How Improving Designated Player Availability in MLS Could Save Millions

DPs are the main draws, the star attractions. From a marketing perspective, these are the talents with which the MLS is sold around the world. As a result, making sense of their performance data, mitigating injury risk, and managing their workload is crucial to the success of the team and the league, both on and off the pitch.

In an effort to grow soccer’s popularity in the United States, Major League Soccer (MLS) allows teams to name up to three Designated Players (DPs).

DPs are designed to allow MLS teams to have three players that would be considered outside the salary cap. For the 2023 season, this salary cap is $5.21m per team. 

Of this amount, three DPs can be assigned a maximum of $651,230 for a player over the age of 23*, but the players can receive salaries which far exceed this figure and not have that amount set against their salary cap limit.

Called the Maximum Salary Budget Charge (MSBC), it is also known as ‘The Beckham Rule’ in relation to the former LA Galaxy star’s 2007 transfer, and it has allowed MLS clubs to attract top players from Europe by being able to offer competitive salary packages. 

The MSBC is expected to increase to $683,750, $743,750, and $803,825 in 2024, 2025, and 2026, respectively.

*MSBC for Designated Players aged 21-23 is $200,000, while for 20 or under the amount is $150,000

This means that $1.95m (37.5%) of a franchise’s overall spending cap can be assigned to three players in the roster. As a result, keeping those individuals fit and available should be an absolute priority.

The most topical and important example of this is Lionel Messi, whom the MLS need on the field as much as possible.

Messi’s deal is era-defining for MLS; the Argentine’s agreement contains a component of equity ownership in Inter Miami itself, as well as compensation from Adidas and also rights holders Apple, who have a revenue-sharing deal in place with him.

While Messi’s contribution to the spending cap will not exceed the MSBC, his contribution to the MLS as a whole has already been seismic; Inter Miami’s crowds have increased, their ticket prices have gone up 500%, and social media interest in MLS has never been higher. Messi is, indeed, box office.

Furthermore, his overall contract is thought to be in the region of $60m per season, meaning that missing matches will cost Inter Miami, Adidas, Apple and Messi himself – in both lost revenue and exposure.

In light of the DP system and MLS owners spending big on these few key players per team, we wanted to quantify this spending and analyze ‘wages lost’ due to DP injuries for 2023 as well as forecast it into the future. 

DPs are a big investment and downtime is costly 

At the time of writing, MLS teams have played between 22-24 matches (average of 23.17 matches played per team). Knowing that all teams will finish the regular season with 34 matches played, we can reasonably extrapolate the ‘wages lost’ value for the season. 

While there are potential caveats and extraneous rules, we calculate the total amount of DP spend by finding the number of DPs above 23, the number of DPs aged 21-23, and the number of DPs under 20, and multiplying each by their respective maximum salary budget charge. 

We calculate this as $45.93m for 2023.

Under the assumptions that:

  1. The number of DPs will hold constant across the next three seasons, and
  2. The percentage of DPs that are aged 21-23 and 20 and under will hold constant,

We can project the total spend by MLS franchises across this season and the following three years: 

  • 2024: $48.14m
  • 2025: $52.22m
  • 2026: $56.26m
  • Total: $150 million

Wages wasted due to absence is an economic burden, but it is amplified when it’s a DP sitting on the bench.

So far in the 2023 season, 226 matches have been missed by DPs,  resulting in $4.5m of ‘wage waste’…

Projecting this across the rest of the 34-game regular season, there is likely to be around $7m in total wasted wages. 

Extrapolating this to the next three years, we are likely looking at wages lost of around: 

  • 2024: $7m
  • 2025: $7.6m
  • 2026: $8.2m
  • Total: $22.8m

Impact on Performance

There is a tacit correlation between DP availability and franchise league performance. The average number of matches missed by DPs is 8.5 per team. 

In the Eastern Conference, Messi’s Inter Miami were bottom of the table and had suffered the second-most matches lost of all MLS teams with 25 at the time of writing (Aug 24th). 

Elsewhere in the East, Toronto and Charlotte have above average DP matches lost with 12 and 15 respectively, and they are also struggling near the bottom of the table in 14th and 12th respectively. 

Conversely, Philadelphia, Nashville and Orlando City have all experienced virtually no matches lost for their DPs, and are enjoying positive seasons in third, fourth and fifth respectively in the Eastern Conference. Indeed in the case of Nashville and Orlando, both are within touching distance of their final season totals in 2022 with a third of the season remaining. 

In the Western Conference, LAFC have also been successful at keeping their DPs fit and available, having suffered zero matches lost at the time of writing, and are in P2 in the table. Likewise Real Salt Lake (P3) and Seattle (P4) have had their DPs at effectively maximum availability and are in excellent shape. 

And at the other end, Portland and LA Galaxy, two sides competing in and around the playoffs in 2022, are 12th and 13th of 14 in 2023. No team has had their DPs miss more matches than Portland (29), while LA Galaxy are third worse off (22). 


While there are exceptions, the examples are clear at both ends of the conferences in the MLS; Keeping DPs available can have a direct impact on league position and performance. This can also determine whether a team qualifies for the playoffs and the additional revenue that can be generated.

Furthermore, DPs take up the biggest percentage of a franchise’s wage bill. Keeping them fit and available for action should not only be a priority for each individual team – to ensure they are maximizing their salary cap, but also for the MLS as a whole. 

DPs are the main draws, the star attractions at many of these franchises. From a marketing perspective, these are the talents with which the league is sold around the world. 

As a result, making sense of their performance data, mitigating injury risk, and managing their workload is crucial to the success of the team and the league, both on and off the pitch.

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