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View from New York: 'Designated players' aren't as silly as they sound

Robbie Keane’s transfer introduced us to the nuances of the MLS salary cap. John Riordan looks at how it might just be the best thing the league has ever done.

Image: Reed Saxon/AP/Press Association Images

THERE WAS A lot of talk about Robbie Keane’s status as ‘designated player’ at his new club, LA Galaxy.

I know I typed that phrase at least two or three times (not including hurried text messages and scrappy Gmail chats) during what was a hectic and confusing weekend as the unthinkable became reality.

Major League Soccer has a lot of flaws but their salary cap shows they’ve taken the good bits from more successful American sports and applied it to their own as they see fit. It’s a bit of sporting realism sadly lacking throughout most of football.

The salary cap enforced upon MLS clubs is fairly stringent — well under $3m for the entire squad — and the designated player takes up over $300,000 of that with the remainder being paid by the owner. There is also a $250,000 ‘luxury tax’ on the third designated player, also known as Robbie Keane.

It was first introduced in 2007 as a direct response to the David Beckham transfer and it will soon be the subject of a further impressive tweak which can only benefit the league as a whole.

At a time when we’re starting to hear more and more about young Irish and UK players choosing to cross the Atlantic rather than drop down the leagues in England, the MLS have now introduced a new rule for next season which will aim to attract young international players to the league — not as a last-ditch attempt at salvaging a career but as a viable way of building a solid career.

Now, the MLS can aim a little higher in the young players it seeks to attract. According to yesterday’s announcement on its official site, it will allow teams to sign young designated players who are based overseas that are 20 years of age or younger for a budget charge of only $150,000, while similar talent between the ages of 21 and 23 will count just $200,000 against a team’s salary budget.

That will give clubs significant wriggle room, possibly to the value of two young players or one experienced player.

“If you look at it, our designated players are anywhere from mid to late 20s to early 30s,” said MLS executive Todd Durbin told www.mlssoccer.com.

“We’re getting good players, veteran players and players with experience but we’ve been out of the market for young, promising players in this area.

We’re hoping with this rule change we’ll tear down this last barrier of entry and bring in quality players at every place in their career and truly have the ability to get into the market of young players to be able to bring in and grow stars of the future for Major League Soccer.

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Clearly it encourages clubs to take a punt on a younger player rather than resorting to the likes of Keane

The Irish captain might do well but what will the cost be? Will he be there long enough to make an impression that lifts the whole league and if he does, will he get in the way of an up-and-coming striker?

If Major League Soccer has caught this in time, it might tone down its growing reputation as a retirement home for fading stars looking for one last payday. And decent shopping in Brentwood.

Read more of John Riordan’s column for TheScore.ie >

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