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Feb 11, 2008

Rapids gamble big in making Gomez move

"There is a sucker born every minute."

There is much dispute about who originated this famous phrase, whether it was American showman P.T. Barnum or the lesser known David Hannum. What is clear is that the front office at D.C. United should make the saying its slogan.

For the second offseason in a row, D.C. United has traded a player it had no intention of keeping to a desperate Western Conference team for the Major League Soccer equivalent of a king's ransom.

Last year it was Real Salt Lake that played the role of the sucker, giving D.C. a major allocation as well as a portion of any future Freddy Adu transfer fee for the young midfielder. RSL had high hopes for Adu but watched him play exactly 11 games before leaving for Benfica. The men who made that deal, head coach John Ellinger and general manager Steve Pastorino, had already been shown the door before Adu even said goodbye.

In many ways, that deal played a key role in helping D.C. United add quality talent the past two offseasons. D.C. president Kevin Payne and general manager Dave Kasper, probably couldn't have dreamed of finding another "sucker" out West.

Enter the Colorado Rapids, a club desperate to make an offseason splash despite a reputation as the league's cheapest club. After an offseason filled with rumors, rather than actual moves to improve a team that missed the Western Conference playoffs, the Rapids joined the Christian Gomez sweepstakes.

It was no secret that Colorado was eager to add a quality playmaking midfielder, the failed Kyle Beckerman-Mehdi Ballouchy trade providing the best evidence. The question was just how much would Colorado be willing to spend on Gomez? And would the Rapids play hardball with D.C. United and offer up a modest package or would they crumble as soon as D.C. started threatening to deal Gomez elsewhere?

This is when the Gomez deal started to resemble the Adu deal. When Adu was on the trading block, there just weren't many teams willing to overspend on what was essentially a major gamble. That didn't stop RSL from overpaying despite being the only serious bidder. Rather than being stingy at the negotiating table, Real Salt Lake caved and gave up more than it should have for Adu.

Who were the Rapids really bidding against for Gomez? According to league sources, Toronto FC was identified as a serious bidder that was the first to put a designated player slot on the table. At least that is what someone (D.C.) wanted Colorado to believe. Sources in Toronto insist that TFC never put its designated player slot on the table and had exited the Gomez sweepstakes well before the Rapids' winning bid. Yes, it would appear that D.C. United pulled a used-car salesman's ploy on Colorado, and it worked like a charm.

So rather than dealing an allocation and draft pick for Gomez, the Rapids followed the perilous lead of Chivas USA, the only other team to deal its designated player slot in the short history of the DP slot. Apparently, the disastrous outcome of Chivas USA's deal didn't make Colorado think twice.

For those of you who have forgotten, Chivas USA dealt its slot before the 2007 season for Amado Guevara, who played five games before wearing out his welcome and leaving the club. The Goats have been in desperate search of a designated player slot since.

This isn't to suggest that Gomez is as risky a player as Guevara was. However, dealing the club's designated player slot, and only mechanism to add an international star, was a gamble for Colorado -- a team that isn't one player away from being a title contender.

It's either a risky move or, if you are a cynic who believes the Rapids' reputation as an organization unwilling to spend money on players, a very calculated maneuver. Colorado wasted no time in portraying the deal, which included paying Gomez a two-year, guaranteed contract north of $400,000, as an example of the club pulling out the stops.

"It should reaffirm what we've said all along," Rapids vice president Jeff Plush said. "We're very committed to this sport, to our club, to our league, to our community and fans."

Really? Does the deal really reaffirm this? The reality is that trading away the designated player slot for two to three years will now prevent Colorado from spending any of its own money on a high-priced foreign player (under league rules, a team is responsible for all salary above the league maximum of $400,000, so a million-dollar player can cost a team $600,000). Gomez's contract is covered entirely by the salary cap the Rapids are already obligated to pay.

So while Colorado is trumpeting the deal as a sign that the club is willing to spend money, the reality is the team could wind up saving more than $1 million in salary in the deal (assuming the Rapids would have ever actually used the DP slot).

Will Gomez make Colorado a better team? Nobody is disputing that he can. Gomez has been one of the best and most consistent players in MLS since helping lead D.C. to the MLS Cup title in his first season in 2004. Whether as a withdrawn forward, or attacking midfielder, Gomez will provide the creativity and consistent goal scoring Colorado has lacked since John Spencer retired.

The question is whether the Rapids overpaid for Gomez and, in the process, hampered their chances of improving Colorado enough to be a serious title contender. Houston and New England have shown that you don't need a designated player to be an MLS Cup contender, but both teams have stockpiled impressive talent through years of great drafts and trades.

Colorado has some talent, including goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul and midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Terry Cooke, but adding Gomez alone won't transform the Rapids from the fourth-worst team and second-worst offense in the league into a Western Conference power. The Rapids still don't have a dangerous forward, something they could have added with the designated player slot they traded away.

You won't hear D.C. United complaining. With a second designated player slot and 2009 first-round draft pick that could be a high one, D.C. has the tools in place to enjoy yet another productive offseason after the 2008 season. It will be interesting to see what D.C. can do with what it received from Colorado, almost as interesting as seeing if D.C. will be able to find another "sucker" next winter.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.