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Repatriating Canadians in 2011, Part Three: The Designated Players

How could you not want to make this guy your starting goalkeeper in 2011? (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
How could you not want to make this guy your starting goalkeeper in 2011? (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

I like saving the best for last. I eat my salad before my steak. That's just the way I roll. I do the same thing with series about Canadian soccer players, too. When we last spoke ever-so-long ago, we had talked about the potential Canadian stars the Whitecaps could bring onto their team for 2011. We'd also talked about the less talented but equally interesting players that might be available to Vancouver, all in the name of filling the approximately eight spots the Whitecaps will need to pack with Canadian talent in Major League Soccer.

So now, saving the best for last like I said, we look at the guys who the Whitecaps might have to give up an arm and a leg for; the potential Canadian designated players who could help this team both on and off the field come 2011. The traditional designated player route was that taken by the Seattle Sounders last year: sign a famous European like Freddie Ljungberg who can still contribute to winning games. But with new MLS rules allowing up to three designated players per team, the Whitecaps have every reason to get more inventive; to pick up a domestic star as well as whatever famous foreigner Tom Soehn deems necessary.

Some of these players are better or more famous than others. There's an argument to be made to preferring each of the three candidates over the other two. Even I have one that I'd rather see in Whitecaps colours. But if Vancouver added any one of these three guys, they'd be picking up a marquee talent at an important position who could both sell tickets and win soccer games. That's a pretty good combination.

Going back to the German well as I did with Jonathan Bourgault, Massih Wassey, and Olivier Occean in previous installments, I give you Hertha BSC striker (and former Paul Stalteri teammate) Rob Friend. Friend may be one of the most talked-about potential Vancouver designated players: at age twenty-nine, he's reaching the point in his career where strikers start to slow down. His international career has been a constant disappointment with only two goals in twenty-five senior appearances, but domestically he has been an assassin. Hertha paid upwards of €1.5 million for Friend and with good reason, for Friend has proven his goalscoring licks in the 2.Bundesliga before. He was a key part of the reason Borussia Monchengladbach was promoted to the first tier two seasons ago, although injury robbed him of a major role in their fight against relegation last season.

Friend would not come cheap (again, a second division team just paid €1.5 million for his services). But he turns thirty in January and that is when strikers axiomatically begin to lose a step. Experienced international players who have lost a step are practically the raison d'être for the designated player rule, and Friend would be a tempting one. Certainly, the Whitecaps making their first DP a farmboy from small-town Saskatchewan would resonate in certain quarters. More importantly, there's every reason to believe Friend could pour on the goals in MLS. His international struggles shouldn't obscure the fact that Friend has been a reliable poacher in Holland and Germany, with a lanky frame, more speed than usual in a big man, and gentle touch around the goal. He's got the size to ensure that he could survive rough MLS defenders (and the German league isn't exactly for wilting violets either).

Certainly, the Whitecaps would have to pay heavily for a transfer fee and then pay again to convince Friend to leave his comfort zone in Germany and make a go of it in his homeland. A seven-digit outlay for a pure striker with a few injury problems and who knows how many years before he turns into a big, useless immobile lug is intimidating. But in the short term, when Vancouver will be struggling to make an early impact and prove to the British Columbia sports market that they're a serious organization with a good team, Friend could pile them in. He may be worth the risk.

Sticking closer to home, in every sense, there is Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson. The biggest and most obvious problem with getting Will Johnson is that Real Salt Lake, with whom he has served since 2008, already has him. That part might be tricky. Johnson is a key part of the defending champions' hopes both immediately and in the longterm, and Vancouver would have to make it worth Real Salt Lake's while to part with him.

There ought to be no problem making it worth Will Johnson's while, though. Part of the reason for MLS bringing in the additional designated player slots was to make it easier for North American teams to keep players like Johnson that might otherwise have looked abroad. At age twenty-three, Johnson would clearly be worth a contract in one of the Scandinavian leagues or perhaps the Netherlands (where he actually played with SC Heerenveen for parts of two seasons). The chance to play in his home country for designated player money might be enough to lure Johnson into staying, and at his age the Whitecaps could have a vital player for the long term.

Again, there would be difficulty in prying Johnson out of Salt Lake. An optimist might count on Major League Soccer greasing the rails a bit to send a marquee player to a new expansion club, but I'm not that optimistic. Vancouver would have to work up a trade package for Johnson on their own merits, and that wouldn't be easy. If they could pull it off, though, it would be a great help to the club.

Finally, there's a name that's been brought up in the comments of an earlier post. rsm asked about why nobody has tried to repatriate Lars Hirschfeld, especially not the team for whom Hirschfeld played a single game back in 2001. Hirschfeld currently toils for Vålerenga in Norway, where he is getting his first opportunity to be a starting goalkeeper in many summers. He's also the first choice for the Canadian national team when available: unfortunately he missed our most recent batch of friendlies and the 2009 Gold Cup, but all the same Hirschfeld boasts twenty-nine senior international caps in the last decade.

Why hadn't I mentioned Hirschfeld before? Because he's a starting goalkeeper for a mid-table team in an extremely good European league. These guys don't come cheap, and in Hirschfeld's case he has a history of traveling Europe getting pretty good paydays and in some cases seven-digit transfer fees since his early years wandering the desert with the likes of the Whitecaps and the Edmonton Drillers. At age thirty-one, Hirschfeld has plenty of time left to bring home the bacon in Europe before coming home in six or seven years for a Pat Onstad-style raging against the dying of the light. He isn't at the same stage Kasey Keller, to pick a name, was at. It would take an awful lot of money - designated player terms, I think - to bring him to Canada in the prime of his career.

But he is in the prime of his career, and there aren't many things as important in soccer as having a reliable goalkeeper. For all the esteem I have for Jay Nolly he would clearly not be as effective in MLS as he has been in the USSF D2, and Nolly's previous MLS experience did not inspire confidence. Certainly, the team could get by with Nolly, but they could do far more than get by with Hirschfeld. With the promising additions that have already been made to Vancouver's defensive corps, a rock like Hirschfeld in goal could be enough to let Vancouver fight for a playoff spot in their first season.

Best of all, Hirschfeld would have a real chance to remain in Vancouver for the long haul. Hirschfeld is a native of Edmonton, Alberta and could hardly be put off by living in western Canada. At his age, he could have as much of a decade's worth of MLS-calibre goalkeeping left in him. Give him a good contract and a decent defense and who knows how long Lars could keep going in this league, an integral part of the MLS Whitecaps from day one until championship one and beyond?