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Chelsea's Didier Drogba, centre, celebrates after scoring against Bolton during their English Premier League soccer match at The Reebok Stadium, Bolton, England, Monday Jan. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Jon Super) (JON SUPER)
Chelsea's Didier Drogba, centre, celebrates after scoring against Bolton during their English Premier League soccer match at The Reebok Stadium, Bolton, England, Monday Jan. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Jon Super) (JON SUPER)

Impact's designated player search so far centres on aging stars Add to ...

While Major League Soccer is encouraging clubs to sign young stars from around the world, so far the expansion Montreal Impact's search for a designated player seems to be focused on big names with their best years behind them.

Alessandro Del Piero, 37, and David Trezeguet, 34, are past and present Juventus legends who Impact president Joey Saputo says were contacted.

There was also reports they had an eye on former Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka, 32, who opted for Shanghai Shenhua in China at a reported $7-million per season. Or current Chelsea forward Didier Drogba, 33, who is on the market. And 34-year-old Juventus forward Luca Toni.

But Saputo says he wants more than just a recognizable name with a World Cup resume.

“It has to be the right player,” Saputo said this week. “He has to be a leader on and off the field, not one who comes here to end his career, to play for a year or two and then leave.

“He has to do more than play on the field and sell jerseys.”

MLS allows clubs to sign up to three designated players, who earn more than the league limit for an individual but who have only the maximum of US$335,000 charged to the team's salary cap.

It is known as the Beckham Rule in honour of the British superstar who signed in 2007 with the Los Angeles Galaxy for more than $6-million per season. Now, nearly every team in the league has at least one DP, including 34-year-olds Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls and Torsten Frings with Toronto FC.

The Impact would like to catch a similar star, although they have come up short so far and time is running out on the January transfer window for European league players. If they don't get one this month, they likely won't be able to sign one before the summer.

But while MLS likes the attention and ticket-selling power older stars bring, they are also urging teams to go after younger talent who will be in the league for the long term.

This year, the DP rule was changed so that players under 23 count for only $200,000 against the cap, while players under 20 have a $150,000 cap hit, regardless of how much they are paid.

The league touts FC Dallas' signing of 19-year-old Colombian Fabian Castillo as a prime example. Last month, the Portland Timbers inked another 19-year-old from Colombia, Jose Adolfo Valencia.

Saputo did not say if any similar players were on Montreal's radar.

“I know MLS is not keen on having a lot of 38- and 39-year-old players coming into the league,” he said. “They'd like European players who are a bit younger.”

Still, they went after Del Piero, who Saputo said “can help a team not only on the field.”

Del Piero, who has vowed to play until he is 40, visited Montreal, and the Impact went to see him in Italy, but the player's agent finally told them he was only interested in MLS if he played in New York or Los Angeles.

Trezeguet, a member of France's 1998 World Cup champion squad, signed with a club in Abu Dhabi, where he lasted only three months before reaching agreement to leave. Then he apparently took a substantial pay cut to sign with River Plate in Argentina, where he grew up.

“There are a number of players out there who are looking at North America,” said Saputo. “But you don't want to make the mistake of just going after a name player.

“If he doesn't do what he's supposed to do, then you're criticized: ‘Why did you go after that player.’ You need to be patient.”

Saputo said season ticket sales have been slower than expected, although they still hope to reach at least the bottom end of their target range of between 13,000 and 15,000.

But he said there has been “tremendous demand” for single game tickets, especially for the home opener March 17 against the Chicago Fire and other early season matches at Olympic Stadium. Montreal will play its first five games at the 55,000-seat Big 0 while the outdoor Saputo Stadium is enlarged to 20,000 seats.

Signing an international star of any age would likely help that.

But not all DPs work out. In July, the Vancouver Whitecaps signed Gambian striker Mustapha Jarju, only to buy him out at the end of the season. They have since signed South Korean international Lee Young-Pyo to go with their first DP, 30-year-old Frenchman Eric Hassli, who worked out well.

Toronto also has Canadian midfielder Julian De Guzman and Dutch forward Danny Koevermans as DPs.

Patrick Leduc, a former Impact defender who now writes on soccer for Montreal La Presse, said it can't be easy to find just the right DP.

“It's a choice you make between the marketing aspect and how much attention it will draw to your team and bringing in a superstar that's maybe not going to bring much on the field,” said Leduc.

Leduc said building a winning team is more important to bring in fans than signing a star, even if the DP would certainly help the team attract sponsors.

He said there would certainly be a “wow” factor in the locker-room if a big name signed, but “especially if the attitude's no good, then there's resentment, jealousy, envy. And you ask what the guy is bringing to the team.”

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