Over their time in MLS, the Vancouver Whitecaps have had 15 Designated Players, to mixed results. In this, we take the best and put them in a top 5, ranked by the impact and production that they provided the club.
As time has gone on, the term ‘Designated Player’ has become nearly synonymous with MLS, etching itself as the holy grail of the league’s confusing roster rules.
It’s become such a part of everyday MLS life that it’s hard to imagine a time without DPs, but alas, such was life before 2007, the year that David Beckham, the catalyst for its creation, arrived in Los Angeles.
For its 11 years of existence that predated that monumental transfer, one that sent shockwaves all over the world, MLS operated under what could best be described as a ‘minor league’ set-up, at least from an economic standpoint. Despite that, they had found a way to attract some stars, such as Carlos Valderrama and Lothar Matthaus, both players whos names carried a lot of weight in the sport, but who weren’t true heavyweights, at least at that stage of their careers.
But with the arrival of Beckham, who was only 32 at the time, that changed things for MLS. Considering that he came straight from Real Madrid, home of the Galacticos, European Soccer’s answer to Hollywood, it gave MLS star power, something that they could cling to and say: ‘hey, we can play, too’.
Since then, there have been over 200 DPs, some of the great, some of them not so great, and some of them sitting somewhere in between. Some, such as Kaka, David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Carlos Vela, have given MLS a big reputation boost, both in terms of their performances that they’ve brought, along with the star power they carried.
As a result, MLS has slowly started to improve its cache as a league for players to move to. It may not be a top 10 league in the world, but it’s a league that can fight for talent, both young and old, talent that improves the quality of the competition year-over-year.
While it’s starting to reach a point where MLS is starting to be held back by its stingy rules, after many years of the opposite, it’s led to more and more interesting signings this year, with this offseason proving to be no exception.
That manifested itself here in Vancouver, as the usually conservative Whitecaps made a big splash, signing Lucas Cavallini as the clubs 15th DP, with the Canadian arriving on a club-record transfer fee. Only 26, he arrives to Vancouver in the prime of his career, while giving MLS yet another player in its prime to add to a slowly growing complement of stars.
It also got our think tanks flowing here at BTS. Cavallini may have way too small of a sample size to consider him in this exercise (2 games), but between the 14 other guys, who would make a list of the top 5 DPs in the clubs history?
So here’s our attempt at figuring that out.
But before we go in too deep, here are some guidelines to how the selection process went down, to help avoid a bit of confusion.
Hey, MLS loves rules, so we’ll just pretend that it’s an example of us riding that wave…
Rule 1: The individual must be judged on his contributions after he became a DP
Sadly for someone such as Kendall Waston, who had many great seasons as a Whitecap, that makes things tough for him to make the cut, as arguably his worst year came in 2018, the only year he was officially a DP.
Another person’s pain is another one’s gain, however, as Fredy Montero gets a boost from this, having recently become a TAM player this season. While this year has been shortened, rendering that point moot, those 2 games do count for him, as we’re only counting the time that came after a player was signed as a DP, and not vice versa, in our criteria.
Rule 2: If the player in question was a DP first, before getting bought down, we’ll count the whole package, however.
As mentioned at the end of rule 1, a player will be judge on the time that came after he signed as a DP, so unfortunately for Waston, that cuts him out of some pretty awesome years. Had this been an all-time Whitecaps XI, he would be a cinch, but unfortunately, this is a DP ranking, so he’ll have to take a hit as a result.
Rule 3: The impact of the player on the pitch is the deciding factor, but in close decisions, off-the-field impact does help
For the most part, this isn’t much of an issue in this list, but in the case that two players on-the-pitch impact is similar, we will then look to off-the-field impact to sway the balance. Since David Beckham’s biggest impact was mostly the latter, not the former, it’s only fair.
So without further ado, here is the list.
5. Kenny Miller
Up first is Miller, the Scotsman, who was the Whitecaps first true big ‘name’ signing. He may have been a typical early 2010s MLS player, which is to mean that he was a player of decently advanced age with a good pedigree that delivered on the pitch, but he fulfilled that role quite well, giving the Whitecaps a solid #9 over the parts of 3 seasons that he played.
Over those 3 seasons, he played the equivalent of around a full season, potting 13 goals in the process, which is a solid return for a striker. Had he not struggled for fitness so often in his tenure, he could have easily been higher up on this list, but alas, that was part of his downfall in Vancouver.
Such is the risk when signing older players, especially to play on the turf at BC Place, but there was no doubt that when Miller was on, he could contribute to this team. In his most productive season, which came in 2013, he had 8 goals in only 19 games, combining with eventual MLS Golden Boot winner, Camilo, who’s 22 goals rounded off a nice strike force.
