Pick a Side

Pick a Side: Who is the best MLS Designated Player signing to date?

Best Designated Player ever? It's a hot debate in MLS circles, and our staff has some takes. 

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Scott French: Robbie Keane still wears the crown

The bar that David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Bradley Wright-Phillips and a crowd of newer Designated Players measure themselves against was constructed over six seasons by Robbie Keane. The numbers are comparable, but there exists a stark difference.

Championship rings.

There might be more talented men to step onto an MLS field, but Keane's achievements with the LA Galaxy enable him to stand alone atop the DP hierarchy. In another year or two, we might think otherwise, but the numbers that matter most at the moment are these: three MLS Cups and a Supporters' Shield.

Keane arrived three years into Bruce Arena’s culture-altering tenure with LA, as a down-the-stretch pickup as the Galaxy marched toward its 2011 Shield/Cup double. LA already possessed American soccer's iconic face (Landon Donovan) and the most important on-field figure in league annals (David Beckham). Yet from nearly the moment the Irishman stepped into the lineup, this was his team, chiefly.

Keane was everything you could want in a foreign star: immensely skilled, a genius soccer IQ, firebrand leader, undying commitment to the cause. Winning in MLS was as important to him as winning in the EPL had been with, mostly, Tottenham, and his drive and intensity -- and that all-for-one, one-for-all spirit he embodied -- defined LA as it followed 2011's success with MLS Cup titles in 2012 and 2014.

Nobody made better runs off the ball in MLS. Keane offered a weekly master class in creating and exploiting space, and his ability to make something from nothing, for himself or a teammate, and finish with precision provided the greatest distinction between LA and its rivals.

He was a Best XI selection in each of his four full seasons, from 2012 through 2015, as he scored 16, 16, 19 and 20 league goals and assisted no fewer than eight. He totaled 83 goals with 45 assists in 125 MLS matches, 92 and 51 in 146 if you include playoffs, 103 and 55 in 166 in all competitive action.

Among MLS players with at least 40 goals, only Stern John, Mamadou Diallo and Wright-Phillips have scored more goals per 90 minutes than Keane's 0.70. (Villa is fifth, just two-thousandths of a point behind.) Among those who have played at least one full season, only Giovinco averages more goals and assists per 90, 1.17 to 1.07.

Keane is the finest captain the Galaxy have employed, maybe the best MLS has seen. He might be the best forward in the league's 21-plus campaigns. We can debate those points. What we can't debate are the trophies.

Paul Tenorio: David Villa has taken the title

David Villa may not have the titles Robbie Keane has, and I get that the ultimate judgment of best ever usually comes down to titles. But when it comes to Designated Players, it’s all about return on investment, and I don’t think anyone can match what David Villa has provided New York City FC in two and a half seasons.

Villa came to MLS as one of the most accomplished players in its history. He won with one of the greatest club teams ever assembled, FC Barcelona, and lifted a World Cup and European Championship with Spain. His goal-scoring record in Europe showed that Villa was one of the most talented players ever to arrive in MLS, and yet there were questions about whether Villa’s age would slow him down.

It hasn’t. Villa has poured himself into MLS and NYCFC. His on-field attitude is the ideal for what teams should look for when they sign a designated player. It’s clear Villa has never taken MLS lightly, and that he cares about winning here as much as he did about winning in Europe.

It’d be unfair to expect an MLS Cup title already from Villa, who joined an expansion side. But he’s given NYCFC everything he can to get there, and this year they look like a true contender. Villa has scored 51 goals with 18 assists in just 78 MLS games, a clip of 0.69 goals per game, and he’s well on his way to being one of the most prolific goal-scorers in the league’s history.

If he maintains that 0.69 goals/90 average, it would put him in the top five in league history. Villa has an MVP trophy to his name already, and he’s in contention to win back-to-back awards, which would make him just the second player in MLS history to win multiple MVP awards.

A title may be around the corner for Villa. But even now when you consider his pure talent and production, there is no DP in league history that stacks up to the Spanish superstar.

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