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On Hassli and Designated Players

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So, Eric Hassli is not just the Vancouver Whitecaps' newest striker. He's also the first designated player in the club's history. Whatever his salary is (and that information has not yet been released), his salary cap hit is $335,000. This is the first of two designated player spots the Whitecaps are automatically entitled to; the Byzantine roster rules of Major League Soccer allow them to get a third if they pay for it (call it the New York Red Bulls Rule).

For those of you asking if Hassli is worth it, re-read the article I penned this morning when, sleep in my eyes and not enough tea in my blood, I saw some German words in my inbox saying that Hassli had been released from his contract to join the Whitecaps. I'll sum up my conclusion for you: "useful player, decent sort of journeyman forward who's gotten a few goals in a decent league. Starting quality, probably, but unlikely to be one of the world's leading scorers. At least he's coming from Switzerland, which ain't exactly the Bundesliga, so he's probably not a designated player or something insane like that."

Not so. Hassli's contract runs for four years at a designated player's salary. By the time it expires, he'll be a 34-year-old big target striker or, as I prefer to say, "so far over the hill you'll need a train to get him back to the top."

Hassli as a designated player is defensible. Hassli as a designated player for four years isn't.

I admit to being a bit of an MLS novice. When I saw Hassli was a designated player, I had to mentally calculated what that means. There are eighteen teams in Major League Soccer. Each one is automatically entitled to two designated player slots, pro bono (the third slot in 2010 cost $250,000). If we just count the free slots, that means that, to be value for money, a designated player should be no worse than the thirty-sixth-best player in Major League Soccer.

Thinking about it that way calmed me down a little. I fully believe that Eric Hassli, while a fine player, is unlikely to win the scoring title. But could he be, say, one of the ten best forwards in Major League Soccer? Or, to take reality rather than possibility, Hassli is the thirteenth designated player currently under contract in MLS. He might not be Landon Donovan, but is he Omar Bravo? Is he Branko Bošković? To pick an obvious comparison, is he Blaise Nkufo? None of them are bad players by any means. And out of the players I just named Hassli is the youngest.

Part of the problem is that I (and I think many Whitecaps fans) instinctively overrated the value of a designated player. We want David Beckham! We want Thierry Henry! Never mind that Henry scored twice in twelve appearances last season with New York, that Beckham hardly even shows up in Los Angeles, that those players were both openly signed to sell tickets and win fans rather than to win soccer games. If anything we wanted somebody with the profile of an Henry but the ability of a Donovan. Remember that Robbie Keane stuff from last year? That's just the sort of thing. To get a solid but by no means overwhelming forward out of Switzerland is underwhelming: until you compare him to his peers and think about what you should really expect from a designated player.

Hassli fills a position of desperate need. If he fits into the Major League Soccer environment well then he lifts the Whitecaps from the cellar to a fight for a playoff spot. That's not worth a DP spot? Remember, the Whitecaps have one DP slot left and can buy another one. If three world-class players agree to contracts with the Whitecaps but we can only sign two of them, well, then we'll all feel like idiots, but as we should be able to see from an entire winter of failing to get any world-class players that's not going to happen. If we didn't sign a designated player this year, then we wouldn't get extra slots in 2012. We just wouldn't have a designated player and our team would be worse.

Hassli's real problem is the four-year contract. But, of course, this is Major League Soccer, where players can be dropped almost at a team's leisure. If a 33-year-old Hassli is a liability, waive his sorry ass and be done with it. Remember Fredrik Ljungberg?

If the choice was between Eric Hassli as a designated player and Robbie Keane as a designated player, well, then we're morons. But it wasn't. The choice was between Eric Hassli as a designated player and no designated player, and frankly in that situation there's only one option that makes sense.