MLS 2.0 (3.0? 2.63?) has been all about the Designated Player. From the second David Beckham stood on a podium in Los Angeles, MLS began one of the most (if not the most) important periods of growth in league history. The idea was fairly simple: let rich MLS owners let loose on one or two luxury players. Get big names to MLS for notoriety, but keep the financial structure intact so that the smaller markets don't fold and the whole thing doesn't collapse in on itself a la NASL. The birth of the DP rule did not bring MLS its first international stars (Marco Etcheverry and Carlos Valderrama still had plenty in the tank when they joined MLS in its early years), but it certainly ushered in steady, healthy growth: with the DP came a better stable of players, more money, more fans, and more interested ownership groups. No, designated players did not accomplish this all on their own, as many supporter groups came to the table independently and boosted club brands, but the Designated Player Rule certainly did not hurt this movement, either.
Expansion teams in MLS during this time period have generally followed one of two paths: the savvy small-market club or the big-spender. Many teams, like Real Salt Lake (which started operations two seasons before Beckham landed) Portland, and Vancouver, have shown a knack for success under tighter constraints than many of their big city counterparts. Others, such as NYCFC, Orlando City, and Toronto, have immediately splashed out as much cash as they could, bringing in big, international names like Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Kaka, and Sebastian Giovinco. The appeal for Atlanta to go out and make a big, brand-name signing is easy to see. But in terms of running a successful club, one class of player is often overlooked (and even derided) by MLS fans that is absolutely necessary to the sustained successful performance of a club: the MLS retread.
Credit: Andy Marlin, USA Today
The MLS middle-class hasn't received much shine in the last few years between increasing mechanisms to get more expensive players into the league (more designated player spots, Targeted Allocation Money, and the rest of the MLS jargon therein) and the focus placed on developing and signing Homegrown Players in private, team-run academies. You can see how the classic American sports system, from high school to college to draft to the pros, is slowly working its way out of MLS just by watching its own SuperDraft. Whereas five or ten years ago the draft would have contributed several good-to-great players to the league, now MLS teams are lucky to find one of the handful of draftees who are ready to play on Day 1. Younger and younger, players are snapped up by MLS academies, leaving teams with more cap space to seek pricier foreign options to fill out the squad.
The only problem with this prevailing philosophy of player hierarchy (DPs and HGPs being preferable to the middle of the road journeymen who have supported MLS for so long) is that it still has not quantifiably produced a truly successful team devoid of retreads making their mark long after their supposed prime. Where teams have spent oodles of money on extremely pricy players and essentially ignored building a reasonable team after the DPs, imbalance and a distinct lack of success has followed. You saw this in NYC, with their tiny field and almost complete lack of defenders and midfielders that don't play in the middle of the park, and you've seen this in Toronto, devoid of anything resembling a functioning midfield going on three or four years now. Where teams have outstanding success developing pros themselves, as in FC Dallas, you see an extremely talented squad, but one that also has failed to win any silverware since 2010 (the Western Conference Championship. They lost to the Colorado Rapids in the MLS Cup final). Simply put: finding reasonably-priced players that other teams have deemed "expendable" or "not good enough" and finding ways to make them exceed expectations is absolutely vital to running a perennial contender.
Credit: Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today
MLS, like all American sports, is set up for parity. Once you do something good in the league, you're given less of a chance to improve. Conversely, if you have done nothing, or if you've completely sucked, you get helped out. Tradtionally in American sports, this is accomplished via the college draft. The champ gets last pick; the bottom-feeder first. MLS has this mechanism in place already, in addition to various lists and allocation orders that prevent good clubs from simply signing all of the good players. Everyone gets a turn and everyone gets a chance. Of course, this means that in theory, no American sports team can be bad forever unless they're just awful at picking good players and/or assembling a team. If you're always awful, it's your own fault.
The parity system, then, creates a limited pool of talent to draw from and a budget to work under. These mechanisms don't exist for the top tier of world soccer. The world's biggest clubs have no salary cap and a massive international scene to choose players from. American professional sports teams need to be able to consistently hold onto a core of talent while also flipping other team's cast-offs into valuable contributors. The best extra-soccer example of this is (and I'm sorry for this, but...) the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick has made everyone from LaGarrette Blount to Julian Edelman to Doug Flutie useful in some form or fashion, and has created a long-lasting dynasty because of it. In MLS, the constraints caused by the small talent pool and salary cap are more exaggerated than in other American sports simply because A) there's a smaller amount of talent to be had, and B) have you seen other pro sports salary caps? Because, lol, as the kids say. Even if you have all the money in the world to spend on your three or four shiny DPs, you still need to have a handful of guys with veteran experience, talent, and a relatively low price tag to carry your team into the playoffs and beyond.
In light of all this rumination and theory, let's look at some examples, yes? Your 2015 MLS Cup Champions, the Portland Timbers, featured Rodney Wallace as the winning goal-scorer. Wallace spent two seasons with DC United before being picked up by the expansion Portland Timbers in 2011. His place in the squad seemed tenuous at best by 2012, though, as everyone realized he was not a very good defender. When Caleb Porter entered the scene, he converted Wallace to the wing, and the Timbers got two playoff goals and a converted penalty on their way to the MLS Cup trophy this season in addition to a career-changing uptick in attacking play from Wallace. Also key to Portland's success were Nat Borchers, a 34 year old playing for his fourth club and third MLS side, and Jorge Villafaña, an afterthought in a trade with Chivas USA for allocation order position. The Supporters Shield champs from 2015, the New York Red Bulls, were captained by Dax McCarty. The Red Bulls are the third club McCarty has played for, after being drafted by Dallas, selected by Portland in the expansion draft before immediately being traded to DC for Rodney Wallace, and then traded to New York for an aging Dwayne De Rosario after just 13 appearances with the club. Even the blue chip clubs have these stories. The 2014 MLS Cup Champion LA Galaxy, replete with stars such as Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, and imported talent like Jamie Penedo and Stefan Ishizaki, featured appearances from Robbie Rodgers, initially thought to be a publicity stunt, Dan Gargan, who has featured for six (!) different MLS clubs plus the now defunct Puerto Rico Islanders, and Alan Gordon, who has appeared with four different MLS clubs and been with the LA Galaxy on two separate occasions.
The talent pool of MLS journeymen is small, but vital to the success of clubs that contend for silverware year-in and year-out. As Atlanta United inches closer and closer to the start of play in 2017, an expansion draft, trades, and DP signings will inevitably start weighing heavily on the minds of Carlos Bocanegra and the rest of the Front Office. It will be their job to somehow balance the needs to get a team off the ground from nothing, and somehow compete successfully for a fanbase that has already shown impressive numbers. Central to that balance will be some retreads: players that other clubs don't want, or don't need, or simply think are not that good. It will be Atlanta's job to find those players and find a way to make them succeed. Otherwise, it could be a long first season down South.