Blaise Nkufo came to the Seattle Sounders with a glowing resume. After six seasons with Holland's FC Twente, he had scored a 114 league goals, led his team in scoring every year and even helped bring the club its first ever Eredivisie title during his final season. For his efforts, a statue was erected in his honor outside Twente's stadium.
Internationally, the naturalized Swiss citizen had helped lead his country to the 2010 World Cup where Switzerland was the only team to beat eventual champion Spain. Along the way, he had established a reputation as a solid teammate, an upstanding citizen and a fan favorite.
By all appearances, he seemed like a near perfect fit for the Sounders. As we learned this week, especially when it comes to Designated Players, appearances can be deceiving.
Just hours before the Sounders opened the 2011 season, it was announced that Nkufo and the Sounders had "mutually agreed" to sever their relationship. Nkufo's Sounders career ended after just 11 league appearances in which he scored five goals. The timing of the decision was particularly inconvenient, as it left the Sounders thin at forward with literally no time to address it before the start of the season.
"He left us a little high and dry, which is a little frustrating," said Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller said after Tuesday's First Kick loss to the LA Galaxy. "But we have a good squad. It's not about people who aren't here or people who don't want to be here. It's about the team that is here and that stepped on the field today."
If those words sound somewhat familiar, it's because Keller had similar things to say about another former DP teammate, Freddie Ljungberg, whose tenure with the Sounders was also cut surprisingly short.
Both situations illustrate just how much of an art signing high-priced players can be, especially veterans from European leagues that are accustomed to different styles and qualities of play. Since the DP rule was enacted in 2007, there have been 27 players signed under the rule. Of those 27, 13 are already out of the league. At least seven of those former DPs can comfortably be called flops, having either spent less than a season in MLS or simply failing to produce at a reasonable clip. Five of those flops were at least 30 years old and coming off a stint in Europe.
Perhaps with those failures on their minds, MLS front offices seem to be taking different tacts with their new DP signings. Four of the five DPs signed since the end of last season are younger than 30 and just one of them played in Europe immediately before becoming a DP.
Garth Lagerwey, the GM of Real Salt Lake, signed his team's first ever DP this past offseason, giving Alvaro Saborio a significant raise and buying out his loan. When Lagerway and head coach Jason Kreis were first hired before the 2007 season, Lagerwey said ownership asked if they wanted to sign a DP to help the rebuilding process.
"We said no. We wanted to build a foundation," Lagerway said. "A Designated Player was more of a crown jewel and we needed to build a crown first. We didn’t consider it until last year."
Lagerwey continues to maintain that he would rather on building a "team" than signing star players, but said Saborio was too important to the team not to re-sign him.
"In general, it’s real hard for me to justify to my owners to spend that kind of money unless there’s a real specific argument," said Lagerwey, pointing out that Saborio's actual salary is not the highest on the team despite his being the only DP. "I don’t think we would have signed him as a DP before we had him, I don’t think we’d have done that."
Like Saborio, the relatively recent DP signings of Alvaro Fernandez, Fredy Montero and Fabian Castillo included loan payments. In Castillo's case, at least, the loan payment appears to almost single-handedly push him into DP territory. The loan for the 18-year-old Colombian was rumored to be between $700,000-$800,000. Spread out over four years, that's still as much as $200,000 against the cap without even including his salary.
Using the DP slot in this way was not exactly what the rule's inventors had in mind, though. As originally envisioned, teams were going to be allowed to sign players that "moved the needle" and helped increase attention not just in local markets, but for the league as a whole. The move away from these high-profile signings has not been met with universal approval, but the league's attitude does seem to be adapting.
"How it’s going to work and evolve going forward, whether it’s used for signing young players or American players, it’s just something we’ll have to continue to take a look at," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said during a half-time press-conference during First Kick. "The good thing about our league is that we can assess things as they are going on, recognize that it’s a new league, only 16 years old, and if we have to evolve our rules and strategy, we’re brave enough to do that."
While Lagerway doesn't see his team dipping into the DP pool again anytime soon, Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer is already prepared to take the plunge for the fifth time. In just their third year in MLS, the Sounders have signed more DPs than any other team. While the first two - Ljungberg and Nkufo - were older players with extensive European experience, the last two were younger players with virtually no name recognition before arriving in Seattle. Hanauer does not rule out the possibility of bringing in another veteran DP, but also seems to like the idea of investing in youth.
"I don’t know if we’ve led in that way, but I think we have opened some eyes about young players being Designated Players and using transfer fees," Hanauer said. "I’m a big supporter of that, and quite frankly I’m pushing for more creative ways to bring more younger players, maybe not as DP classifications.
"I think that it’s good for our league to be investing in young players who could potentially be sold down the line, and there’s a revenue share on those transfers, so it can benefit all of our partners if we’re out buying quality 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds. I’m quite frankly a bigger fan of that than bringing in mid-tier 28- to 34-year-olds. We would be better off as a league investing in younger players, and bringing in some of those mareqee names that really move the needle."