Why TFC has to learn from its Designated-Player mistakes By Steven Sandor Posted on February 26, 2013 2 0 570 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Kevin Payne With a bad hip and a big contract, Torsten Frings presented Toronto FC’s front office a real problem. So, the team and player joined to take the only course they could — retirement for the German midfielder/defender. The process, drawn out over the course of training camp, came to an end Tuesday when the team announced that Frings has ended his playing career. With Eric Hassli (traded to FC Dallas) and Frings gone, two Designated Player spots have opened up for the Reds. And with that comes the nearly US$700,000 in cap space. And, of course, there will be many who cry that TFC President and General Manager Kevin Payne should go like for like, replacing the two big-ticket items with two new big-ticket items. After all, hasn’t TFC accumulated enough allocation money to build a magic castle at Exhibition Place? But going right back into the DP market would be a bad idea for a team trying to escape the MLS basement. It’s not that going out and getting a 30something DP is always a bad thing. Thierry Henry has scored and set up bags of goals for the Red Bulls, and David Beckham’s impact on MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy as a whole is well noted. But, last season, TFC — a bad team which needed help at pretty well every position on the pitch — was hamstrung because it had three Designated Players under contract, who ate up valuable roster spots and cap space. When you need to rebuild, you are far better off stacking your squad with three emerging players making $100,000 a year than a DP with a 335K cap hit. Really, when you chase a thirtysomething DP, especially if he’s not at a level of an Henry (which rules out 99 per cent of pro players in the world), it only makes sense if you’re already a decent club, and you are looking for a final piece to push you over the top. If you look at footage of TFC games with Frings either playing in the midfield or the back, there are many facial expressions: Angry scowl, look of bewilderment at a teammate, shaking a head in frustration. Clearly, asking him to turn a bad team into a mediocre team (ed. note: Alarmingly, many sportswriters sloppily use the word “mediocre” as a euphemism for “terrible” or “bad.” TFC, at no point in its existence, has been mediocre) was too much. Just as it was too much for the now-departed Eric Hassli or striker Danny Koevermans, who missed half the season with a blown knee. And, of course, being hamstrung on DPs cost the Reds the chance to get defender Olof Mellberg. Even though it was technically allowed in the rules, with Koevermans on the disabled list, TFC earned the wrath of general managers around the league when word got out that Mellberg might become a fourth DP on the roster. Even though Mellberg’s DP slot would technically replace that of injured Koevermans, the feeling around the league was that it was a violation of the spirit of the DP rule. In the end, TFC had itself to blame, for not having the space available for Mellberg. And while the personnel at the top of the club has changed, they need to learn the lessons from past regimes. What’s that lesson? Now that TFC is clear of two DP contracts — with Hassli and Frings no longer with the club — it can’t simply replace them with two new DPs and hamstring itself again. This team is many starters away from even being a .500 (mediocre) team in MLS. So, it’s best to now explore bringing in a solid core of players who can help this team in many spots, rather than two new big-ticket items. Now, if TFC could find a DP in his 20s, who could have a marked impact for years to come, that might change things. But, when it comes to the thirtysomethings, TFC has learned that you sacrifice a lot of the rest of your roster when you clog it with DPs who are close to the retirement age. So, President Kevin Payne’s best course will be to ignore all the calls to replace Frings with another big-ticket, big-name DP, and think with the cap space saved he can address three positions, not one. And it isn’t like D.C. United did well with DPs while Payne ran the show there. Marcelo Gallardo, Branko Boskovic and the recently released Hamdi Salihi were all forgettable parts of the MLS DP initiative. TFC should think about making it an internal policy that it won’t sign another elder-statesman DP until it has turned the corner and is at least a .500 club. Right now, signing another Frings or Hassli-type player would be like putting lipstick on a pig.