For the first time in league history, two teams with at least one DP will meet in the MLS Cup final. Might DPs be a must for future champions?
The curse is over.
Ever since MLS created the Designated Player rule, aka "The David Beckham Rule", there have been those who clung to the idea that paying 1-3 players so much more than anyone else on your roster did more harm than good. The early results were so damning, in fact, that people started to call it the "DP curse."
From 2007-2010, no team with a Designated Player had won the MLS Cup and only two had even advanced to the final. At the same time, there was almost no correlation between what a team spent and how well they played.
That started to change last year when the LA Galaxy became the first team with a Designated Player to win MLS Cup. In fact, they had three. They also happened to win the Supporters' Shield, the first time a MLS team had pulled off that double since 2008.
It appears last year was the beginning of a new trend: For the second straight year a team with at least one DP will hoist the Anschutz Trophy. Judging from the playoff field and the direction MLS teams seem to be headed in, it's starting to look as if the days of teams without DPs winning titles could be ending.
Of the 10 teams that made the playoffs this year, only two did so without the help of a Designated Player. Six of those teams had at least two DPs and four had the maximum three DPs. All four of the conference finalists also had at least one Designated Player.
That's not to suggest teams need a DP to be successful. That the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City had the two best regular-season records without employing one between them is pretty solid evidence to the contrary. But they were also one of just three teams in the league who went without one this year. More and more teams are clearly seeing the value in bringing in these kinds of players.
The trick is figuring out what kind of DPs each team needs. The LA Galaxy obviously feel as though they need high-profile players in order to help cut through the clutter of the crowded Southland media landscape. Signing the likes of David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan has obviously helped do that. But splashing big money is not in and of itself the key, as Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls have learned.
Lessons can be learned from the way the Dynamo and Galaxy have used DPs to their advantage.
The Galaxy have clearly built a team around their highest-profile players, who have carried much of the burden in the playoffs. Keane leads all of MLS with five playoff goals, and is probably the single biggest reason the Galaxy are the favorites to win their second straight MLS Cup. Donovan, meanwhile, leads all of MLS with three playoff assists. Beckham has just one assist during the playoffs, but he's been a factor in most of their games.
The Dynamo have used their DP, Oscar Boniek Garcia, more as the final piece to their puzzle. The team is still basically built around Brad Davis, who is tied for the MLS lead with three playoff assists. Their scoring load is mostly being carried by Will Bruin, who has four playoff goals. As good as Davis and Bruin are, though, Garcia brings something different.
The Honduras international is more of a creative force, either cutting teams open from the middle or slicing in from the right wing. His speed gives a more, ahem, dynamic element to the Houston attack.
Having a DP is clearly not an absolute must to compete in MLS, but it is a tool that more and more teams are getting adept at using. Deployed correctly, there are undeniable advantages. The salary cap should keep this from becoming a league that is entirely defined by how much money a team spends, but we at least seemed to have entered an era where it's becoming a significant factor.