For each team competing in Major League Soccer, a maximum of three Designated Players – or players that can exceed the league’s maximum individual salary – can fill up roster spots. More often than not, these Designated Player slots are saved for those who are established European or South American stars that have honed their skills overseas, or are American-bred players who have plied their trade away from home, succeeded, and then returned. Sometimes, those slots are saved for players who have spent the bulk of their career in the MLS anyway, but have become elite-level players for that league’s standards, and a DP slot is their reward. Each team has at least one, and on this list, we’ll be taking a look at the very best designated players each team in the MLS has to offer.
Thanks to David Beckham’s arrival to Los Angeles in 2007 – which has given it the nickname of the “Beckham Rule” – the league itself made it so that the MLS could be that much more appealing of an option for players of Beckham’s calibre. So far, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe are among those who have started taking advantage of it, and the league is better off for it with them on board.
With rumours flying about the possible future stateside arrivals of Kaka, Xavi, Carles Puyol and several other ageing European stars, the Designated Player rule has paid off for the MLS in several ways. This ranking shows us the best 10 groups of Designated Players in Major League Soccer, which includes as few as just one player and as many as the maximum of three. Regardless of the number of DPs on a team, it’s about how established each team’s DPs are and how they perform for their clubs. Here are the top 10 biggest examples of that in the MLS today.
10. Alvaro Saborio/Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake)
Already a go-to man up front for Costa Rica’s national team, Alvaro Saborio had previously been plying his trade with Bristol City and Swiss outfit Sion before making his way to Utah in 2011 to play for Real Salt Lake. That move ended up making Saborio the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, with 55 goals in total thus far.
Morales previously enjoyed his longest stint at a club with Arsenal de Sarandi in his native Argentina, but his move to Salt Lake in 2007 paid off in spades: he’s been an MLS All-Star twice, and helped the Royals win an MLS Cup in 2009.
9. Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
He may be a bit of a bubble player for U.S. national team consideration, but Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski has built up a reputation as one of the MLS’ premier goalscorers. Already San Jose’s all-time leader in goals scored, Wondolowski is also capped 18 times for the national team with eight goals in international competition. Although he’s still fighting for a place on Jürgen Klinsmann’s team in Brazil this summer, Wondolowski hopes to rebound from a 13-goal season last year – a significant drop from 27 the year before. Regardless, he’s come a long way from being drafted 41st overall in the MLS Supplemental Draft in 2005.
8. Eddie Johnson (DC United)
With a wealth of experience on an international level – 62 U.S. national team caps and 19 goals – as well as stints overseas with Fulham, Cardiff City, Aris and Preston North End, Eddie Johnson is the kind of homegrown offensive player MLS teams drool about having. Johnson has just started a new venture with D.C. United, traded there by the Seattle Sounders for allocation money after previous MLS experience with FC Dallas and Kansas City. However, he has yet to find the back of the net after his first three games in black and red, despite being a probability for the national team at the World Cup this summer.
7. Maurice Edu/Cristian Maidana (Philadelphia Union)
After beginning his career as Toronto FC’s first ever draft pick, Maurice Edu enjoyed a lengthy stint at Rangers in Scotland before unsuccessful signings with Stoke City and Bursaspor led to Edu flying back stateside to play as a Designated Player for the Philadelphia Union on loan from Stoke. The native of Fontana, California has been trying to get himself back on Jürgen Klinsmann’s radar for the World Cup in Brazil. Cristian Maidana – a former teammate of Edu’s at Rangers – is also a DP with the Union, and has also had a stint with Spartak Moscow in Russia before eventually finding his way to Philly.
6. Kenny Miller/Pedro Morales/Matias Laba (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Known partially for his heading ability, Scottish striker Kenny Miller has been adapting well to life in Canada with the Vancouver Whitecaps, with three goals already in his first four games of the 2014 season. Chilean attacking midfielder Pedro Morales is a new DP signing for the Whitecaps, and comes to the MLS after an unspectacular stint with Malaga in La Liga that lasted only 15 games. The odd man out of Toronto FC’s Designated Players, Argentine defensive midfielder Matias Laba comes to Vancouver as one of the team’s better younger players, with U-20 experience for his home country already under his belt.
5. Marco Di Vaio/Hernan Bernardello (Montreal Impact)
Best known in Italy for his years with Parma, Juventus, and his time at Bologna as his Serie A career was winding down, Marco Di Vaio has proven that he hasn’t quite lost his scoring touch even at age 37. The Montreal Impact forward continues to be their key striker, and made it to the MLS Best XI and MLS All-Star Game last season. Argentine defensive midfielder Hernan Bernardello has also proven to be a big-time player for the Impact, after having spent several seasons with Almeria in Spain, with whom he signed exactly two months after receiving his first and only international cap for Argentina in 2009.
4. Clint Dempsey/Obafemi Martins/Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders)
The current U.S. national team captain – and potentially going down as one of the best U.S. players in history once he retires – Clint Dempsey moved to Seattle after a somewhat disappointing time spent with Tottenham Hotspur. Now back from a brief loan with former club Fulham, Dempsey will be determined to make sure his move back to the MLS will have paid off handsomely. Obafemi Martins and Osvaldo Alonso – the former of whom is perhaps known best for his years with Inter and Newcastle United, as well as playing for Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup – both have international experience with Nigeria and Cuba respectively.
3. Michael Bradley/Jermain Defoe/Gilberto (Toronto FC)
Easily the most headline-grabbing story ahead of this MLS season was the arrival of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley – two established footballers overseas – to Toronto FC as two new Designated Players. Bradley is a surefire bet for this year’s U.S. World Cup squad, while Jermain Defoe’s place in England’s squad is less certain – although his season in Toronto has gotten off to a rocking start, with three goals in his first three games including a brace against the Seattle Sounders. Fellow TFC striker Gilberto is best known for his time with Internacional in his native Brazil before coming to Toronto.
2. Landon Donovan/Robbie Keane/Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy)
Despite David Beckham – the trailblazer for the Designated Player Rule itself – leaving the Los Angeles Galaxy for Paris Saint-Germain and then retirement, the Galaxy’s group of Designated Players still packs quite the punch. Landon Donovan is arguably one of the greatest players the United States has ever produced and will be expected to help lead his country through another World Cup this summer, alongside defender and club teammate Omar Gonzalez, who will likely get his first taste of the World Cup as well. Irish striker Robbie Keane has conquered the MLS following his arrival in 2011, with 35 goals in his time with the Galaxy thus far.
1. Thierry Henry/Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
After following David Beckham’s lead in joining the MLS, French striking legend – and World Cup winner – Thierry Henry signed with the New York Red Bulls in 2010. The former Arsenal hitman has done well in his time in the Big Apple thus far, with 42 goals overall since the 2010 season. Australian midfielder Tim Cahill – best known overseas for his time with Everton – also joined the Red Bulls in 2012 and has made the MLS Best XI and All-Star Game since then. He is expected to close out a fantastic international career for the Socceroos at the World Cup in Brazil this summer.