Is the MLS’ Designated Player Rule hurting US football, and is it time for a rethink?

Atlanta United, fresh off the back of their 2018 MLS Cup win, announced the signing of highly-rated Argentine midfielder Pity Martinez. Normally, that kind of signing would be a coup for American clubs, but it has left Atlanta in an awkward position – they are now forced to sell or loan out one of their other top talents.

That is because of the MLS’ Designated Player Rule – or the Beckham Rule, as it’s sometimes known.

The rule was brought in as part of the salary cap regulations introduced for the 2007 MLS season. It allowed franchises to sign up to three players which they could declare as Designated Players.

These players were exempt from counting towards their team’s strict salary cap – with the idea being that MLS sides could therefore attract star players within the international football market by offering the player higher wages, or by paying a transfer fee for the player.

That system has found success too, with the MLS having had many prominent names grace its pitches since the rule was introduced.

Granted, a large number of these players – particularly those who already had a name for themselves in Europe – were coming towards the twilight years of their careers, but they still possessed top technical abilities that they could help pass on to the rest of the league. Their involvement actively pushed the level of competition in the MLS.

There is no question that the level of football and the quality of players in the MLS is at the highest it has ever seen.

Yes, it’s not quite the same as the top European leagues, but its come on leaps and bounds. There is real talent to be found across the pond now, and a real excitement around their football – and as far as I see it, there is no question the Designated Player Rule helped contribute to creating that environment.

One of the strongest elements MLS football has going for it is that pretty much any franchise, with a good season and a few smart signings, can do well and potentially win the competition. There isn’t really an established elite, and that is largely because of the salary cap.

It has prevented franchises with significant owners from simply bankrolling sides to the MLS Cup. Yes, some teams have more financial strength and typically do better in the league, but they’re not worlds apart.

Think of the difference in class between say a newly promoted Premier League side and Manchester City. It’s a huge gulf in skill, facilities and money.

The MLS sides, even the best against the worst, have a much smaller difference. And that is largely due to the strict financial regulations. The ability to only sign a maximum of three players without a monetary limit stops teams from being out of reach. That was perfect as the league was finding its feet, and developing talent from within.

However, now that it has become somewhat more established and the quality on display is much greater, it may no longer be the perfect system.

There is certainly an argument for keeping the strict financial limitations in place, to preserve this closeness between all the franchises, but the Designated Player Rule in particular will forever limit the league from progressing much further.

Right now, the MLS has reached its peak of quality under the current system, and so does that not say its time for a change?

Atlanta United are the perfect example. They burst onto the scene, playing a brilliant style of football and brought in Designated Players who were not older, highly-paid players winding down their players. Instead, they plucked names from arguably smaller sides and leagues – Miguel Almiron came from Argentine side Lanus, while Josef Martinez did join from Serie A side Torino, but previously to that had been playing in Switzerland.

These were not established household names. They were remarkable talents, but known only really to the truly devout football fanatics. But Atlanta took a gamble on them, and boy did it pay off.

Their style of play was eye-catching and fast-flowing; the perfect advertisement for what MLS football could be. It was great to watch, and it helped them take the league by storm – lifting their first MLS Cup just four years after the club was founded.

Now, they’re looking to push on further and tackle North America through the CONCACAF Champions League and improve their squad even further. Bringing in Pity Martinez will do that, but as said, its also caused The Five Stripes, as they’re affectionately called, to come crashing headfirst into the brick wall that is the MLS’ limitations.

They will be unable to play all four of their best-rated players next season – having exceeded the three player limit for Designated Players. They’re being told that they must get rid of one of the players who have the quality to make that difference and take the club to the next level

Two options have emerged as solutions to the plan, but neither actively helps Atlanta. First, and most likely, is to sell highly-rated Paraguayan midfielder Almiron.

The attacking midfielder is sought after by several European clubs, with most significant interest coming from English side Newcastle United and Spain’s Real Betis. Atlanta had been holding out against the move, unhappy at Newcastle’s previous offers, but now may be forced to take the cash.

New signing Martinez also plays in a similar position to Almiron, which will only ever so slightly soften the blow.

The other option is to send young 19-year-old star Ezequiel Barco out on loan. The Argentine youngster is Atlanta’s other Designated Player and the one who featured the least last season, but he’s very much seen as a real star of the future for Atlanta.

No matter the option the American side choose, they’ll be weaker than they would have been had they been able to keep all four star players. And there really is little reason not to let them have all four.

Now, I don’t necessarily think the MLS should immediately scrap the Designated Player Rule. I think that would see a small number of the clubs suddenly pump funds in and try to buy league success – quite similar to what occurred in China’s domestic league.

In the long term, given the quality level the MLS has now reached, I do think the rule needs to be let go, or else it will get no better, but I feel that it should be a gradual change.

For now, the perfect solution would be an increase in the number of Designated Players allowed. An increase to five perhaps, maybe in a few seasons then it could either be pushed up again or looked at being fully repealed, but certainly it needs increased right now.

Yes, there are loopholes around making players Designated Players using allocation money, but those are fiddly and don’t fit in a lot of situations. Largely, the rule that once served to increase competitiveness and keep relative parity among the teams as the league developed is now in fact strangling any further development.

It served it’s purpose, and it served it very well when the league was growing, but now its reaching its maturity it’s time to start loosening the stabilisers. Teams have to be allowed to develop further, have their shackles loosened a little more, if the US truly wants to compete on a global level in football.

That starts first and foremost with the Designated Player Rule.

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