Along with his leadership, which was good, if not a bit intense, it made for a solid 3 years, giving the ‘Caps a good return on their investment. His story is more of a case of the ‘what if?’, but when you consider what he did do, it’s still a good story nonetheless.
4. Eric Hassli
In terms of flair, swagger and bravado, Hassli definitely fit the bill as a DP, as his year and a half tenure in Vancouver was among the most memorable in club history.
Signed as the club’s first-ever DP in 2011, he made an immediate impact for the team, scoring 2 goals in the team’s first-ever MLS game, quickly quelling concerns that his signing was underwhelming.
Even though his stats maybe don’t jump out as much as you remember when looking back, as he only scored 12 goals in 44 games of action, each of his goals, coupled with his antics, make each goal seem like a piece of art, as he always found a way to make each strike seem special.
Be it his goal against Seattle, which is certainly among the best in league history, or his double jersey antics against the Revolution, which earned him one of the more famous sending offs in MLS’s time, he was never boring when he played, making him a fan favourite.
But when he went from the 10 goals in 26 games (21 starts), to 2 goals in 18 (9 starts) in year 2, the ‘Caps decided it was time to move on, much to the chagrin of many, who believed that his slump was just that, a slump, not the start of a decline.
While it’s hard to say if it was the right decision or not, as Hassli scored 3 goals in 7 games for Toronto to wrap up 2012, before really falling off with FC Dallas in 2013, where he failed to score in 15 games, it’s always interesting to imagine what could have been, had he stayed.
But when he was here, it was fireworks, so for that reason, he slots in ahead of Miller, who may have had slightly better stats, but didn’t match the impact that Hassli brought to the West Coast.
3. Fredy Montero
Up next is Montero, the enigmatic Colombian who made waves in Vancouver during a strong 2017 campaign, before making a surprise return in 2019. While his numbers in that 2019 season (8 goals) weren’t as emphatic as what he bagged in 2017 (13 goals), it was enough to win him the club’s golden boot award, making him one of 3 players to do it twice (along with Camilo and Pedro Morales).
But if anything, his 2019 season was more reflective of the struggles of the team around him, along with his injury woes, which makes his total look more respectable. Last year’s team struggled massively to create chances, which for Montero, who is a true fox-in-the-box style striker, hampered his ability to shine.
It also is a testament to how good he truly was in 2017, as he burst onto the scene for the Whitecaps, having made a surprise return to MLS. People were skeptical that Montero, a Seattle Sounders star from 2009-2012, would adjust to life under their bitter rivals, the ‘Caps, but he did just that, helping Vancouver to their 2nd-best ever MLS points haul (52 points).
So when it was announced that Montero’s contract wouldn’t be renewed, as he was technically only on loan during that 2017 season, it was a tough hit for ‘Caps faithful to swallow. While Kei Kamara’s 2018 season helped stomach that pain, seeing Montero then go from Tianjin Teda back to Sporting Club Portugal, scoring key goals for the Portuguese giants in the league, cup and Europa League, it certainly posed the age-old question: what if?
This time, however, the question would get answered (sort of), as he made a surprise return last year, becoming the team’s third DP at the time of his signing. While he’s now officially a TAM player in 2020, with his role now mostly coming as a super-sub, due to the arrival of Cavallini, he can still make an impact in short bursts, as he’s shown with his late-game heroics at the end of 2019 and in preseason this year.
He may not really fit the Marc Dos Santos system, making it hard to imagine him being able to write much more of a script about his time in Vancouver, but he’s still had a solid tenure in Vancouver, one that doesn’t look like it’s ending quite yet. His leadership is still valuable, and while his price tag may leave some cause for concern, it hasn’t posed a problem yet, so, for now, he remains a Cap.
2. Matias Laba
It’s funny to look back and realize that Laba’s arrival was a complete accident, with the Whitecaps having snatched the Argentine midfielder from Toronto FC, a move only made possible after their rivals found themselves with a surplus of DPs, but it’s one that proved to be prosperous for the ‘Caps.
Under head coach Carl Robinson, Laba flourished, becoming the sort of destructive #6 that was a throwback to old-school football. He had a relentless motor, strong defensive IQ, and most importantly, a complete disregard for the bones of his opponents, allowing him to boss the Vancouver midfield for 3 years.
In that ‘destroyer’ role, Laba led all of MLS in tackles in 2014, 2015 and 2016, while also racking up a decent amount of interceptions and blocks, helping the Whitecaps become a feared defensive unit. Along with David Ousted in goal, Kendall Waston, Pa Modou Kah and Tim Parker in central defence, and Laba protecting them in front, it allowed them to become the MLS’s best defence in 2015, with the Whitecaps only conceding a measly 36 goals in 34 games.
