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When it comes to MLS’ Designated Player, it comes down to finding the fountain of youth

As of the last few seasons, MLS’ Designated Player has trended younger, with teams now opting to find diamonds in the rough.

MLS: MLS Cup Eastern Conference First Round-Game 2-Orlando City SC at Nashville SC Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason in Major League Soccer is just around the corner, and as the offseason continues, teams have been hard at work to try and improve. One of the big statement ways to do so remains the Designated Player.

Born in the days when David Beckham joined the league, the Designated Player rule is rooted in the league’s desire to bring some of the world’s brightest stars to play here and to incentivize teams to go after those stars that transcended the sport.

However, as the Designated Player rule has evolved, teams have been largely moving away from the biggest names in the sport and moving towards the young stars in the making. Currently, there are 41 Designated Players signed to Eastern Conference teams. Of those, seven DPs are age 23 or younger, while 14 DPs are over the age of 30.

The majority of Designated Players (21) in the East are ages 24-29. When you combine Homegrown Players and the League’s Under-22 Initiative (where teams can sign players under the age of 22 at a reduced salary cap charge), the league is offering teams more incentives to trend younger with their big budget signings.

Still, some teams are making room for those generational talents known the world over, like Inter Miami with its signing of Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets to DP contracts.

MLS: Noche D’or-New York City FC at Inter Miami
While MLS clubs have trended younger in its acquisition of higher priced players, teams like Miami are going the other route in acquiring aging European talent like Sergio Busquets.
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

These stars are brought in to sell tickets and merchandise, providing teams with recognizable stars that they hope will bring in casual fans and the league with marketable legends. And, teams hope some of the skills that brought these players onto television sets around the world will help them win on the field. When you have the opportunity to bring in legends like Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba, teams usually pounce on it.

The Designated Player spots used to be heavily occupied by American players, though that has waned recently as more USMNT stars head to Europe to play in their prime. In their place, teams have looked south to find their next Designated Players. Argentina (52) is the country that has been the home country for the most Designated Players by far in Major League Soccer history, followed by the United States (25), Brazil (18), Mexico (17), and Colombia (14).

The vast majority of these players, however, come from European teams, establishing a pipeline that MLS also hopes will help with sending players to Europe. Of the Eastern Conference Designated Players, 26 came to MLS from European clubs, while 7 came from South American teams, 3 from North American teams, and 2 from Asian teams. 4 Designated Players were already on MLS clubs and were either traded or were promoted to DP status within the league.

MLS: MLS Cup Eastern Conference First Round-Game 3-Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC
Thiago Almada has been a drving force for Atlanta. The 22-year-old Argentine midfielder finished with 11 goals and 19 assists in 2023.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

However, most teams are focused on the younger talent to serve as their Designated Players. D.C. United and CF Montreal are the only teams to not have Designated Players under the age of 30. Many teams focus on signing Homegrown Players as well as U-22 Initiative signings to make their roster younger, leaving the Designated Player spots to find those players in their prime that can make an immediate impact.

There’s no blueprint to Major League Soccer success. Whether it’s the European club legend, the young unproven talent, or a mix of the two, teams hope the Designated Player can bring trophies to their club.

However, as the Eastern Conference teams prepare to compete for MLS Cup and the upstart Leagues Cup competition, they’re hoping that their mix of players is the best, as they try to find either the diamond in the rough or the star that shines brightest in the sky.