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Garth Lagerwey didn't have the luxury of sleep on his 15-hour flight to Santiago, Chile. The July 18 trip was years in the making, so Real Salt Lake's general manager knew continued due diligence was mandatory.
Excursions to scout talent in South America are laborious. Lagerwey, in his eighth season with RSL, studied the same video of players he had time and time again on the flight to refresh his memory. With him, a list of players who could become that next noteworthy signing or possibly another Designated Player. Atop that list was a 27-year-old Argentine striker who, after taking the Chilean Primera Division by storm two seasons prior, recently accepted a less-conducive role with his club to see if a new formation could thrive. Goal-scoring diminished for Sebastian Jaime, but his club won the league title the following season.
"Literally, that's all I've ever wanted from a player," Lagerwey said. "A dude who is a winner, who will supplement himself to the team. There's no ego there. Not only is there no ego there, but we have actual proof of concept within the last year, because he's a striker, and in the international market, they only care about how many goals you score. His price then plummeted, so while our evaluation of him really went up, his price came down."
Initial negotiations with Jaime's Santiago-based club, Unión Española, had been set up ahead of time. Once the wheels hit the ground, Lagerwey waded through the 90-minute process in customs and managed an of hour of sleep in the hotel before setting out for stadiums. Along with Major League Soccer liaison Alejandro Taraciuk who has helped RSL sign the likes of Javier Morales, Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave, among others Lagerwey met with club representatives, agents, players, players' parents, all the while making mental notes of their abilities on the field and off.
In the case of Jaime, who scout and assistant coach Andy Williams first identified in 2012, possibility eventually mixed with reality. This was their new DP.
The evolution of the Designated Player
In sum, it's an interesting concept. The Designated Player rule in MLS allows clubs to acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed the team's current budget charges. The rule was implemented when megastar David Beckham left Real Madrid for MLS and the L.A. Galaxy in 2007. Foreign and domestic stars have since followed or, in turn, become DPs in MLS by staying in the league.
Yet MLS is akin to any other professional league in the U.S. The established worldwide names who migrate to the league tend to make their nest in L.A. or New York or as in the case of MLS Seattle or Toronto.
Alexi Lalas has seen first-hand the evolution of the DP in MLS. The former U.S. men's national team star and current ESPN analyst was the general manager of the L.A. Galaxy when Beckham's landmark arrival occurred. The concept of the DP, Lalas said, is taking on a different meaning now than the original intention of Beckham's arrival.
"The mechanism was designed to bring in a player we knew it was going to be a good player but also to drive business," Lalas explained. "It's also a function of the market. What the expectations are with regards to your signing. It applies to a lot of different sports. Obviously the big, bold stars are what's needed in certain markets and are expected in certain markets."
Jaime's signing drew fervent attention from a fan base eager for a rare splash. Lagerwey credited the fans and owner Dell Loy Hansen, and called the signing "the beginning of our ascension into becoming a mid-market team."
"This wasn't an option before," Lagerwey said. "Dell Loy stepped up and said, 'I'm giving you a budget for this we can do this.' It's a big investment. It was seven figures."
Lalas mentioned from RSL's standpoint, the club has hit its high-profile DP signings out of the park. He credited the front office for recognizing and acquiring transcendent players like Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio without hampering the budget entirely.
"These guys have consistently delivered on the field and they have become brands, if you will, that when you hear about [RSL], these are the players within the league that people point to and say, 'Hey, these were great signings,'" said Lalas.
Williams has been rewinding footage of players around the globe since he retired in 2012 and became RSL's head scout. When he started studying the Chilean league two years ago, he kept rewinding Jaime's tape. The striker wiggled his way to the top of Williams' top five.
He studied Jaime's tendencies both as a target striker and out wide in a 4-3-3. A major sell to the club and Hansen was how well Jaime could eventually pair with Saborio, the club's all-time leading scorer who missed nearly four months in 2014 with a fractured foot.
"I'm pretty sure it will work out," Williams said. "It might take some time, but he's a pretty special player."
Once Lagerwey and Taraciuk concluded their two-hour interview with Jaime in mid-July, the two compared notes. Covered in the sit-down were tactics, culture, background on the club. Lagerwey makes it a point to read body language when he explains to players that RSL remains a smaller club that punches above its weight. They were blown away by Jaime. But they still had four or five other players to scout. RSL coach Jeff Cassar trekked to Santiago soon after to weigh his own impressions. His takeaway was spot-on with Lagerwey's.
In the background was Hansen, who's noted publicly in the past that if a DP-caliber player surfaced and the front office wished to make a move, he'd support it. He watched tape of Jaime and said the versatile forward was "pretty to watch."
"We felt this was a really quality acquisition," Hansen said. "Twenty-seven years old, peak of performance in his career, scores a ton of goals, a lot of assists. … He's done a remarkable job and we think, in our culture, he may be better."
The move for a midseason DP is unique, especially for a franchise like RSL. On the field, Jaime must eventually live up to the billing, which could prove Hansen's point if true.
"Everybody's gotta like the guy," Lagerwey said. "If you have voices of dissent, this is not something you manage. You literally have the world of players to choose from, but you need everybody's check mark on each box. And we got them all."
What is a Designated Player?
• A Designated Player allows clubs to acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges.
• The club bears financial responsibility for the amount of compensation above each player's budget charge.
• DP slots may be used to acquire players new to MLS or to retain current MLS players.
• A DP over the age of 23 will carry a minimum salary of $387,500, unless he joins midseason, which means minimum charge is $193,750.
Notable Designated Players in MLS since 2007:
• David Beckham, L.A. Galaxy
• Juan Pablo Angel, New York Red Bulls
• Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chicago Fire
• Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus Crew
• Fredy Montero, Seattle Sounders
• Landon Donovan, L.A. Galaxy
• Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls
• Robbie Keane, L.A. Galaxy
• Javier Morales, Real Salt Lake
• Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake
• Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders
• Michael Bradley, Toronto FC
• Jermain Defoe, Toronto FC