EDITORIAL: To DP or not DP?

With Dempsey linked to Seattle, the DP question is an interesting one for fans around MLS

DP

With the closing of the summer transfer window just days away (August 8) and the chatter around Clint Dempsey joining Seattle, it’s an interesting time for Fire fans as well as all fans around the league. Specific to the Fire, questions arise:  “Does the Club need to sign a big name Designated Player?”, “What really makes a big name Designated Player?” or -- “Is it smarter to go with a younger Designated Player with more future potential or an older one with a possible immediate impact?”

They beg the question – “Does the Chicago Fire Technical Team even have a strategy?”  The answer to the last question is yes but it seems to me that the answers to the DP questions aren’t as simple. 

Historically, the Fire have not been afraid to go after DP’s. In fact, the Fire are near the top of the league with seven DP signings since the institution of the "Beckham Rule" in 2007.  Taking it a step further, the Fire have often played the role of big spender.  According to reports, the Fire spent comparably in re-signing Cuauhtemoc Blanco in 2009 to what the Galaxy paid Robbie Keane on his arrival in 2011. But signing DP’s and more importantly, investing in DP’s, doesn’t seem to always lead to success either on or off the field. 

Beyond the field, if you’re going to bring in a “big name” DP, you want and expect a broader commercial impact to help justify the move.  When one takes a closer look at the Galaxy again, even with recent Cup successes, they are not significantly different than the Fire in terms of both season ticket sales and television ratings. 

So if the Club spends and is committed to spending (see our owner’s comments from 2012 on signing a striker at the price of Robbie Keane, as in, “yeah, of course we would”), then why is the Fire not signing that bigger name DP? 

For one, it’s really hard.  No sympathy expected here, but the stars really have to align for it to work out.  One, you need to find the right player, a player who wants to come to the Fire, and who likely will have to make a deal to leave his current Club.  Two, the pool of big name DP’s are usually older, i.e., in their mid-to-upper 30’s, who are looking for long-term guarantees, who may be at the end of their career, etc. Three, it’s expensive, and the universe of players  is really around “10 to 12 people,” according to Tim Leiweke, the new Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO (the guy responsible for bringing David Beckham to LA in 2007).  And four, without proper vetting, a big name DP can also have a detrimental impact in the locker room, feel above the team, think he’s deserving of preferential treatment, and more (See Landon Donovan’s initial comments on Beckham).

That just may not be the Chicago way.  Or should it be?

So what do fans really want or expect in a big name DP? Is it about the name or do fans just want the team to win regardless of how? New York, Seattle and Dallas, have never won MLS Cup and neither did the Fire teams with Blanco, Ljungberg or Castillo. Kansas City or Houston on the other hand, who have lesser known DP’s, like Claudio Bieler and Boniek Garcia, seem to win at a consistent rate (even with some missteps at the role, i.e., Kansas City and Omar Bravo). And yet, many teams have also performed well without DP’s generally at all (see Real Salt Lake, Colorado and San Jose). 

It all boils down to winning and you can’t argue that the Technical Team hasn’t hit some major bumps on that path to success.  Ownership has acknowledged this by stating publicly its disappointment in some of the choices made and that the hit rate needs to improve.  You can make the argument that this is not an isolated Fire issue but a much more problematic league-wide issue. And while not all will agree with the current approach, the Technical Team does have a strategy in place that they believe will take the Club to where we all want to go, all while backed by an ownership that has been willing to commit the resources requested. 

So what is the strategy?  The current Technical Team approach remains “team first.” OK, but what does that really mean? For starters, it doesn’t mean the Club won’t spend money on DP’s (just look at Juan Luis Anangono, complete with a seven-figure transfer fee).  But at the same time, it does seem that the Club believes in taking a calculated risk on a younger player.  They are targeting the type of player who will be hungrier and have more time to develop into a long-term solution (not to mention that player’s potential future value).  It’s a similar path shared by the Colorado Rapids, who are rumored to be on the verge of signing Gabriel Torres.  Even the Red Bulls are appearing to move in a younger direction, deciding to part ways with Juninho earlier this season.  And while they have seen some success with Thierry Henry, let’s not forget the Rafa Marquez experiment.

From a strategic player acquisition standpoint, the Club is also committed to building and expanding its international relationships. The goal being that these long-term partnerships will allow the Club to continually identify players, as well as best practices, to yield real results (i.e., how the Club America relationship facilitated the arrival of Pavel Pardo, as well as benefits from the other Team for the World relationships, or the most recent trip to Pachuca facilitated by Quaker president Jose Luis Prado).

And in spite of the lack of a big name DP of late, or a seemingly series of disappointing international signings, the same Technical Team deserves credit for finding success at home (i.e., Sean Johnson, Austin Berry and Patrick Nyarko to name a few).  The same team also put together the roster that led the Club back to the playoffs last year (with one of the best home records in Club history).  The same team that showed negotiating prowess in signing “DP” quality international players such as Arne Friedrich and Pardo.  Or how this currently assembled squad, who many predicted would be a playoff contender in the pre-season, is now just two wins away from a fifth U.S. Open Cup.

Everyone knows it’s a high-stakes game with no guarantees, but there’s also no question the Fire needs to improve its ability to identify and sign international talent.  The front office would be the first to tell you that.  And until we do that, no one expects this transfer window conversation to change. Talk and words are cheap (see results motherf#*ker!). Unfortunately this a blog post so I can only leave you with these closing words. 

Ask any club in MLS (or even some of those in this town – Cubs, Bears, etc.) and they will tell you that assembling the right team and finding the formula to win isn’t easy.  But despite some of that track record, there’s an ongoing commitment within the Club to continue to learn, to keep at it and to forge ahead.  You can and should fully expect that the Club will do all it can to find those special players that will make the Chicago Fire supporters proud and who also share the common goal of hoisting the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup once again.  

Yes, that is a big challenge, but it’s one that the fans of the Fire deserve to have met.