If you clicked this story, I’m going to assume that you are at least somewhat aware of how Major League Soccer’s “Designated Player” rule works. If you’re not, here a short refresher: the league has a hard salary cap, with zero wiggle room for going over. When David Beckham signed with the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, the league invented a new rule to accommodate his hefty contract. Every team could have one “designated player” (or DP, for short) that could be paid whatever the owners agreed to, but his contract would only count towards the salary cap as if were a normal maximum salary.
Slowly, the league opened up the rule book (and their wallets), to the point where all teams can now have up to three DP players on their books. Some teams use all three, while other more frugal clubs only bother to pay one or two.
The latest high profile signing was the Galaxy bringing in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who needs no introduction to soccer fans. He scored a scorcher of a goal in his first appearance, but the novelty is quickly wearing off. The team isn’t winning and Zlatan was sent off against Montreal for some foolishness in just his eighth game for his new club. It’s still too early to put the famous Swede on this list, but if things end in L.A. on a sour note, you might see Zlatan on a updated version of this list in the future. Plus Wayne Rooney might be on the way to D.C., another aging European star who has slowed considerably in recent years.
The designated player rule has led to a lot of big names coming into MLS (some solely for a retirement tour). It also resulted in some teams finding absolute gems, and having DP players carry them to championships. But this article isn’t about the DP success stories. No, today we’re going to talk about the players who came into MLS on big money contracts, but didn’t do much at all on the field. In no particular order, here are the 20 worst designated player signings in MLS history (so far).
20. Julian de Guzman (Toronto FC)
When Toronto FC became the first Canadian team in MLS history, they brought a lot of hype. The fans were raucous, the team was owned by MLSE (who also own the Raptors and the Maple Leafs), and the multicultural hub of Toronto was filled with soccer fans who were anxious to support a hometown team. Early on in their existence, TFC shelled out big bucks to bring in Julian de Guzman. Not only was he a member of the Canadian National Team, but he also had found success in Germany (with Hannover 96) and Spain (with Deportivo La Coruna). A three-year deal worth $1.9 million annually was pretty large for MLS by 2009 standards, but de Guzman was basically doomed to fail from the beginning.
Toronto had a laughable front office and a revolving door of players and managers for the first seven or eight years of their existence. No one seemed to realize that de Guzman was a defensive midfielder, not an attacking genius. Despite that, he was scorned for not scoring goals (just two in 65 appearances for the Reds). Even as a holding midfielder, the lack of talent around him meant that TFC’s shape would often crumble and they conceded plenty of goals. Toronto failed to make the playoffs in every season de Guzman played a part in.
In 2012, when yet another new coach took over Toronto (with the same dismal results), de Guzman was shockingly traded to FC Dallas and played out the end of DP contract in Texas. He won’t be the last TFC player on this list though — a testament to how awful that club truly was until Giovinco, Bradley, and Altidore came to town.
19. Rafael (D.C. United)
What, you don’t remember the memorable Rafael Teixeira de Souza era at D.C. United? His signing was announced in January 2013, using the newly created “Young DP” slot. It was supposed to be a one-year loan from Brazilian club side Baiha, designed to give United some attacking power and give the 20-year-old striker some regular minutes. Spoiler alert: neither of those things happened.
In just seven appearances for D.C. United, Rafael scored a single goal (in his debut, no less). He suffered a concussion during training, which derailed his career in a big way. The player and the club mutually agreed to part way in June 2013, just a third of the way through the season. He went to play lower division soccer in Brazil and Mexico, before signing with Xinjaing Tianshan Leopard in China in 2015. His post-United career was equally unimpressive as his time in the nation’s capital — just 20 professional appearances in five years, for three different clubs.
18. Andres Escobar (F.C. Dallas)
No, not that Andres Escobar. F.C. Dallas did not sign the former Colombian international defender who was brutally murdered in Medellin after scoring a costly own goal in the 1994 World Cup. They did, however, sign Andres Ramiro Escobar, a Colombian striker who was under contract with Dynamo Kiev but found himself constantly on out on loan.
