Sports Talk

Is Omar Gonzalez worth LA Galaxy’s third Designated Player spot?

Amid SI.com’s report on how Clint Dempsey arrived in Seattle was a small bit of news regarding Omar Gonzalez. You know who I’m talking about, right? Big guy, handsome, smiles a lot. Does a great scud missile impression on opposition crosses. Hates Steven Lenhart (so many do). Well, last year’s MLS Cup Final Most Valuable Player is out of contract at the end of the year, leading to a season’s worth of subtle speculation where he’ll play next season.

According to the post, LA Galaxy are “expected to soon announce” their third Designated Player spot will be filled by Gonzalez.  The 24-year-old Texan would presumably bypass an opportunity to move to Europe (or Mexico) and stay where he’s played since 2009, though there’s no word on whether taking David Beckham’s DP spot would also give Omar corresponding rights to his parking space.

The value for money will all depend on Gonzalez’s new salary, but good luck convincing Los Angeles he’s not worthy of their Designated Player spot. As last year’s championship game showed, at his best, Gonzalez is the most dominant player in Major League Soccer, and while it might be easier to find a defender who can give you acceptable performance (implying you should allocate your resources elsewhere), Gonzalez is the rare defender that forces you to reconsider: How many more goals is he preventing than another defender; how much would it cost to replace that; would it cost less to replace that production elsewhere; and would that replacement be as marketable as Gonzalez?

Screw it, Bruce Arena’s probably thinking. When LA struggled without Gonzalez to start last season, he may have seen all he needed. Even if somebody sat him down, lauded his handling of the U.S. in 2002, then tried to argue the money’d be put to better use elsewhere, there may be a set of factors specific to this Galaxy that trump your logic (and ass-kissing). Did you see how much better the team was when Gonzalez returned? Or how Omar played in the playoffs? How LA doesn’t have to play with a dedicated ball-winner in the middle, thanks to Gonzalez’s quality? How the near-impossibility of practically replacing him might force Arena to change too much of a winning formula?

Screw it, he might tell Chris Klein. If we can afford to keep him — if we’ve come to the point where, after chasing Kaká, Frank Lampard, and Gio dos Santos, where we’re not landing a big marketable sort — let’s just keep Omar. Let’s just suck it up and keep one of the most important guys to our last two title teams.

For LA, however, it’s not that simple. More than any team in the league (even the Clint Dempsey-laden Sounders), the Galaxy’s Designated Player spots are precious. As the Beckham signing illustrated, the talent LA is capable of luring to California means they’re playing by a different set of rules. When they sign a third Designated Player, filling up all their over-budget roster spots, there’s a huge opportunity cost, one that complicates any pure talent-based evaluation.

In that respect, how wise is it for LA to make Gonzalez the second defender in Major League Soccer history to occupy a Designated Player spot (Rafa Marquez, New York, 2010-2012)? If we’re talking about a Real Salt Lake, Houston, or Sporting Kansas City filling their last DP place, it’s a totally different equation. Those are all great organizations for whom anybody should want to play, but the opportunity costs on their DPs just aren’t as steep.

At the same time, this is a choice the Galaxy may not have to make. LA already has Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan as Designated Players, but one of those all-stars is out of contract at the end of the year. And as Donovan’s recently said, he’s plans on listening to offers. Given his exploits this winter, it’d be foolish to predict Donovan’s future, but given the experience he had during two stints with Everton, would it be so surprising to see this new, more mature, open-minded Donovan take another plunge?

That’s speculation for another space. The point: Just as we can’t evaluate Gonzalez’s value-for-money until we know the numbers, we also can’t assess the cost of that Designated Player spot until we know what’s happening with Donovan. Will Gonzalez sign on with a team that has one Designated Player? Or will be be taking that final, precious Designated Player spot?

And in either situation, is he worth it?

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