What Would A ‘Fourth DP’ Mean For Canadian MLS Clubs?
There have been rumours going around in the last couple weeks that Major League Soccer might be adding a fourth Designated Player position to all teams in the league. With the potential to bring even more talented players to Canada, what would – and what should – the three Canadian MLS Clubs do with this fourth DP spot?
Vancouver Whitecaps FC: Attack or Defense?
Starting with the most successful MLS club of 2023, the Whitecaps currently only have two DP spots fulfilled after selling then-third DP player Sergio Cordova to Alanyaspor in Turkey over the summer. Both of the remaining designated players, Ryan Gauld and Andres Cubas, are midfielders that play very different roles in the team.
Cubas is a hardworking bloodhound in the middle, a classic aggressive defensive midfielder that likes to win possession back early and kick-start the attacks. Gauld, on the other hand, is a tireless attacking midfielder that had the best season of his Whitecaps career in 2023, contributing 11 goals and 12 assists in 32 MLS matches.
While the Whitecaps played some of the most attractive football in the league at times, they lacked some support both in the attack and in the defense when key starters weren’t firing. Brian White had his own best-ever career year with 16 goals in MLS, leading the line alongside Gauld. However, when White or Gauld weren’t on their game, the Whitecaps lacked that bite in attack, with only Pedro Vite and Simon Becher (both with four) pitching in with more then three goals in the entire season. This may point to using some of that DP money to bring in a big striker addition to help out Gauld and White in the attack, but truthfully the priority should be to bolster the defense.
The team finished in joint-20th in terms of goals conceded per 90 with 1.5 in MLS this year despite conceding nine less goals than in 2022. Significant matches like the 4-1 loss at Houston, the 3-0 loss at SKC and even more recently the 5-2 loss at LAFC all reflect the need for reinforcement in the defensive department, specifically at centre-back.
Since the Whitecaps would have two DP slots available should a fourth be added, they can use one each for the attack and the defense. If such an option become available, and should the Whitecaps recruitment for them be as good as it was for Gauld and Cubas (and less for Cordova), then 2024 might be a surprise-package year for the Whitecaps and their hopes for an MLS Cup.
Toronto FC: Smart Buys Over Big Buys
Simply put, it was not Toronto FC’s year. After last year’s disappointment, many fans were hoping to see their faith repaid in some proper recruitment and some evidence of the club going back in the right direction. Come the end of 2023 and it seems that those fans faith has yet to be remotely justified. While the issues in the club are numerous – far too numerous to account for in one article – a huge onus was put on the two Italian DPs Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne. While both of them list amongst the top five highest-earning DPs in guaranteed compensation, neither has been able to light up in 2023.
Bernardeschi only managed to score five times and assist twice in 31 matches. Incredibly, the Italian still managed to finish joint-top goalscorer for TFC with Deandre Kerr. Meanwhile, Insigne scored and assisted four times respectively in what was a injury-laden season for him, only featuring 20 times. That is less than 10 goals between the two Italians, and they are supposed to be the main attacking threat for Toronto.
And who can forget the ‘forgotten’ third DP in Jonathan Osorio, whose DP tag surprised many people – including himself. Certainly a club legend, it was still a shock to see the veteran midfielder get the tag when the hopes were to add a big money third DP to aid the flailing team. Now known to have been given to alleviate salary cap restrictions, it seems that the tag is temporary, and will likely be bought down with TAM once funds are able to be allocated ahead of 2024. This means that Toronto – like the Whitecaps – potentially have two DP spots to play with.
And while many fans might point to reinforcing the attack with another big money attacker given the team’s poor goalscoring form last season (plus the whispers that one or both Italians may jump ship), the real focus should be on replacing the outgoing TFC legend in Michael Bradley. It was evident throughout the year that Bradley didn’t have the legs in him to be that ruthless bruiser that breaks up play that the team needed in the six position. Toronto would do well to try to find a player that can be both a ball-winner and a playmaker (a la Andres Cubas) to help out the defense before the play gets right to their doorstep.
And speaking of defense, that should be priority number two behind a Bradley replacement given the possibility of a fourth DP slot. Toronto FC had the second leakiest defense in the league, conceding 59 goals in MLS play. Despite trying to improve the defense in the off-season, the players never were able to live up to those expectations. Matt Hedges came and went, Lukas MacNaughton was regrettably traded away for Sapong, Sigurd Rosted struggled to be that leader at the back, and late addition Aime Mabika lacked consistency in his performances. Bringing in a strong, experienced leader to shore up that back line would do wonders for a team that was in free-fall from mid-June until mid-October. Until then, it will continue to be a uphill battle for Herdman to bring back stability to this disjointed side.
CF Montreal: Anything (Or Nothing) At All
While Toronto FC’s season could be described as a dramatic, extravagent, self-immolating wreck, CF Montreal’s season went out with nothing more than a whimper. A Decision Day 2-1 loss to Columbus Crew denied them their play-off berth, missing the mark by two points. The team never fully recovered from their gutting 2022 off-season where they lost the likes of Ismael Kone, Alistair Johnston, Djordje Mihailovic, and even head coach William Nancy, who were all key figures for their impressive 2022 season.
There were many factors that cotnributed to the disappointment of 2023. One of those was Hernan Losada’s tactics, a style of football that did not lend itself to many players in the squad bar a few (like Mathieu Choiniere). Another was main goalscorer Romell Quioto, who was sidelined for a majority of the 2023 season, scoring only three goals in 13 matches. A big one surrounded CF Montreal’s lone-DP Victor Wanyama, who at the start of the season was an important piece, but was then slowly phased out of the starting eleven until he only sparsely featured by the end of the season. This baffled many fans considering he recently signed a new two-year contract and is the team’s only Designated Player, thus leaving the team with no hugely talented players to rely on bar those that stepped up on occasions.
Therein lies the issue: not only did Montreal choose to not rely on their sole DP in the second-half of 2023, but they historically tend to not rely on DPs at all. They rarely have more than one or two on the roster at any given time, with the only time they fulfilled all three DP slots was back in 2021 with Wanyama, Mihailovic, and Slovenian defender Aljaz Struna. Frankly, they frequently put themselves at a disadvantage compared to other teams that not only use more DP slots, but use them to bring real quality players from outside North America. Not since Wanyama, and previous to that Didier Drogba, has Montreal truly brought someone of prestige to the Quebecois city.
So for Montreal, having a fourth DP slot might finally give them that push to bring some world-class quality into the squad and give them the tools to succeed for 2024, or (as it is more likely) it will mean nothing at all. Of course, a large part of the decision to utilize more DP slots may rely on who will succeed Hernan Losada at the helm after his dismissal following their elimination from playoff contention, and if the clubrunners are willing to splash cash on those slots. But looking at the relationships with head coaches and the ownership group at CF Montreal in recent years, Montreal fans shouldn’t hold their breath.
Header Image Photo Credit: John Jacques