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Evaluating Designated Player impact for Real Salt Lake

Ahead of Savarino’s arrival, what value do Designated Players provide in MLS, and what can RSL expect from the returning attacker?

MLS: MLS Cup Playoffs-Round One-Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As the Blitzer group took over Real Salt Lake this offseason, one of the most intriguing offseason points of interest was how the new ownership would fill the three open Designated Player spots on the roster. The intrigue was driven by the Blitzer group’s international network of teams, which came on the heels of a surprising RSL postseason run to end the 2021 season, followed then by the departure of Albert Rusnak. The first to fill in one of these spots is an all-time favorite, Jefferson Savarino, returning to RSL following an impressive run with Brazilian powerhouse Atletico Mineiro.

Savarino was brilliant in his previous stint with RSL and joins a club desperate for help offensively, currently only having scored 14 goals on the season, which is 21st best in the league despite RSL sitting in fourth place in Western Conference. Almost equally as impressive as RSL’s lack of goals compared to the amount of points the team has, it was revealed last week via the MLS Player’s Union that the Claret & Cobalt currently have the lowest payroll in MLS.

Outside of the potential offense, proven international experience, and in RSL’s case, simply having another warm body to choose from that isn’t on the injury report, how much of a difference can Designated Players truly make? What are the financial implications for those players who are making a difference? And how often do teams in MLS benefit from all three players making a difference at the same time?


Assessing the value of a Designated Player

The idea behind Designated Players, ever since David Beckham graced MLS with his presence, was for teams to be able to sign big-time, high-earning players who would bring prestige to the league, even allowing the option for those players to make more than the entire salary cap ($4.9 million for the first 20 players) on their own, like Xherdan Shaqiri, Chicharito Hernandez, and Gonzalo Higuain all do this season.

Big money doesn’t guarantee success in MLS, however, as splashing cash doesn’t translate to winning (look no further than Inter Miami), but a good DP goes a long way. Some more notable players recently include Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Lucas Zelarayan, Raul Ruidiaz, and Nicolas Lodeiro, who all played significant attacking roles in helping their clubs win the league while having Designated Player designations. Clubs like Seattle and Atlanta have recently made consecutive deep playoff runs behind a core of high-performing DPs, but just as apparent (and something RSL fans have known historically) a struggling designated player feels more like an anchor than anything at times. For example, perennial league basement dweller, FC Cincinnati, spent almost $6.8 million in combined salary for Luciano Acosta, Brenner, and Jurgen Locadia in 2021, but still finished dead last with an abysmal 20 total points on the year, as their big money targets failed to make a significant impact.

Looking at the most recent MLS Cup Champions and Supporters’ Shield winner, NYCFC and the New England Revolution, the fluctuating value of a DP is apparent in two particular ways that are of interest to RSL, along with how that fluctuation impacts the rest of the roster.

The Revs tore through league play behind a three headed attacking monster of midfielder Carles Gil feeding forwards Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa. Their powerful offensive trio helped New England set an MLS record for points in a season (73), Gil led the league with an astonishing 18 assists on the season (while also added four goals and earning MVP honors) while Buksa and Bou both finished in the top ten goal scoring leaders with 16 and 15, respectively. Interestingly enough, New England was only the 20th highest paying team in the league, even with Gil being the 11th highest paid player at just over $3 million, followed by Bou at $2.1 million (24th highest in the league), and Buksa at $1.1 million (65th highest in the league).

MLS: New England Revolution at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond those three, the Revs were actually pretty frugal, relying heavily on a defensive core of MLS vets ahead of GK Matthew Turner, which included Andrew Ferrell, Matt Polster, DeJuan Jones, Brandon Bye, and Henry Kessler, who all played over 2,000 minutes during the record breaking season, with none of them making more than $420,000 on the year.

For reference, in 2021 Albert Rusnak earned $2.3 million (11 goals), Damir Kreilach made $1.3 million (16 goals), and Everton Luis made $1.2 million (zero goals) as RSL’s three highest paid players, though only Rusnak counted as a Designated Player.

In theory, the ideal setup would be to have players of the same caliber as Kreilach and Everton playing in supportive roles behind high performing designated players, using allocation funds to spread the cost around a highly talented field. The MLS Cup champs, NYCFC, used this setup in comparison to New England’s thrifty habits. Attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez was their highest paid player at just under $3.3-mil, but then the New York side had 10 additional players over the DP threshold. Talles Magno and Jesus Medina occupied the other two DP slots, both making just under $1.2 million, but the league winner’s had at least 20 starts from defenders Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, Anton Tinnerholm, defensive midfielder Alfredo Morales, and 2021 Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos, who all had DP eligible salaries.

The league champions actually got more value out of their “DP eligible” players than their actual DPs, as Moralez had a somewhat disappointing season compared to his earlier MLS seasons, especially combined with his significant salary, and Talles Magno was limited to five total starts and just 15 appearances. Jesus Medina scored 9 goals, but was outshined by Castellanos who, finished the year with 19. Spreading the wealth around the field helped NYC finish the season with a +20 goal difference, tied for third best in the league, as their high-level defensive core contributed positively all season long behind Castellanos’ impressive offensive performance.

Looking ahead

For RSL, their potential setup is somewhere in between, having three open DP slots on the league’s lowest payroll, but with Kreilach, Cordova, Bobby Wood, Marcelo Silva, and Justen Glad all currently earning above the DP threshold of $612,500 for the 2022 season, and anyone on the roster making over that amount would need to be bought down in order to not count as a Designated Player.

Savarino’s salary is still unknown (with his signing coming after the salary guide release) and its unlikely RSL will bring in someone who commands a $3 million salary like Gil and Moralez. It’s not unlikely that Savarino ends up being the team’s highest paid player. What is certain though, regardless of pay, the team currently doesn’t have anyone who has scored more than two goals on the year, and an involved and active attacking DP is the most common MLS solution to that problem.

According to WhoScored’s advanced stats, 15 of the top 25 highest rated offensive players in the league last year were Designated Players, including seven out of the top 10 (one of non-DPs actually being Damir Kreilach and another being Valentin Castellanos). Already this season, Designated Players take up 10 of the top 15 highest rated attacking players by their metrics.

Hopefully the injection of Savarino will increase the impact RSL’s other highly paid attackers contribute more, proving their collective worth of the bigger deals, and it remains to be seen if RSL leaves Damir Kreilach in the DP role, who already proved his worth either way. On paper, two additional DP level players provides at least more opportunity that one of them (if not all of them) turn into a high-performing player, but even staying with the proven piece in Kreilach as one of them, adding at least one more contributor will only help RSL maintain their current pace and potentially reach another level.