De Rosario's antics highlight the salary disparity issues within MLS
The designated player mechanism broadens the salary disparity in MLS
Problems can occur when DPs are outperformed by lower-paid players
Pressure increases on the teams to choose wisely when selecting DPs
Dwayne De Rosario's celebratory stunt last Saturday really was tone deaf and downright distasteful stuff.
Toronto FC's brazen attacker sullied his reputation by feigning the "writing of a check" after a goal, a poorly devised effort to communicate his frustration over Toronto ownership's failure, in his mind, to pay up for performance above and beyond.
Once you get past the wrongheadedness and selfishness of De Rosario's bit, it does raise an important point about the MLS salary structure and a certain, sour issue that is sure to recur. What happens when big-money designated players (DPs) flop while a regular Joe type earning regular Joe dough comes shining through?
The DP rule does a lot of things for MLS, so many of them good. But this is all still fairly new territory, unlike anything most of us have seen in pro sports, here or elsewhere. There's a big gulf in the salary structure at teams with DPs. Most of the roster is making somewhere near X, whereas up to three DPs are making 5X or 10X. And that's a big gap.
That's really the heart of the problem at Toronto -- if you see De Rosario's guaranteed compensation this year of $440,000 as a "problem," that is.
Toronto has two DPs: The higher-paid man is Julian de Guzman, a midfielder of class and experience, but one whose production at about $1.7 million in guaranteed salary can only be described as disappointing. Then there's Mista, reared in Spain's esteemed La Liga but still, curiously, in search of his first MLS goal. If you say he's been "disappointing" you are being kind, especially considering his $987,000 annual compensation.
Then there's De Rosario. He has 12 goals on a team that has only 26 this year. Throw in his three assists and you can see that Toronto's offense would be absolutely worthless without him. Even with him, the TFC attack is pretty hard on the eyes. Rest assured, we'll have to watch them only four more times; Toronto has shown nothing to suggest it can catch Seattle or San Jose for a playoff spot -- not that De Rosario is too worried about that, focused as he is on beefing up that paycheck.
De Rosario may or may not deserve more money; there's a reasonable debate to be had there. (Although it's not as clear-cut as you might think; there's a lot that goes into these matters of compensation, and the 32-year-old De Rosario's background and age just don't add up to what commands the big bucks in MLS today, rightly or wrongly.)
But let's move past all that and examine the bigger picture. Because you can bet that we'll see this again. Soon enough, we'll see another put-out player who has been happily eating takeout, but who suddenly goes big guns. And we'll see him gazing over toward the DPs, wondering why he can't join the well-heeled crowd over in the fine dining section.
That's what happened with De Rosario. It's probably safe to assume that the Canadian international would feel just fine about things if the DP mechanism had never been introduced. Throw out the designated players and his salary puts him safely among the league's top wage earners. Truly, his compensation isn't bad at all by every-day MLS standards -- but it starts looking a little puny when held up next to the DP money.
It seems the law of unintended consequences is at work. Yes, the DP option can boost attendance, bolster overall quality and generally make MLS a better place. But it comes at a price -- no pun intended.
Real Salt Lake president Garth Lagerwey summed it up in four words (while channeling Notorious B.I.G.): "Mo' money, mo' problems."
Lagerwey isn't sure if this exact issue will recur, although he admits that salary imbalance in sports is always a tricky wicket. He does say the DP mechanism is bound to cause headaches one way or another, despite all the good it does.
First, he said, what constitutes being a designated player won't always be obvious. Clearly, a guy like New York's Thierry Henry gets the DP label and the DP bucks because he's a worldwide brand, a highly decorated player who has helped win a World Cup, a European Championship and a UEFA Champions League crown. That one is clear.
But what happens if a lesser-known talent comes attached to a significant purchase price? That player may technically become a DP.
There are other potential dangers. Lagerwey didn't mention any names in particular, but he sees the potential trouble spots the rest of us see. Would it be such a surprise if a talent like Seattle's Fredy Montero, a league MVP candidate, looked at teammate DP Blaise Nkufo and wondered why the Swiss international will earn about 2½ times what he makes in 2010 while playing only half the season?
Or you could argue that Marco Pappa has more upside and the potential to be just as productive as Freddie Ljungberg at Chicago -- while making a whole lot less.
"When you have wildly imbalanced salaries, you're going to have issues no matter what," Lagerwey said.
Lagerwey also wonders about the MLS workaday, the good-but-not-great players and the veterans who constitute the backbone of every roster.
"They may say, 'I built this league. I suffered. I sweated. I was here when it wasn't that good, when we were small, and now I'm not making that much while this guy comes in and makes a million dollars,' " Lagerwey said. "It's something to keep an eye on."
Lagerwey says he sees another problem looming: a lack of American DPs. If the market swings in such a way that only foreign players are commanding DP money, will the better American players be reluctant to come back from Europe, or to stay with MLS if they are already here?
And isn't it safe to assume that a couple of these DPs will also be PDs ... that is, prima donnas? Big players, big salaries and big egos are frequently bundled.
All of this underscores the importance for MLS leaders to make the right decisions on these high-dollar DPs. There is more at stake than wasted salary. Locker room accord will hang in the balance.
If they are going to create giant salary disparities, then they had better make the right choices. And they had better pray that these yawning gaps in the performance disparity don't skew the other way, with the lower side of the salary scale doing more of the heavy lifting.
If the decision makers get it wrong, the next silly stunt, the next goofball De Rosario-type check-writing dance, might just occur at their own stadium.
Toronto at Seattle (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday): A Toronto loss combined with wins by Colorado and San Jose means official elimination for the Canadians. Realistically, a loss would extinguish whatever postseason hope remains for TFC regardless of any other results. A win for Seattle means Sigi Schmid's men can exhale just a little, as they'll create a fairly comfortable cushion, especially if Kansas City loses in New York. And here's something to keep an eye on: Fredy Montero was a goal-scoring blur in August -- but he didn't score at all in MLS in September. Fatigue, perhaps? They'll need him back in form for the playoffs.
Kansas City at New York Red Bulls (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday): Juan Pablo Angel is feeling a bit unwanted, his future in New York in doubt. That's a little strange considering he's in the driver's seat for MLS' Golden Boot. But he does have some young bucks in pursuit, Omar Cummings and Chris Wondolowski in particular. On the other side, Kansas City remains within striking distance of a playoff spot, but the door is closing fast. Clinching a playoff spot is just a formality for New York, but the Red Bulls will be in officially with a win Saturday.
Chicago at Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET Saturday): Does Chicago still have a postseason chance? Probably not. But at least we know there's a pulse after Wednesday's shocking result, a 3-0 win at San Jose. And did you see Ljungberg's golazo? Where's that been, Freddie? The problem for Carlos de los Cobos and crew is that pitiful seven-game winless streak before Wednesday's boost. Well, that and the fact that they are playing in Dallas, against a team that hasn't lost since May. One more thing: If FCD's Jeff Cunningham scores, he'll match Jaime Moreno as MLS' all-time leading goal scorer.
Los Angeles at Chivas USA (8 p.m. ET Sunday): Los Angeles still leads in the Supporters Shield chase but the margin for error is slim. Real Salt Lake remains in hot pursuit while Columbus and New York lie in wait for any slip from the leaders. On the other side, Chivas USA will be officially eliminated from the playoff race with anything less than all three points. And how sweet would it be for the Galaxy in this bitterly contested Super Clasico if they can snuff out their rival's final little playoff embers? Chivas USA coach Martin Vasquez questioned his players' heart after last week's loss. This would be a great chance for them to prove him wrong.
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