In 2014, FC Dallas brought him in on a DP contract. He was just 22 at the time, and his relative inexperience quickly showed. Despite making 29 appearances for the Texas club, Escobar scored just four goals. He wasn’t really needed, though, as Dallas finished fourth in the Western Conference and qualified for the playoffs even without their big money play offering much production. Escobar found himself a new club the following year, going out on loan (again) to Colombian side Atletico Nacional. He also had a new club in 2016, 2017, and 2018… and the tradition continues.
17. Kleberson (Philadelphia Union)
Brazilian midfielder Kleberson spent a couple seasons at Manchester United, and a couple more at major Turkish club side Besiktas. We imagine the switch to playing for the Philadelphia Union on loan in 2013 was a bit of a culture shock. With all due to respect to the Union and the Sons of Ben, they aren’t the 75,000-seat Old Trafford or the “Welcome to Hell” supporters of Bestikas.
Just look at this shot from Turkey:
The highlight of Kleberson’s short time as a designated player in Philly was an injury time game-winning goal against Toronto FC, which he scored with a free kick in the 95th minute. Other than that, his one and only season in the City of Brotherly Love was a complete flop. In just 11 appearances for the club, that late winner against TFC was his only goal. He mustered up two assists and recorded just four total shots all season. He found himself an unused substitute for most of the season, and the Union were happy when he slunk away at the end of the season.
16. Mista (Toronto FC)
Shortly after Julian de Guzman arrived in Toronto, he convinced the management team to bring in his former Deportivo teammate Mista. The Spanish forward, a former part of the Real Madrid academy, had previously played for Valencia and Atletico Madrid in La Liga. Unfortunately, he was already 32 when he arrived in Major League Soccer in 2010. His best days, which were never all that special to begin with, were definitely behind him.
Nonetheless, TFC made him a designated player for exactly one-half of a season. He only scored a single goal for his new Canadian club, finding the net in a memorable 2-1 win over Mexican side Cruz Azul in a Champions League tilt at BMO Field. In nine league appearances though, Mista recorded exactly zero goals. The club waived him completely after the season. After spending the next nine months trying (and failing) to find a new contract, Mista announced his retirement from soccer.
15. Steven Gerrard (L.A. Galaxy)
Stevie G was (and still is) a Liverpool legend after spending almost his entire career playing for the Reds in Mersyside. He started to slow down as he approached his mid-30s, as most players do. After all, those legs had a ton of mileage on them from carrying Liverpool to FA Cup wins in 2001 and 2006, and a famous Champions League victory in 2006 (but zero Premier League titles). He also had a long career in the midfield of the England National Team, although they failed to win any major intentional silverware.
In 2015, Gerrard left Liverpool and followed in the the footsteps of fellow Englishman David Beckham by signing for the L.A. Galaxy on an 18-month DP contract, reportedly worth as much as $9 million. In that season and a half, the Galaxy made the playoffs twice but failed to make it back to the MLS Cup. Gerrard was often ineffective on the field, scoring just five goals in 34 appearances for the West Coast club. He decided to retire at the end of his DP contract, saying that the long away trips, changes in elevation, and diverse weather across North America made it hard for him to adapt to the league. He was an average, if not a little slow, midfielder while with the Galaxy, and certainly not worth the $9 million he was paid.
14. Jarju (Vancouver)
The legendary Jarju era of the Vancouver Whitecaps was neither productive nor memorable, except for that fact this his name was really fun to say. Mustapha Alasan Jarju. It just rolls off the tongue. He arrived in Vancouver in July 2011 after setting the Belgian league on fire while playing for R.A.E.C. Mons, scoring 34 goals in 99 appearances over three years. A goal in every three games is a pretty solid strike rate for a young attacker.
Vancouver is a world away from Belgium though, and Jarju fell flat playing in Cascadia. He appeared in just ten games for the Whitecaps, scored zero goals, and was sternly told to take a walk in the offseason. He went back to R.A.E.C. Mons, but couldn’t quite recapture his productive ways. He would later bounce around to clubs in Dubai and Kazakhstan.
