovincos, the Villas -- and the team benefits on the field and off enough to more or less justify the expense. But it's too easy to make a mistake and miss, which hurts both the team in question and the league as a whole.
At the end of Sunday's 1-0 Impact win, the cameras cut to Drogba standing on the sideline shivering, a man left out in the cold, no longer wanted or needed. Anyone who says that scene came as a surprise hasn't been paying attention.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.