There is clearly some kind of tricky Brazilian math going on in Dallas. What we have here is a kooky case of subtraction by addition.
No one quite knew what to make of Denilson as FC Dallas signed the mercurial former Brazilian international a few weeks ago. Here was a guy who graced two World Cup finals and was once the most expensive player in the world, and yet had bounced around the continents without distinction over the last few years.
What would he be in MLS? Prolific goal scorer? Competent, veteran playmaker, a la Cuauhtemoc Blanco? An ordinary attacker prone to the occasional burst of brilliance?
But did anybody really think Denilson would be become the gold standard of cautionary tales where the league's DP salary exceptions are concerned?
There can be no question that Denilson is easily the biggest bust of the first round of Designated Player signings.
Claudio Reyna might be only Reyna-lite these days, but he has hardly been embarrassing. Juan Pablo Angel and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, simply put, are getting it done. Even if the league didn't reap enough bang for the David Beckham buck, he has already amplified MLS awareness and has lots of contract years remaining.
Which leaves Denilson, who has been just awful. He appears indecisive, not particularly fit and thus far unable to combine effectively with a single teammate. No one inside the FC Dallas locker room wanted to speak on the record of Denilson, who seems to be a likeable sort. But they privately acknowledge that he has probably dislodged team chemistry. It's not that he's a bad egg, it's just that he's been so ineffective on the field that teammates are adjusting their games to accommodate him, something about as healthy as setting yourself on fire.
Manager Steve Morrow has engaged in all manner of tactical gymnastics, straining to find a fit for Denilson. But the net result is a bunch of guys who are aren't getting the chance to settle into a role, and it has turned the team into a mess. (Team officials, preferring the players concentrate on Wednesday's Open Cup final, asked to defer interviews with Denilson on the topic until later in the week.)
Signing him six weeks ago seemed like relatively low-risk stuff. A source within the team says Denilson's deal, worth a prorated $870,000 this year, is for just one year. The club has a series of options in which the salary escalates significantly.
Well, it's pretty safe to say that Denilson will be one-and-done in MLS. If you bought a Denilson FC Dallas jersey, you had best get your money's worth quickly.
Denilson has participated in six matches, seven counting a U.S. Open Cup semifinal win over Seattle. He has one goal, that on a penalty kick earned by Abe Thompson. He has no assists and a total of just three shots on goal.
Denilson came off after just 64 minutes Sunday as Houston shellacked itsTexas rival, 3-0. It was Denilson's midfield giveaway that led to Houston's first goal.Morrow said afterward that Denilson isn't doing enough in effort or production and insists that, regardless of DP status, Denilson will have to step in line or step aside just like anybody else.
Professional soccer players aren't stupid. Right now prudence would prohibit any FC Dallas player from making a hard run once Denilson absorbs the ball. It's not coming out of there. Most often, he's going to dribble around a little, then get it taken off his foot.
Nor are pro athletes naïve about salaries. They know how much Denilson is earning, and notice him not working particularly hard off the ball. That is locker room discord waiting to happen. Plus, if Denilson is not putting in the defensive work, players must adjust and compensate, and suddenly the whole system is askew.
All that is too bad, because Morrow had made so many astute personnel choices. He took a huge risk in tearing apart a team that finished atop the Western Conference standings last year. The first-year manager jettisoned malcontents and trimmed excess age from the roster. He replaced them with bargains (such as Pablo Ricchetti) and outright steals (hello, Juan Toja) in the player market, and trusted the team's young talent.
And he did it with an open mind; a man from Northern Ireland, schooled in football matters at Arsenal, built his side around Latin-American players and a Latin flavor.
It was all working so fabulously from April to early August. On Aug. 11, FC Dallas had 11 wins in 20 matches, sitting in first place. That's about the time Denilson finally signed following a protracted courtship, which is about when the southward spiral started.
Now, FC Dallas has one win in its last seven matches, left with zero chance of catching Chivas USA or Houston in the West. That's what they got for signing Denilson and all his cute little dribbling tricks.
Contrast that decision with the personnel choices this year of the club that just kicked Morrow's men sideways at Pizza Hut Park. Houston fortified its championship side with three significant roster moves this season. Nate Jaqua, Richard Mulrooney and Joseph Ngwenya have all played vital roles as Houston climbed out of an early season funk.
"It's hard to say," Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear said Sunday when asked about which move has meant the most. "They all did something really good for us."
All that said, what should have been a deliriously happy occasion, a 3-0 road win, took a dark turn. Ricardo Clark, in a horribly mad moment, kicked Carlos Ruiz as the combative Dallas striker lay on the ground. Uncharacteristic as it was for Clark, the stark violence of that action may cost the rangy midfielder the rest of his season. Andy Herron and Dario Sala got six-match bans for similarly violent attacks. If so, everybody betting on Houston's title defense had better tap the brakes a bit.
At any rate, it's now up to Morrow to manage this Denilson crisis. In the world of MLS, it's about getting into the playoffs and getting things right from there.
He's already given Denilson lots of latitude, testing him at three different positions, wide left in a 4-3-3, as the central fulcrum in a 4-2-3-1 and Sunday as a second forward alongside Carlos Ruiz.
The only move now, it seems, is a seat next to Morrow on the sideline, which will make Denilson the league's most expensive reserve ever.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.