While things fell off in 2016, with the ‘Caps slipping and allowing 52 goals, Laba continued to rack up the tackles, interceptions and blocks, even despite having what felt like a slower season, at least by the standards that people had become accustomed to.
So when he started to bounce back in 2017, with the ‘Caps making a push up the standings, it felt like the team was destined for some great things, with Montero banging in the goals, complemented by a solid cast of players around him.
But as life can often be in Whitecaps land, good things don’t always last, as Laba blew out his knee halfway through the campaign, which was a tough blow for a team that had really started to find its stride. While they still finished strongly, they bowed out to the Sounders in the Conference Semi-Finals, with Laba’s absence creating a late-season goose hunt for defensive midfielders, with the ‘Caps turning into a different team without his presence.
Unfortunately for him, that also would be the end of his time in Vancouver, as both sides moved on after the season.
Much like his arrival, it wasn’t the way anyone thought it would be, but such was the way of Laba, whos injury is certainly up there in ‘what if’ Whitecaps lore.
1. Pedro Morales
And leading the way is, who else, but the Chilean Maestro, Morales, who had what can be best described as a rollercoaster of a tenure in Vancouver. He burst onto the scene in 2014, coming to the ‘Caps via free transfer from Malaga, and he instantly made an impact for the team, bagging an impressive 10 goals and 12 assists in his debut season, earning the MLS newcomer of the year trophy along the way.
After having gone several seasons without a creative midfielder, having Morales at the #10 gave the Whitecaps new life, as he and Laba helped the team to what was their 2nd-ever playoff appearance at the time. While they eventually fell to FC Dallas in what was a game best remembered for some iffy calls from referee Mark Geiger, it was hoped to be the start of much more, with many key players slated to return in 2015.
Led by their defensive brilliance, the ‘Caps shone in 2015, earning a bye to the 2nd round, where they narrowly fell to the Portland Timbers. As we saw with Laba, however, that was mostly due to their defensive brilliance, as many of their offensive difference-makers struggled with either injury or form.
For Morales, it was the former that had started to dog him, forcing him to shuffle in and out of the lineup, as he only played 23 times in 2015 (15 starts), a far cry from the 33 (28 starts) he put up a year prior. He still added a respectable 6 goals and 4 assists, but his different absences, combined with the poor form of their new DP striker, Octavio Rivero, made it hard for the ‘Caps to give their defenders the run support needed.
So when Morales returned to health in 2016, it was hoped that it could be the catalyst for a strong season, but a lot of deficiencies in the squad popped up, both defensively and offensively, as the ‘Caps fell off a cliff, even despite the 9 goals and 6 assists that Morales potted in 27 games (26 starts).
Not only did they miss the playoffs, but the team fell apart at the end of the season, with no incident more famous than the one when Morales, the club captain at the time, got into a high-profile training spat with Ousted. Having already struggled with a mixture of injuries, form and what was perceived as apathy at the end of the year, having Ousted call him out for his lack of desire really put the nail in his coffin for his time in Vancouver, as his relationship with his team seemed beyond repair.
Sticking with Ousted and a core of that 2016 team ended up being crucial, as they bounced back in 2017, sans Morales, who moved to Chile.
But looking back, even though his time ended in pretty much the worst fashion possible, there’s no doubt that he is the best DP in club history, with Laba not far behind. He was there for some of the club’s best successes, helping the club make the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, as well as being there when the team won its only Voyageurs Cup in 2015.
When he was on the ball, he had a knack for making things happen, hence his nickname, El Maestro, with his ilk of player one that has not often been seen in Whitecaps-land.
Who knows, looking back in a few years, this list could easily change, with the ‘Caps having a decent crop of DPs right now in Ali Adnan, Hwang In Beom and Cavallini, without mentioning the prospects of new arrivals in the future.
While the likely impending sales of the first two players make it hard to imagine them making an impact beyond one or two more seasons, Cavallini seems to definitely be in for the long-haul, making him a candidate to replace Morales at #1, at least if he lives up to his pedigree.
But either way, when examining this list, it’s clear that the ‘Caps have had an interesting collection of DPs, representing what has so far been a colourful MLS history, despite a lack of silverware.
So as we take this time to look back, it’s fun to relive the stories of these players, who may have not had the DP-level impact that some of their peers may have had at their respective clubs, but give the ‘Caps a list of DPs that is among one of the more interesting in MLS.
And then when MLS is back, it’ll give us an idea of what kind of impact the team’s current DPs will need to have in order to join this list in a couple of years.
Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Bob Frid