The rumour mill has long been idle regarding a potential Whitecaps designated player. There's been some wild mass guessing (Steve Nash and Thierry Henry are friends! He's sure to sign here!) but never anything even remotely concrete. Until this evening, when Marc Weber of the Vancouver Province broke the news that the Vancouver Whitecaps are interested in United States national defender Jay DeMerit as their first designated player signing.
DeMerit is currently without a contract after six seasons with Watford in England, bouncing between the Premier League and the Championship and appearing in 182 league games for the club. He co-captained Watford in the Championship, briefly, between the departure of Gavin Mahon and the arrival of John Eustace. He's also made twenty-three appearances for his country and was omnipresent at centre back during his country's FIFA World Cup campaign. He once scored the winning goal to take Watford to the Premier League, he's a former Gold Cup champion and Confederations Cup runner-up, and at thirty years old he has enough left in the tank to be a presence for a long time.
He's a legitimate player. He could be a valuable Whitecap, and he'd certainly be a step up from Greg Janicki and Nelson Akwari. But he's thirty years old and not getting any younger. He's struggled to catch the eye of any major European clubs, with rumoured interest from Wolfsburg and Everton going nowhere. He suffered an eye infection last year that required a corneal implant and could conceivably carry long-term complications. He'd be useful in Major League Soccer, certainly, but as a designated player? Even Major League Soccer is dubious: Weber added on Twitter that there is "lots of distance between club and MLS on terms". The signing may not even happen if the league, the Whitecaps, and DeMerit can't all agree on how much he is worth.
If it does happen, though, that'll sure shake up a slow news month.
Pretty clearly, the acquisition of DeMerit wouldn't sell tickets, except indirectly. The diehards know Jay DeMerit's name, but the diehards have already paid their season ticket deposits. The soccer moms and dads Vancouver will be relying on to pack Empire Fields are unlikely to have remembered one American central defender who showed up in the World Cup but has hardly ever entered the Canadian consciousness otherwise. The only marketing angle here is more generic: we're spending big money on players who aren't high profile but are high impact. We're here to win! Buy your tickets quick before we have to take out seats to expand the trophy case!
This goes against the original goal of the designated player program, to bring in the likes of David Beckham to look pretty and occasionally hit a free kick. But since the Whitecaps have already taken deposits on 14,000 season tickets they didn't have to worry about getting the high-exposure designated player. Right now, Vancouver's central defense is Nelson Akwari, Greg Janicki, Mouloud Alkoul, and Luca Bellisomo. Akwari and Janicki both have Major League Soccer experience but washed out of the league, Alkoul is recovering from a serious ankle injury, and Bellisomo is a terrific young all-rounder at the division two level but hardly a defensive anchor. A player capable of dominating an MLS back four would be a serious boost for the Whitecaps in 2011.
Moreover, Major League Soccer currently allows teams willing to spend a little money to sign three designated players. If the Whitecaps use all three then using one on a defensive anchor, even if he isn't a superstar, might make sense. The other two could go to a flashy scorer, an effective midfielder, or a famous goalkeeper: Tom Soehn would have plenty of options even with DeMerit taking up his first DP slot. Picking up DeMerit might not be an optimal use of a designated player, but it wouldn't be a bad one, and if Alkoul recovers to his former level then a central defense of Alkoul and DeMerit would give any MLS striker something to think about.
But DeMerit is not the perfect fit, even with those qualifications. At 5'11" he is small for a Major League Soccer defensive role; he'd be tied with Wes Knight as the shortest member of Vancouver's defensive team. Knight's a winger and gets less involved in corners or other set pieces but even in USSF D2 Knight's slight frame has been known to cause him problems against rampaging strikers. Most top MLS central defenders are at least 6'1". While the English Championship isn't exactly a league for wilting violets and anybody who can thrive in CONCACAF international play must have some grit in them, MLS is infamously rough on some of its defenders. More than one accomplished player has been baffled by its physicality and taking a chance on a smaller defender from a European league is a clear risk.
There's also an inherent risk in paying a supporting player designated player money. Look at Toronto: Julian de Guzman is a perfectly capable if unremarkable ball-winning box to box midfielder. But as a designated player both the club and the fans expect him to play a major role and that's simply not what he's good at. As a result, de Guzman's reputation has suffered and he's been scapegoated by Toronto fans. If the Whitecaps paid seven figures to a central defender who scored maybe two goals the entire season and didn't seem that much better than his partner, and the Whitecaps were a non-playoff team, DeMerit might come in for the same treatment.
Moreover, decent central defenders aren't exactly hard to find. Toronto pulling Adrian Cann off of the scrapheap and into the starting lineup earlier this season was just one example. While neither Janicki nor Akwari thrived in MLS, they both played their share of games without embarrassing themselves and between them, the veteran French pro Alkoul, and Bellisomo, the Whitecaps could probably march into Major League Soccer right now with an acceptable, if not a world-beating, central defense. Replacement players capable of doing acceptably well are available for a lot less than designated player terms. If DeMerit can dominate that would be fantastic but not even his biggest fans seem to expect that, and if he's just going to be a little above average then making him a designated player would be a serious misallocation of resources.
Nothing is final, but as things stand right now I tentatively like the player and tentatively dislike the contract. Out of every position on the Whitecaps roster, central defense is one of the only spots where I think we just about have things covered. Paying designated player money to a central defender of questionable value would be ill-advised.