13. Freddie Ljungberg (Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire)
At the peak of his career, Swedish winger/midfielder Freddie Lungberg was one of the most talented players in the world. From 1998 to 2007, he patrolled the touchlines for Arsenal to the tune of two Premier League titles and three FA Cup wins — oh, and he was an integral part of the 2004-05 squad that is now know as The Invincibles for going an entire EPL season without losing a single game.
In 2009, Lundberg was brought over to MLS to be the big name for the expansion Seattle Sounders side in their debut season. He signed a two-year, $10 million contract and promptly missed a third of his first season in Seattle with a hip injury. He then started dealing with migraines, which got so bad they affected his vision. In his second season on the West Coast, he only appeared in 15 games (scoring zero goals) before shockingly being traded to Chicago midseason for nothing more than a second round draft pick. He didn’t fare much better there, scoring a pair of goals in 15 appearances.
After his MLS adventure, Lungberg played briefly in Scotland, Japan, and India before finally retiring for good.
12. Freddy Adu (Philadelphia Union)
Remember from Freddy Adu was the “next Pele” and was going to “save American soccer”? Those were fun times. Unfortunately, the youngster never lived up to the hype of signing his first professional contract at the age of 14. Back then, he was playing for D.C. United and Real Salt Lake, and still had enough potential to attract interest in Europe. At 18, he jumped across the pond to play for Benfica — who proceeded to mostly loan him out to other clubs.
In 2011, the Union splashed out DP cash to bring Adu back to America. Terms were not disclosed, but the then-21-year-old joined Philly mid-way through the season. Over the next season and a half, Adu scored just seven goals in 35 appearances (with just 16 shots on goal in that whole time). Before the 2013 season, Adu was sent to Bahia in a move that saw Kleberson (see above) move the other way. That didn’t turn out either, and since then Adu has tried to get his foot in the door with prestigious clubs like Jagodina (Serbia), KuPS and SC Kuopio Futis-98 (both in Finland), the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and the Las Vegas Lights. Yikes.
11. Lucas Ontivero (Montreal Impact)
The Montreal Impact have nailed some of their DP signings in the past. Both Marco Di Vaio (34 goals in 76 games) and Ignacio Piatti (52 goals in 100 games, and counting) have been excellent for the Canadian club. Even the brief appearance of the aging Didier Drogba actually produced some memorable moments, as the Ivory Coast legend scored 21 goals in 33 appearances for the Impact at the tail end of his career.
However, the signing of midfielder Lucas Ontivero doesn’t measure up to those other DPs. He joined Montreal in 2016 on a designated player contract, but only started 12 of the 21 games he appeared in that season. He scored just a pair of goals and added another two assists, registering just nine shots on goal all year. The Impact did pretty well without him, though, as they made the Eastern Conference Final and had one foot in the MLS Cup Final until their hated rivals Toronto FC mounted a ridiculous comeback to win the two-legged tie 5-7 in overtime. As for Ontivero, he quietly left Montreal and tried to his hand as South American club football again. He didn’t catch on there, either, and was last seen playing professionally in the Malaysian second division
10. Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC)
Don’t fire up those hate emails just yet, Italian fans. Andrea Pirlo is a certified football legend, having a storied career for the likes of AC Milan, Juventus, and the Italian National Team. He has multiple Serie A titles, a pair of Copa Italia trophies, and two Champions League winners medals. Oh, and a World Cup championship with Italy in 2006. The grand old maestro of Italian football made the jump to MLS in 2015, signing a DP contract to join the New York Yankees/Manchester City-owned expansion team in the middle of their debut season.
Pirlo was already 36 by the time he joined NYCFC, and his age showed. There will still flashed of his old technical brilliance, but here are some hard facts: the MLS is a league that thrives on speed and athleticism, and doesn’t always reward beautiful football. Pirlo scored just a single goal in 62 appearances for the MLS version of the Sky Blues, and was often criticized for his lack of hustle and sub-par defensive efforts. You could usually spot him lingering around the center circle, hoping someone would pass him the ball so he could ping off a 40-yard pass that required very little actual running on his part. To his credit, he did manage 18 assists in his two and half seasons in the Big Apple.
