The young Designated Player program is relatively new to MLS and has only been used three times prior to the signing of Matías Laba by Toronto FC. Simply put there is no data available yet to analyze how successful it has been and it will still be several years before it is even possible to do so.
Laba becomes just the third player currently in the league that we know is on a young DP contract. He joins Rafael of D.C. United who signed this past offseason and Fabian Castillo who has been with FC Dallas since 2011. The Portland Timbers were in line to sign Jose Valencia to a young DP contract but he arrived to the club injured and when they did eventually sign him it was at a reduced price which meant he was never a DP for the team.
That is the entire history of the program in the league and it is a very short one. In the case of Castillo his status as a DP has to do with the fact that Dallas reportedly parted with a fairly large transfer fee to bring him in and that is counted in his cap hit. His guaranteed compensation in the last MLS Players Union figures was listed as only $56,250 so that means his cap hit includes at least $150,000 in transfer fee each season for him to be considering a young DP with a cap hit of $200,000.
Chances at that Laba will be similar to Castillo because Toronto has paid a large transfer fee to bring him in. The exact number that Toronto paid will never likely to known but what the club was willing to confirm was that not only was the fee the highest in Toronto FC history but it was one of the highest ever paid by the league.
That statement should be put in historical context though as MLS does not have a long history of making big money transfers. It has been a league that was built on free transfers and paying small fees for much of its history with most years seeing more money coming in from player sales than was going out to purchase players.
The league has reportedly received fairly high fees in exchange for the likes of Jozy Altidore, Maurice Edu, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Freddy Adu, and Eddie Johnson. Again the numbers are hard to pin down but add in the likes of Brek Shea, Andy Najar, and Geoff Cameron in recent months and MLS does have a growing history of selling players in that million plus range.
The history of expensive players coming in is a lot shorter and in most cases the players that are coming in for big sums are ones with long proven track records. Robbie Keane reportedly demanded the highest fee in MLS history in a deal that was reported to be in the $5 million range. The Seattle Sounders also reportedly parted with a fair bit of change when they signed Obafemi Martins earlier this season with the number being thrown around for that deal coming in around 4 million USD.
So there is a history of MLS spending big money to bring in players but when it comes to deals reportedly worth over that million dollar mark there have not been that many. If the 1.35 million USD mark that was reported for Laba is accurate, Payne's remarks suggest it might just be, then he joins that exclusive list.
Laba also joins one slightly less exclusive list and that is the growing group of MLS DPs coming from Argentina. In the history of the DP program no other country has had as many signed in MLS as Argentina has with a total of 10. That puts them ahead of the 6 from Brazil, the 5 from both Mexico and Columbia, and even the 4 from the United States, and the lonely one from Canada.
Laba joins Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Claudio Bieler, Milton Caraglio, Marcelo Gallardo, Federico Higuaín, Claudio López, Javier Morales, Mauro Rosales and Diego Valeri to bring the list to 10 in total. With six Argentine DPs now active in the league the country is proving to be a hotbed of talent for MLS clubs.
As for Toronto FC's history with Designated Players the club already has one of the longest histories in the league. Since the introduction of the program Toronto has had Julian De Guzman, Mista, Torsten Frings, Danny Koevermans, and Eric Hassli. Add Laba to that list and the club has now acquired a total of six different DPs since 2009. That is a high number considering a team can only have three at any given time but Laba stands out as being unique in that group as he is by far the youngest acquisition of the group.
Laba becomes the third different midfield DP for Toronto FC which also a high number compared to the rest of the league. Of the 27 other DPs currently listed in the league their are just 9 midfielders compared to 18 forwards and the majority of those midfielders fill a more attacking role. There are very few other DPs in the programs history that as defensive of a role as either JdG or Frings. Sure there was the complete failure also known as Rafa Marquez but for the most part DPs have historically been players who are going to score goals or set them up rather than players who are going to be making tackles and working in the engine room.
The big money striker has a long history in MLS but the big money box-to-box midfielder has about as much history to look at as the young designated player program does. There may come a time when more MLS clubs are willing to invest DP money in players who play in less attacking roles but for now the fact that goals win games means teams are more focused on investing in attacking players.
In some ways Laba fits into the historical context of MLS signings in that he is not the first Argentine DP or the first player to command a large transfer fees but in other ways he is very unique. There are so few other young DPs or DPs that play in a deeper role that it is hard to compare him to previous signings.
With is being so hard to place Laba into context he takes on more of an experimental feel. That is nothing new for Kevin Payne though as he has often been at the front of the line to try and bring new innovations to MLS. With DCU he was a leader in using the DP rules to bring in slightly lesser known players as he did not have the same kind of money to work with that the L.A. Galaxy or New York Red Bulls did when they signed David Beckham and Jaun Pablo Angel. Instead Payne went looking for deals and wound up finding mixed results in signing the likes of Luciano Emilio, Marcelo Gallardo, Branko Bošković, and Hamdi Salihi. He likely also played a role in DC lining up a deal to bring in Rafael as a young DP before he made his move north to Toronto.
Payne was always an innovator in MLS and was one of the influential people who pushed for the introduction of the young DP rule so it should come as no surprise that he is near the front of the line to try and cash in on it. The results of his innovation have not always been great in the past but hopefully with MLSE's deep pockets behind him now he got the best player available rather than seeking a good deal.
With no real historical context to put Laba into the best thing that fans to do is consider him as something completely new to MLS and Toronto FC both as an individual player but also as this kind of signing. The worst thing fans could do now is start to compare him to Frings or JdG before he even gets on the field which would be a good way to set a 21 year old with a lot of promise up for failure before he even touches the ball.
It will likely be several seasons before we can really judge this move but for now it is something new and exciting and that is hopefully how fans will view it. It is clearly different from TFC's approach to building a squad in the past and based on history that can only be a good thing.