Major League Soccer's designated player rule is in the early stages of a two-year trial. But it is becoming apparent that the so-called Beckham Rule is going to be just that, a way for the league to contract David Beckham, and no others need apply.
There have been overtures made to Edgar Davids and Zinedine Zidane. But Davids would have cost more than FC Dallas wanted to pay and has since agreed to a deal with Ajax. Zidane has told Chicago he is staying retired. New York would be the city for Zidane, anyway. But even if Zizou unretired, the Red Bulls are so close to the salary cap after signing Claudio Reyna they would be unable to add another $400,000 to the payroll for another designated player.
MLS's anticipated publicity-generating pursuit of big-name players simply has not happened and is not likely to ever happen under these circumstances.
As time goes on, the flaws of the Beckham Rule are becoming more obvious. The money ($250 million) involved in the Beckham deal has raised unrealistic expectations for prospective imports. Even when those numbers are broken down, and it is explained Beckham's annual salary will be $10 million, the expectations remain too high. After 11 years of making their league work on the cheap, MLS teams are reluctant to shell out anything in the millions for one player.
It makes more sense to contract five high-level players at, say, $2 million each than to break the bank for one import. The Red Bulls did not have to pay much for Youri Djorkaeff, a World Cup winner who is arguably a much more effective performer than Beckham. But Djorkaeff confirmed in two years that it takes more than one prominent player to change a team at this level.
MLS teams such as the New England Revolution have been able to reach the MLS Cup, and display an attacking style, without having anyone making more than $180,000 annually. D.C. United showed this could be done in the early years of the league, performing at a high level with players from Bolivia, El Salvador and the Atlantic Coast Conference. This remains the model for the MLS: mix some good U.S. players with a couple of bargain-basement foreigners and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, the MLS formula is leading to mediocrity and stagnation. Few MLS teams have played an inspiring style and/or attracted impressive crowd numbers; and adding one high-profile player to these teams is not likely to change that, except in the case of Beckham.
The Beckham Rule could be a step in the right direction, though. Most MLS offseasons have been extremely dull, the league going dormant, stifling the self-generating publicity of speculation over player acquisitions. This is the first time the MLS received major attention in between seasons, all of it the result of player movement. The MLS is finding out what most leagues and teams already know: they can receive a major bang for their buck from fans and media debating offseason actions, generating anticipation for the following season.
MLS teams do not have to spend Beckham-type money to get people talking. Yes, the Beckham deal gained the attention of the major media outlets and sponsors. But the average fan is hungry to know the offseason dealings of teams and which players are being recruited. Those players do not have to be major superstars; a few inspiring youngsters with potential will do the trick. But there are so many restrictions regarding player acquisitions that it renders speculation meaningless.
Beckham's return to action for Los Galacticos provided a preview of what to expect when he joins Los Angeles this summer. An excellent Beckham free kick sparked a Real Madrid rally against Real Sociedad, but the rest of the time Beckham and many of his teammates looked slow. Maybe Beckham is rusty from having been benched by coach Fabio Capello.
Some MLS teams could take a quantum leap with the addition of one high-profile player. The Revolution might have won an MLS Cup or two with a Djorkaeff. D.C. United could be unbeatable with Davids' bite in midfield. Beckham should raise the Galaxy's game; but an Andres Guardado or Pavel Pardo could do that as well, for a lot less money.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.