Let's start with an exercise where you're building your own MLS team:
Provision 1) I'm going to give you the option to add three studs to your team.
Provision 2) I'm going to tell you that these three players will ultimately decide your future.
Who do you sign?
Names like Sebastian Giovinco, Ignacio Piatti, Diego Valeri, and David Villa should come right to the forefront of your mind. A second wave of names like Federico Higuaín, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Miguel Almiron begin to creep in. And if you're not an Orlando fan, you'll probably find Kaká slipping in somewhere between waves one and two.
How many names down the list of 50+ players until you get to Carlos Rivas, Bryan Róchez, and Giles Barnes? I'll wait...
I'm still waiting.
Designated Players (DP) continue to drive the league in success, in marketing, and the overall makeup of your team. For those who play fantasy football, there's an adage that you can't win your league in your first three picks but you can certainly lose it. Think of DPs in that regard. Do you need a combo of Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Altidore? No, but if two-thirds of your DP trio don’t excel, then your team isn’t going to get very far.
Yes, Toronto is the extreme example here as its DP core far outweighs any other three, but when you start looking at the top of the table, you're not going to find teams with very many mistakes in this area. While we could spend all day on the whole league, let’s focus in on our Eastern Conference foes. Here's the current DP list for the teams sitting above the playoff line as of today:
1. Toronto FC - Giovinco, Bradley, Altidore.
2. NYCFC - Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Maxi Moralez.
3. Chicago Fire - Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Accam, Nemanja Nikolic.
4. Columbus Crew - Higuaín, Pedro Santos, Jonathan Mensah.
5. Atlanta United - Almiron, Hector Villalba, Josef Martinez.
6. NY Red Bulls - Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Gonzalo Veron.
Now, you may not know every single name on this list, but are there any of these groups that you wouldn’t rather have over any collection of Orlando City DPs? I'm sure some of you won't be able to take the emotion out and not choose anyone over Kaká, but there's not a team above with a player who isn't better or more impactful. This isn't an article about Kaká's future — our Mike Spillane presented that last month — it's about finding the issues that have plagued this team for three seasons.
Designated Players are simply the area you can't afford to mess up. And unfortunately for Orlando fans, while others offer up DP options like Josef Martinez (16 goals) and David Accam (14 goals, seven assists), we're forced to watch Carlos Rivas (five goals/assists) jettison shots — nearly — outside the stadium.
I mentioned impact above as a qualifier because it's so easy to take a player's reputation or lore into account when ranking. But if we consolidate Orlando's Designated Players this year, they have scored 13 goals between four different players in Kaká, Barnes, Rivas, and Yoshimar Yotún. Compare that to the rest of the playoff teams, and only Columbus (12) has fewer and that's primarily due to Mensah being a defender and Santos only playing four matches.
The other five playoff teams have outscored the entire allotment with one player. One DP is outscoring "four" Designated Players. If you want to know what the Lions' biggest issue has been, you don't need to look much further than the Designated Player and almost three seasons of poor decisions.
There is good news though. The organization, I believe, has identified this problem with the signing of Yotún as the newest DP. Following the recent MLS trend of young, promising international talent, Yotún presents a possible new direction beyond the mistakes of the past. Not that Barnes is a poor player (I'm a fan), but the decision to drop his designation in favor of Yotún shows the effort to improve this lack in previous judgment.
If Orlando City can intelligently utilize the money it’s getting back with Kaká's impending free agency on, say, a down-and-out Chicharito after West Ham gets relegated (it's a joke, sort of). Maybe with our high MLS Allocation spot, a guy like Danny Williams surprises and decides to come back to the U.S. and serves as our defensive midfielder. Ultimately, the club gets to pair a second or third high-impact DP with strong players like Dom Dwyer, Cyle Larin, and Jonathan Spector to finally make that playoff appearance fans have been pining for.
Yeah, a guy can dream, but my point is that Orlando City has options to improve what is arguably the most important aspect of an MLS roster. The Yotún move gives me optimism that Niki Budalic and the organization is actively fixing this situation. It's either that or it can keep riding with shots in the stands and empty seats during the postseason.