If you think doing Christmas shopping for relatives is difficult, try shopping for Major League Soccer teams. Their Christmas lists usually are stocked with expensive items that they have trouble finding themselves, items that are sometimes unrealistic and unattainable.
Things have changed a bit this Christmas though, Santa has shown up with the newly minted Designated Player slots, which suddenly make once out-of-reach toys a possibility for MLS teams in need of a player or two to make a serious run at a championship, or simply an escape from the cellar.
The beautiful thing about MLS is that every team needs something, though some Christmas lists are longer (Columbus Crew) than others (D.C. United). Here is how this Santa Claus would deliver presents to MLS teams this year.
Toronto FC - Mo Johnston's version of Tickle Me Elmo, the toy he just had to have, was Dwayne De Rosario, but that wish isn't going to happen. Houston wasn't giving him up and De Rosario must not have pressed for it too hard. Where does that leave Toronto now? The Canadians need a playmaker in a hurry and as much as they would love to add one of the European-based De Guzman brothers (Jonathan and Julian), neither is coming to MLS any time soon.
Johnston will have to call on his U.K. connections to find a suitable playmaker. One option could be former Irish national team midfielder Matt Holland. The 32-year-old is currently at Charlton, but he could be had for a reasonable price.
Toronto also could use help at forward and one name that would be perfect is Will Johnson. Currently at Heerenveen, Johnson is a young talent whose Canadian nationality certainly would help Johnston's construction of the squad. It remains to be seen whether Heerenveen would sell the 21-year-old, who isn't currently in the club's first team mix. Santa will help ease Johnston's disappointment over losing out on Tickle Me DeRo by delivering Johnson.
Columbus Crew - The Santa Claus analogy works well for this team, which has as many kids on it as any other in MLS. The needs are too many to get into here, but the top of that list includes attacking midfielder and forward.
Some Crew fans still hold out hope that Brian McBride will come back but that Christmas miracle isn't likely to happen. McBride is flourishing at Fulham and is likely to stay a bit longer, with Chicago his more likely MLS destination once he does return. If we want to talk about reunions Columbus fans should consider Stern John, who hasn't enjoyed the England success McBride has but who was a far more potent MLS forward than McBride. John's contract with Coventry City expires this summer and the Crew would be smart to approach him with a big-money offer.
As much as adding a proven goal scorer would help, the Crew is in even more need of a playmaking midfielder capable of posting big assist numbers. Truth be told, the Crew never has had a top-flight playmaker. Sebastian Rozental was supposed to be that player but he managed just one assist this year.
So what does Santa have for the Crew? How about Spanish midfielder Ivan Campo? The Bolton midfielder still has a boatload of skills, speaks English, is right around the age you might think he would have an interest in coming here (33 in February) and he doesn't have a problem playing for a small market club (making a successful transition from Real Madrid to Bolton). I can see the mop-top wigs filling Crew Stadium now.
Kansas City Wizards - The Wizards addressed their most pressing need in the offseason by adding goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, which should make finding the perfect Christmas addition a little easier. In a perfect world, Santa would find the Wizards someplace to play next season but that might not fit in the sled.
Sticking to player needs, the Wizards are in need of forward help. The departure of Josh Wolff and the disappearance of Eddie Johnson (coupled with his desire to go to Europe) leaves K.C. with Scott Sealy as the team's lone reliable forward. New coach Curt Onalfo is already in South America searching for players.
Here are a few suggestions. How about Argentine striker Christian Gimenez? A star in Switzerland's pro league before short stints in France and Germany, Gimenez, 32, has rediscovered his scoring touch for Hertha Berlin in recent weeks and might be ready to revive his European career, but the Wizards need him so let's make this Christmas wish happen.
New York Red Bulls - Nobody's Christmas list is as loaded as this team's, with Ronaldo and Luis Figo among the names linked. The team has several needs, but like so many MLS teams, an attacking midfielder and forward are the most pressing.
If Ronaldo really is ready to end his career in Europe then New York is the perfect place for him, and who better to set up his chances than Spanish playmaker Ivan De La Pena, who has been rumored headed to the club.
If De La Pena isn't a big enough name there are some others that are even more mouth-watering, such as Zidane and Italian World Cup winner Alessandro Del Piero. While those names are a bit unrealistic, who are the Red Bulls most likely to bring in with their two designated player slots? If Ronaldo doesn't happen then Costa Rican Paulo Wanchope is one possibility at forward. It remains to be seen who will replace Amado Guevara as the team's top playmaker. Don't be surprised to see Santa deliver a big name like Del Piero, although it might take six months for that gift to arrive.
Chicago Fire - Chicago doesn't have a ton of pressing needs but a quality playmaker is probably the most obvious one. Justin Mapp and Thiago are decent enough in that role, but if the Fire is going to break the bank with a Designated Player slot you would imagine Chicago finding an upgrade there.
Having McBride come home would make for a nice story but that gets less likely with every goal he scores for Fulham. That said, forward is actually a strength for the Fire. What playmaker might Dave Sarachan find under the tree? How about Spanish midfielder Gaizka Mendieta? The one-time Lazio player is on the way out at Middlesbrough and is available, though a return Spain is more likely. Here's hoping Santa can sell him on playing in the Windy City.
New England Revolution - The Revs head toward the 2007 season with some real roster concerns for the first time in several years. Some key players are ready to leave (Clint Dempsey and Shalrie Joseph) and coach Steve Nicol must find strong replacements quickly.
Nicol has never been one to add older players but he might have to consider it if the Revs can lure former German international Dietmar Hamann. The one-time Liverpool central midfielder is now at Manchester City, who bought him from Bolton for about $500,000. Assuming he is healthy (he is currently battling some back problems) Hamann could be a perfect addition, especially if Joseph leaves New England.
D.C. United - The four-time champions need forwards and they need them quickly. Jaime Moreno isn't getting any younger and Alecko Eskandarian is no sure bet to regain the scoring touch that he seemed to lose last summer while battling knee problems.
The team reportedly is close to signing a pair of South American players. It remains a mystery who these players are. Could the club be preparing to pry one of Atletico Mineiro's several quality central midfielders away? They might have to if Brian Carroll lands an offer in Europe.
If the team lands a forward, and a right winger as speculation has suggested, they probably will be lower-profile names with talent but not the big price tag, like MLS MVP Christian Gomez was before he arrived. That could help D.C. keep its Designated Player slot available until the summer. In other words, D.C. won't have a Christmas with expensive toys but with gifts that should help the club move closer to adding a fifth championship.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.