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  • Progress!!


    Well, no sooner do I resolve to take a more optimistic outlook to the strange, self-inflicted blandness of Our Little League, than the powers-that-be at Major League Soccer do the right thing, and give each team the option to spend their own money on a second Designated Player.

    And a third!


    The idea (if you haven’t been trudging through this swamp for the past three years) is to actually create some separation in this parity-riddled loop, giving teams notably different identities – something which, these days, they really don’t have.

    This is a league where just about every team has an all-white uniform (thanks, loads, Toronto FC, for jumping on that bandwagon for oh-ten!), there are very few stars, and everyone’s pretty much in the playoff hunt on the final weekend of the season.

    Sure, that last part makes for interesting Octobers, but long lapses of vanilla-pablum dullness tend to lurk as the spring and summer congeal.

    Or do they?

    The problem with the original DP rule was the $400,000 cap hit, which puts one dollar out of every six in the pocket of the guy who’s getting paid way extra by the club owner anyhoo. That blows holes in the rest of the roster, guts a lot of the advantage the big buy was supposed to render, and the wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round, ‘round and ‘round.

    Well, the salary cap’s up – a bit – and the DP cap hit is down to $335,000 per man.

    That’s a bit of a disappointment. A lot of us were hoping the second DP would be off the cap completely. That would free teams to bulk up a bit without taking money away from the rest of the roster. Adding new hits kind of takes us sideways – not really ahead, but not all that far back, either.

    Goes like this:

    The real, crying need for the second DP came from the simple fact that a single player – no matter how gifted – cannot single-handedly lift an undermanned soccer squad to glory. David Beckham didn’t do anywhere near as much to raise the L.A. Galaxy from flatulence to the final as head coach Bruce Arena.

    But – two of them? Now you might be getting somewhere – particularly if they can link up with each other on-field. Beckham passing to Landon Donovan is a top-grade weapon in this league – when they’re uninjured and not playing overseas.

    That kind of weapon now carries a $670,000 cap price – which leaves about as much as a single DP used to, given that the cap just went up. The third DP is an odd idea, but it opens the door for a headline-seeking team to really make a splash. New York Energy Drink, anyone?

    The cap hit annoys the heck out of me, but it’s crucial to MLS. It allows the overall talent pool to grow, without any inflationary effect on the general salary pool. If anything, money for “normal” MLS players may actually go down, depending on how many teams actually buy into the third DP.

    Still with me? Yeah, I know. Whatever happened to just kicking the ball?

    The good news: each team is now individually assessing its DP strategy. They are not all going to take the same route. Some teams will buy in. Some will improve, while others won’t. Teams are perfectly free to sit out the whole DP craze. Most squads currently don’t have one, and some will undoubtedly continue to hold out. No reason they can’t win, though. This is still a league where parity runs deep.

    What we’ve got – finally – is a chance for each team to state its personality in its roster moves. The rest of the pro sports world takes that for granted. Not MLS. We’ve been watching near-identical teams all do just about pretty much as well as each other.

    There won’t be enough separation here for any individual team or two to dominate. There will still never be a great team in MLS. But things will get much more interesting now – and intriguing.

    The brilliant baseball writer Bill James used to say that each individual match is a passionate argument about how the game should actually be played. Finally – finally!! – those arguments can actually begin.

    This could, yet, turn into a satisfying season.


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