By 2017, Pirlo’s body was giving him all he signs. He announced he would retire at the end of the season, and was limited to just 15 appearances in his final professional campaign. Pirlo is still one of the all-time greats, but his time in MLS appeared to be not much more than a ploy to sell shirts and season tickets to the Italian community in New York.
9. Gilberto (Toronto FC and Chicago Fire)
During some of the darkest days of Toronto FC history back in 2014, they reached out for some Brazilian flair by signing a young striker by the name of Gilberto from Internacional. He frustrated TFC fans by failing to find the net for the first few months of his debut season, finally lashing in a vicious free-kick after arguing with fellow-DP Jermaine Defoe over who would take it. However, Gilberto’s finishing failed him often and the Toronto supporters grew more frustrated.
After a single season with the Reds, where he scored seven total goals in 32 games, Gilberto was shipped out of Toronto to make room for incoming DPs Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. Finding no trade partners for Gilberto’s DP contract, TFC sent him out on loan to Vasco da Gama. That only lasted about six months, and Toronto was forced to release Gilberto outright to stay roster compliant. The Chicago Fire took a flier on him (again on a DP contract), but he only managed five goals in 20 appearances over a season and half. Just not good enough to stay a starting striker in MLS (or any league, really).
He returned to Brazil to play club football for Sao Paulo, but they got sick of him too. He was last seen playing for Yeni Malatyaspor in Turkey.
8. Rafa Marquez (New York Red Bulls)
Typically speaking, DP contracts are most often used on attacking players. Defense might be important, but goals win games. There’s a good reason that more DP contracts are given out to offensive players than defensive players. One of the biggest exceptions to that rule was Rafael Marquez, the Mexican international centerback who joined the New York Red Bulls in 2010. He signed a three-and-half-year contract with the club that was worth big bucks, but never lived up to it.
Marquez’s time in New York was marred by criticism from both the fans and the media. He was often injured. When he did play, he was prone to foolish red cards that resulted in missing further games due to suspensions. In short, it didn’t look like Rafa really cared about his effort, the team’s results, or the critics harsh words. As long as those big DP paychecks didn’t bounce. Marquez would later trash the league entirely, telling ESPN Deportes that coming to MLS was a “bad decision” and perhaps the worst decision of his entire career. He claimed to regret turning down offers from European clubs, including Juventus. Red Bull fans regret it, too.
7. Torsten Frings (Toronto FC)
Finally, we have arrived at the last Toronto FC mistake on this list. Like previously mentioned players such as Gerrard and Pirlo, Torsten Frings was actually a once-great player who played for the likes of Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund, and Bayern Munich in Germany. He also had 79 caps for the German national team (scoring 10 goals in the process), representing his country in two World Cups and two Euro Championships.
However, just like Gerrard and Pirlo, Frings was on the decline by the time he arrived in MLS. The “worst club in the world” days of TFC were dark times, for sure, but the arrival of Frings (and fellow DP Danny Koevermans) were supposed to help right the ship. Unfortunately, Frings was almost 35 when he signed with Toronto. He was definitely slower than he used to be, and he started ignoring his managers orders to play in midfield by taking it upon himself to play sweeper — whatever would keep the opposing team from scoring more goals, because TFC was conceding plenty at the time.
Frings only lasted a season and a half in Toronto, scoring a pair of goals in 33 total appearances. The last third of his tenure with the club was spent watching from the sidelines, as a hip injury basically ended his career. He was not the answer the club was looking for.
6. Geovanni (San Jose Earthquake)
Former Brazilian international (he had one cap — technically correct!) midfielder Geovanni played for some of the biggest teams in Europe, suiting up for Barcelona, Benfica, and Manchester City in his 20s. By 28, though, his pedigree had dropped some. He found himself playing for Hull City, who were relegated following the 2009-10 EPL campaign. Hull asked to cancel his contract to save some cash, and Geovanni agreed.
He resurfaced later that summer as the very first designated player in San Jose Earthquakes history. It was supposed to be an 18-month deal, and Geovanni got off to a cracking start by notching a goal and an assist against the Houston Dynamo in his first start. Unfortunately, it was the only goal he would score for the club. After 12 appearances, and not much to write home about, the Earthquake declined to pick up his 2011 option and let him walk. He returned to Brazil and played club football for three different teams in his home country before retiring in 2013.
