Money for nothing

Are the Seattle Sounders making a shrewd move or setting themselves up for failure?

Buying a designated player doesn't guarantee success

Sweden's Freddie Ljungberg became Major League Soccer's latest designated player when he signed with the expansion Seattle Sounders on Tuesday. ((Elaine Thompson/Associated Press))

Are the Seattle Sounders making a shrewd move or setting themselves up for failure?

That's the question fans of Major League Soccer's newest franchise expansion were left asking themselves after the Sounders announced the signing of veteran Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg  on Tuesday.

Ljungberg reportedly received a two-year, $5-million US contract from the Sounders, who signed the Swede under the "Beckham rule."

Under MLS bylaws, teams are granted one designated player roster spot that they can use to sign a marquee star, with only $400,000 of his contract counting against the $2.1 million salary cap. Teams can also trade for a second DP slot.

The Los Angeles Galaxy famously made use of the DP rule to sign English superstar David Beckham in January 2007.

The Sounders, slated to enter the league in 2009, used the rule to land Ljungberg in hopes that having an internationally recognized star on the team will make it easier for the expansion franchise to sell tickets and replica jerseys.

Sounders taking a gamble

It's a risky move for a couple of reasons.

Ljungberg was a star with English Premiership club Arsenal from 1998-2007, scoring 46 goals in 216 appearances, and he played a pivotal role in helping the Gunners win three league titles and two FA Cups. But at 31 years of age, the Swede's best days are likely behind him — he scored just twice during a single season at West Ham, and has clearly lost a step from his glory days with Arsenal.

What's more, it makes little sense for a first-year franchise to sign a DP because he's going to be surrounded by second-rate players picked up in the expansion draft, and youngsters straight out of the college draft.

It would have been more prudent of Seattle to wait until their second or even third year in the league — when they've had time to make some trades and properly build the team up — to bring in a DP, ensuring he has a core of talented players to work with.

Was Seattle too hasty in signing Ljungberg? Toronto FC coach John Carver seems to think so.

"If you bring a DP in your first year, you don't know what he's got to play with, the other players around him. In the second year, you're going to be more stable and have a more solid basis for a squad. I think the second or third season is the right time to do it, and that's why it may be a gamble for Seattle," Carver said.

Since the Beckham rule was introduced, the absence of a DP has been the clothespin upon which MLS fans have hung all of their teams' shortcomings. But the truth is that the sheer economics of the league all but negate any positive effect a DP can have on a team.

MLS clubs have their hands tied by a $2.1 million salary cap because a DP's player contract eats up $400 000 worth of cap space, or 19 per cent of the team's player payroll. That leaves $1.7 million of cap space to work with, which isn't much when you consider most teams carry 18 players on their senior roster.

Suffice to say MLS general managers have their work cut out trying to build a quality team when they can't spend more than $100,000 on non-DP players.

That's why it's hardly a coincidence that since the Beckham rule came into effect in 2007, the Houston Dynamo, a team without a designated player, has won back-to-back league championships.

Or that the Columbus Crew, another team without a DP, finished in first place during the 2008 regular season, and that four of the top five teams in the standings didn't have one either — the Chicago Fire, in third place, was the exception.

No guarantee of success

If a team does sign a DP, history has demonstrated it doesn't guarantee success.

FC Dallas signed Brazilian star Denilson — who at one time was the most expensive player in the world — to much fanfare last year, only to let him leave at the end of the season.

In January, D.C. United signed Argentine playmaker Marcelo Gallardo to a $1.87 million contract (the third richest salary in MLS this season) and traded for a second DP slot so they could give Brazilian Emilio, last season's league MVP, a pay raise ($758,000).

The Galaxy made the biggest splash of all when they made Beckham their DP by signing him to a $6.5 million contract last year.

Neither the Galaxy nor United made the playoffs in 2008, and Los Angeles finished in a tie for last place in the league.

Kansas City made Claudio Lopez its DP at the start of the season, but the Argentine had a less-than-stellar first season in MLS, and the Wizards only just scraped into the playoffs.

Only two DPs have enjoyed real success in MLS — Colombian forward Juan Pablo Angel of the New York Red Bulls and Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco of the Chicago Fire.

Still, their individual successes haven't translated into team successes — both the Red Bulls and Fire were eliminated by the DP-less Revolution in last year's playoffs .

Time will tell if Ljungberg's name will be added to the growing list of DP failures.