Minnesota United has an entire MLS roster to construct by next season. The Loons will need to put together a squad of 20 capable players, while operating under the tiny (less than $4 million) MLS salary cap. The exception, though, is that the team is allowed three designated player spots — and those players receive more than the $457,000 maximum salary. To explain how this roster loophole came about, we have to talk about David Beckham — while noting that the average designated player looks nothing like him.
Beckham is what people think of when they think designated player: a veteran star from Europe, earning an enormous contract to appear in team promotional materials, sell a few tickets and provide a reasonable on-field contribution. In 2007, the league created a loophole to allow Los Angeles to pay Beckham $6.5 million per season, roughly three times the league’s per-team salary cap at the time. It not only gave the league its very first worldwide star, it established a long-running precedent: When necessary, the MLS will brazenly manipulate its rules in favor of the LA Galaxy.
Most European veterans are looking for either the glitz of Los Angeles or the excitement of New York, though, which would make it difficult for a Midwestern team to talk one into signing on. Much of the rest of the league depends on U.S. national team standouts to serve the same ticket-selling role, but there isn’t a current American star who really seems like a possibility for Minnesota. The Loons will likely have to look in the third category, which actually makes up the majority of designated players: smaller names that nevertheless provide quality that can’t be found in America.
Toronto attacking midfielder Sebastian Giovinco was in no way a household name when he came to Canada at the beginning of 2015. The Italian had managed just eight starts in the previous season and a half with Juventus, but he set the MLS on fire, winning the MVP award and leading the league in both goals and assists last season. This season, Seattle midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro might be the prime example of a smaller-name difference-maker. The Sounders fired longtime coach Sigi Schmid midseason, then lost striker Clint Dempsey because of a heart issue. Around the same time, though, they signed Lodeiro, an Uruguayan who had played for big clubs in Brazil and Argentina. Lodeiro’s playmaking has driven the Sounders from the bottom of the Western Conference back into the playoff spots.
Ticket sales aside, Minnesota would have an easier time focusing on smaller-name designated players who will provide the maximum on-field boost.
The designated player spots are the Loons’ only chance to free themselves from the straitjacket of the MLS rule book and add some extra talent. For a team that’s starting from the bottom, with an entire roster to fill, that makes those three spots extra important.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• Minnesota United has won just twice in its past 14 matches, a slide that’s made the Loons’ grip on the final NASL playoff spot extremely tenuous. With four games to go, though, it’s worth remembering that the 2011 team endured a similar swoon — just three wins in 14 matches — before recovering in the final weeks, squeaking into the playoffs, then getting hot and taking home the championship.
• NWSL Championship preview, part one: Western New York turned over its entire roster between the beginning of 2014 and the beginning of 2016, and the result is a spot in the title game — mostly thanks to Golden Boot winner and MVP Lynn Williams, who scored twice in extra time to sink Portland in the semifinals.
• NWSL Championship preview, part two: Washington probably should have lost its semifinal with Chicago. Red Stars forward Christen Press had an open goal to aim at in second-half stoppage time but hit the crossbar, and the Spirit won the game in extra time after the referee accidentally deflected the ball in its favor. That said, until the past few weeks of the season, the Spirit was the league’s best team.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
MLS: Colorado at Houston, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, MLS Live. Colorado has spent the second half looking up at Dallas in the standings, but the Rapids have two games in hand and are five points back. If Colorado can get a couple of wins, it still has a shot at claiming a most unlikely regular-season title, after two years of abject futility drove away almost all fans in Denver.
World Cup qualifying: Georgia at Wales, 11 a.m. Sunday, FS1. Wales had never qualified for a European Championship before this year, but on the backs of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, the Welsh not only qualified but made it to the semifinals. Now the country turns its eyes toward making it to the World Cup. It won’t be easy; Wales hasn’t qualified since 1958.
World Cup qualifying: Turkey at Iceland, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, ESPN.
Between its devoted fans, cool postgame chants and unlikely wins over England, Iceland earned itself fans from around the world in last summer’s European Championships. Turkey punches above its weight in tournaments, but a trip to Iceland is no longer the guaranteed win it once might have been.
NWSL: Washington vs. Western New York, 4 p.m. Sunday, FS1. Washington faltered down the stretch, throwing away the NWSL Supporters’ Shield after leading the race for much of the year, but a win here and the resulting league title would make everyone forget. Western New York, though, went into Portland in front of a hostile crowd and pulled out an extra-time win.