5. Frank Rost (New York Red Bull)
Remember how we said that DP players are almost never defenders? Well, New York Red Bulls didn’t learn their own lesson from giving Rafa Marquez all that money, and one-upped themselves a year later by giving designated player money to goalkeeper Frank Rost. The German keeper, who had spent the last 19 years playing in the Bundesliga, moved to MLS mid-season in 2011. While he did achieve decent results (five clean sheets in 11 league games, plus three more appearances in the playoffs), you have to think Red Bulls’ money would have been better spent elsewhere on the field.
Perhaps they realized as much, because the club would announce they were unable to come to terms with keeping Rost on the team the following winter. Already in his late 30s, Rost decided to simple retire from professional football a month later.
4. Barry Robson (Vancouver Whitecaps)
On the heels of the Jarju fiasco, the Whitecaps decided to change their philosophy a little bit. Rather than give DP money to a youthful striker, they attempted to bring in a veteran midfielder. Someone who would be a calming presence on the field and help being stability. Enter Barry Robson, a former Scottish international who had played for the likes of Dundee United, Celtic, and Middlesborough. He was never the type of player to bag a ton of goals, but he definitely contributed offensively while keeping things tidy in the midfield.
Robson signed a three-year DP contract with the Whitecaps, but he was already 33-years-old. He scored in his home debut, one of three goals he would score for the club. After a single season and just 18 appearances, Robson asked the Vancouver front office to terminate his contract because his family was homesick. He played out the last few years of career with Sheffield United and Aberdeen back in the U.K., making the Whitecaps look foolish for not doing their proper homework.
3. Innocent Emehara (San Jose Earthquakes)
In 2015, the Earthquakes brought in Nigerian-born Innocent Emeghara, who ended up being very guilty of collecting a DP paycheck without offering much in return. He was just 24 when he came to MLS, and San Jose has hopes that he would develep into a lethal striker. He had shown good form at some of his previous clubs, having already bagged 67 professional goals after starting his career as a teenager.
In his first season with San Jose, he only started six games (and made one other appearance as a sub), scoring just a single goal. If you thought his second season would be better, after getting used to the fast, physical play of MLS, you would be dead wrong. He started just a single game in 2016, made five more appearances as a substitute, and didn’t score a single goal. For those keeping track at home, that’s a single goal in just 13 appearances for a DP striker. Not the best use of San Jose’s DP budget.
2. Frank Lampard (New York City FC)
Remember the Steven Gerrard section? Basically, you can copy and paste it down here for Frank Lampard’s time in MLS. They arrived at the same time, left at the same time, were both England greats, and spent many impressive years with a big English club. At least Lampard actually won the Premier League with Chelsea though, right?
In his defense, Lampard actually got on the scoresheet a lot for New York City — 15 goals in 31 appearances. The real problem with Lampard in MLS came down to two factors, that are obviously tied together: his age and his health. He was already 36 when he arrived, with plenty of miles on his legs after more than a decade of midfield grinding for Chelsea. Nagging injuries were definitely catching up to him. The final blow for Lampard in New York was when Toronto dismantled City 7-0 on aggregate in the 2015 playoffs, with Frank playing both legs and failing to make an impact. Those were the last professional games of Lampard’s career.
1. Jeferson (Sporting Kansas City)
To their credit, Sporting Kansas City (or the Wizards as they were formally known) have mostly resisted the much-criticized tactic of bringing in a big name, aging European star on DP contracts, in an effort to boost ticket sales or TV ratings. They have attempted to win by using American stars like Matt Besler or Graham Zusi in those DP slots, or by finding young, unknown talents from little-scouted parts of the world. It’s worked relatively well, as the club routinely has winning seasons.
However, when the club signed then-25-year-old Brazilian midfielder Jeferson to a DP contract in 2011, it was definitely one of their big mistakes. Although he was praised for his playmaking ability while featuring for Vasco da Gama, he stuttered badly while trying to get a foothold in MLS. He was only with the club for that initial half-season, appeared in only nine games, and scored zero goals. He was waived by Kansas City just four months later, and returned to club football in Brazil.