Much has been made over the lack of a single Designated Player participating in the MLS Cup final.
Whichever team wins the title will become the fourth consecutive champion not to employ such a player.
The clear implication being teams that choose to sink so much of their salary budget into one — or up to three, now — player are at a competitive disadvantage to those that spread their budget around more evenly.
On the surface, I find this to be a dubious assumption, as it ignores a whole host of facts.
For one, the Designated Player rule has only been in place since 2007. Prior to this season, only 12 players had even earned that designation and played a total of 21 seasons between them. Until this year, only two teams — the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls — had ever employed as many as two DPs at the same time. Point being, we're talking about a pretty small sample size.
There's also the not-so-insignificant matter of what winning MLS Cup really means. The winner of the league's end-of-season tournament has played all of four matches, and has won as few as two of them in the process (because of shootouts, it's actually possible to win the Cup without winning any matches).
If employing a DP really makes winning harder, it should have a deleterious effect on the regular season as well.
This is where the argument starts to fall apart.
In two of the four years DPs have been used, the winner of the Supporters' Shield has had at least one DP (the Galaxy this year and the Columbus Crew in 2008).
That alone sufficiently disproves the "It's impossible to win with DPs" meme, but I wanted to dig a little deeper.
After all, what is a DP? Are they really any different from a roster-construction perspective than any other player making the maximum amount their salary can count against the salary budget?
Through various salary rule quirks, not all players that made more than the "maximum" counted as DPs. Simply extending this logic, we end up with three of the four Shield winners employing at least one of these players and one of them actually won the MLS Cup (Guillermo Barros Schelotto did not count as a DP, but made $375,000 in 2008).
Even if we look at teams that literally employ a DP, we find that every year one of those teams has either won the Supporters' Shield or played in the MLS Cup final. Teams with DPs have averaged 41.88 points during the regular season and .56 wins during the playoffs (for these purposes, only regulation victories counted as wins) while teams without them average 40.27 and .52, respectively.
If we look a little deeper, we find that teams employing at least one player making more than the maximum have appeared in the MLS Cup final every year, including this year. Conor Casey may not be a Designated Player, but he's going to make at least $350,000 this year while the DP spot would count $335,000 against the cap. Teammate Pablo Mastroeni is going to make $300,000 and FC Dallas' recently crowned David Ferreira will make the same amount. All three of those players may not literally count as much against the budget as a DP, but their impacts are effectively the same.
No, a DP is not going to win the MLS Cup this year, but those people out there that are pushing this line of thinking as being relevant are either ill informed or dishonest.
For once, Commissioner Don Garber makes a very good point: There are lots of ways to build a competitive MLS roster. While employing a DP is obviously not a magic bullet, it's also not a curse.