For MLS fans, nothing ratchets up the excitement quite like the arrival of a new Designated Player at their club. Sure, the mere existence of the “Designated Player” is a weird quirk of the league’s constrictive roster rules. Yet hope still springs eternal when a new DP gets announced. Whether your club is signing an emerging young talent or an established standout from somewhere abroad, it’s easy to dream that these highly-compensated stars of the sport will arrive ready to impose their will on this league.
This summer transfer window has seen a few notable Designated Player arrivals. Columbus Crew dropped $10 million to sign Colombian striker Cucho Hernandez from recently-relegated Watford, Toronto FC ushered in its Azzurri Era by adding Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi as DPs, and new DC United manager and ex-DP himself Wayne Rooney (still weird to write) made FC Schalke 04 midfielder Victor Pálsson his first Designated Player signing.
New York City FC don’t appear close to adding a new Designated Player in the near term, but it’s also still early days for their Brazilian tandem of Thiago Martins and Talles Magno. With no new marquee signing to replace the departed Taty Castellanos for us to discuss, let’s instead take a closer look at all the players who have held the well-compensated “designation” since NYCFC opened up shop.
When attempting to rank NYCFC’s DPs through the years, it’s important to note how much the club’s approach to using these roster slots has evolved since their earliest days. At first, the team’s Designated Players seemed to exist to grab headlines and help sell tickets and merchandise, but didn't offer much return on investment out on the pitch. The dynamic has since shifted, with less flashy names providing significantly increased on-field production.
My ranking tries to account for the full impact of the team’s Designated Player signings. There have been eight DPs to grace the Yankee Soccer Stadium field, a number actually equal to the stadiums NYCFC have called “home” in their existence. Here’s how those players stack up.
8. Alexandru Mitriță
Always felt head-scratching that NYCFC decided to spend a reported $8.5 million transfer fee to bring in the Romanian attacker. Mitriță was the first DP signed in the wake of David Villa’s departure, yet didn’t boast much of a pedigree of previous excellence. He had some bright moments in 2019, but it was all downhill from there. He fell out of favor with Ronny Deila and then hopped on the loan merry-go-round, which he remains on today. It wasn’t just Ronny who has been underwhelmed by Mitriță of late, as his PAOK manager Răzvan Lucescu said “he has an incredible talent but uses just 10% of it.” NYCFC are still on the hook for his sky-high salary, while getting little in return. He remains the club’s record signing, and nothing more than an expensive flop.
7. Andrea Pirlo
If I was doing this ranking solely based on the buzz a signing generated and the star power of the players, Pirlo would occupy the top spot. He’s a legend of the sport and brought lots of non-MLS fan attention with him when he arrived. But boy did he look past it when he actually started playing. He could still pick out passes like few others, but the physical, hectic, fast-paced nature of the league was not a good match for The Maestro in his twilight. The wages he was on were also frankly insane, as he earned nearly $6 million per full season. Considering what he showed on the field during his two seasons in sky blue, he belongs near the bottom.
6. Frank Lampard
Take about getting off to just about the worst start possible at NYCFC: Despite being announced as the club’s second-ever DP in 2014, Lampard extended his time at Manchester City rather than join up with his new MLS club for the start of their inaugural season. Once Lamps did arrive in New York, he spent lots of time recovering from the various muscle injuries you’d expect to plague a player in his mid-30s. He edges out Pirlo in this ranking because when he did manage to make it onto the field, he still showed off his goal-scoring prowess–he scored the club’s first-ever hat trick and contributed to the 2016 team’s marked improvement by bagging 12 goals in 15 starts. Points for that, but both he and Pirlo were decidedly retrograde signings that both earned obscenely high wages and didn’t put in performances that backed the big money up.
5. Jesús Medina
Maybe the most polarizing player NYCFC has had to date. The club’s first-ever “Young Designated Player,” Medina represented NYCFC’s first attempt at signing the “new” version of what was considered a worthwhile DP: a promising prospect from South America who could blossom into a star in MLS. That blossoming definitely did not happen, as Medina’s tenure was full of ups and downs. He’d have spurts of productivity followed by long stretches where he didn’t contribute any goals or assists. He was regularly left out of the squad during Dome Torrent’s 2019 season, notably not even making the bench for their Eastern Conference Semifinal loss to Toronto FC. When the club employed the Designated Player trio of Medina-Mitriță-Maxi Moralez, it was not a winning formula. Medina did become a favorite of Ronny Deila’s due to his pressing and general work rate, and he scored some important goals during the 2021 MLS Cup-winning season. But I consider him an overall disappointment during his time with NYCFC.
4. Thiago Martins
The first defender the team has signed as a Designated Player, the Brazilian center-back has improved markedly since some shaky early days with NYCFC. He’s become an anchor for an NYCFC back line that has conceded the second-fewest goals in MLS this season — which is important since he’s currently earning the highest salary at the club. Given that it’s so early in his tenure and that it remains unorthodox for MLS teams to spend DP-level money on central defenders, he comes in at number four — but with the caveat that he could easily find himself higher on this ranking in another season or two if the NYCFC backline remains as stingy as it’s been at times this year.
3. Talles Magno
The second most-expensive signing the club has ever made, the 20-year-old Brazilian has not taken long to establish himself as one of MLS’s brightest young talents. He’s dripping with flair and shows it off during matches, and has established himself as one of the league’s best dribblers. He made vital contributions during the late stages of NYCFC’s MLS Cup run, scoring the match-winning goal against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Final, then burying his penalty in the Cup-deciding shootout in Portland. The sky remains the limit, particularly if he can improve his ruthlessness in front of goal and his link-up play with his fellow attackers. With Taty Castellanos now plying his trade in Spain, Magno will be expected to back up his DP status by grabbing the reins of the NYCFC attack. He’s this high in this ranking thanks to his early success and his tantalizing, still-to-be-fully-unlocked potential.
2. David Villa
The antithesis of the expensive disappointments that were Pirlo and Lampard, the World Cup-winning Spanish striker was the club’s first-ever signing, and ended up being the player that established NYCFC in MLS. He was a reliably clinical goal scorer who carried the young club on his back many a time, guiding NYCFC through their expansion growing pains. 80 goals in 124 MLS appearances is nothing to sneeze at, though it must be said that Villa’s teams never made the leap to capture any silverware. All that he accomplished on the field for NYCFC, however, is now overshadowed by the ignominy of his alleged harassment of a club intern. The team have attempted to all but erase him from their history, and it’s now nearly impossible to celebrate what he brought to NYCFC due to his reportedly disgraceful behind-the-scenes behavior.
1. Maxi Moralez
Maxi has fully earned the top spot here. He wasn’t a flashy signing when he arrived in 2017, but he has been the picture of consistency, a creative genius who hands out assists and key passes like candy and chips in with the occasional vital goal. He remains the beating heart of NYCFC whenever and wherever he is on the field, even at 35 years old and in his sixth MLS season. He rode through the lows of embarrassing playoff exits and helped guide the team to its highest high, overcoming his personal penalty kick demons to score in NYCFC’s two shootout wins en route to lifting MLS Cup. I don’t think fans expected him to carve out legendary status when he got here, but he’s done just that. He’s also seemed to become a leader and mentor for the young South Americans NYCFC has recruited in recent years, developing what appeared to be a particularly close relationship with Taty Castellanos. In his time here, Maxi has provided exactly what you’d want from a Designated Player: Excellence on and off the field.