July. The most intriguing month of the year in Major League Soccer. It is when the summer transfer window opens (July 9th to be precise), a time which fosters fevered speculation and represents the best chance for MLS clubs to acquire big name foreign signings. With the European game on its break between seasons, this is when a sizeable chunk of its players are considering their options. Seattle has stolen a march with the signing of Obafemi Martins (more on him later). With MLS continuing to improve both its infrastructure and quality of play, there has been a steady increase in the number of marquee players coming to the league. And as LA Galaxy have shown in winning the last two MLS Cups, these high value Designated Players may well be the biggest factor in determining success.
Prior to the Galaxy’s 2011 title, no side containing a Designated Player had won the ultimate prize in MLS. That may only have been four years of trophies but it was enough for the skeptics to suggest that the ‘Beckham experiment’ – David Beckham joining Los Angeles in 2007, giving rise to the Designated Player rule that opens up three roster spots where teams can pay players whatever they want above the $367,500 salary limit – wouldn’t last.
It now appears to be the opposite. In his last two years, Beckham (salary $5m/year) found his stride. Just as crucial in 2011 was Landon Donovan ($2.4m/year) scoring the only goal to beat Houston Dynamo. A year later the club repeated the feat over the same opposition, with Beckham playing a guiding role in a 3-1 win and Donovan and Robbie Keane ($3.4m/year) each getting on the score sheet. In the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs, Keane would end up with six goals in six games. Just 12 players were paid over a million dollars that season. A quarter of them belonged to LA.
The lesson of the last two years is not that a team stuffed with highly-paid stars will guarantee success. New York’s expensive travails over the past few years are testament to that. In a sport which pits 11 against 11 that would also be absurd. The team can and still should be the star. Yet the addition of a world-class player with an attitude to match should make a big difference. After all, they are sometimes earning a hundred times more than the lowest-paid players in the league.
While they don’t perform a hundred times better they are more likely to change the course of a single match given their greater skill, ability and experience. They often do better under the greatest of pressure. In a league where the champion is ultimately decided by a series of one and two-game knockout rounds, those attributes are proving critical.
This season there are eight players making over a million dollars (my arbitrary line in determining high-value players), according to the MLS Players Union. They are all making a significant impact (except for Danny Koevermans at Toronto who has been injured for a long time). Aside from Keane and Donovan at Los Angeles, Tim Cahill is now scoring important goals in his first full season with New York while Thierry Henry continues to dazzle all and sundry with his elegance and acrobatics (remember this goal against Montreal from May?) as the Red Bulls look like contenders in the Eastern Conference. Montreal’s Marco DiVaio is the MLS joint-leading scorer as his side sit top of the East, and a resurgent Kenny Miller has five goals in seven games since returning from injury for Vancouver.
Which brings me to the final player in that bracket – Seattle Sounders FC forward Obafemi Martins. July may be the obvious month for MLS clubs to make their significant roster moves but this season Seattle has gone one better. They managed to acquire Martins from top level Spanish side Levante before the La Liga season had ended. It was a very tricky move to pull off and shows the determination of Sounders FC to bring in top talent to help push for the MLS title.
Martins has a rare and sustained record of being a one-in-three goal scorer wherever he plays, with the majority of his time being spent in Europe’s top four leagues. He has four goals in nine games for the Sounders and his goals-per-minute ratio is already one of the best in MLS. More importantly, it is the quality of those goals that are justifying the investment Seattle have made in him. The most eye-catching so far is his latest score at Chivas a few weeks ago (watch here). A lesser player may have blasted a shot as the keeper came charging towards him but Martins used all of his poise, technique and experience to deftly dink the ball over Dan Kennedy. It was an expert finish that you rarely see. It is that kind of quality that can be the difference in the big moments – precisely the kind of moments you see in December in Major League Soccer.