Seth Vertelney: D.C. United and Portland exercise caution with DP signings after 2012 busts

After striking out on expensive DP strikers in 2012, both franchises are taking a new approach in 2013.
Say this for D.C. United and the Portland Timbers: They appear to be learning their lessons.

In 2012, both teams brought in strikers from Europe with plenty of pedigree and significant fanfare. Both were signed as Designated Players and expectations were sky high.

"We've been searching for the right number nine for some time and we think we found it," United coach Ben Olsen said at a press conference to announce his team's new striker, Hamdi Salihi. The Albanian arrived with an impressive goalscoring record, notching 53 goals in 90 appearances for Rapid Vienna.

Less than a month later, at the opposite end of the country, the Timbers hitched their wagon to another 28-year-old striker, Kris Boyd, who'd been astonishingly prolific during his time at Rangers between 2006 and 2010.

"Kris perfectly fits the profile of the team’s needs and will make a huge impact," Timbers owner Merritt Paulson declared confidently.

Olsen and Paulson weren't only wrong in their proclamations, they were expensively wrong.

Salihi never endeared himself to Olsen, and scored six goals in a season that saw him mostly collect splinters on the bench in the second half of the campaign. His last start of the season was on July 21.

Boyd's 2012 trajectory was remarkably similar to that of Salihi, as he started out strong and faded late, scoring seven goals in 26 appearances. By the end of the season, his playing time eroded as the team grew frustrated with his immobile playing style. He scored his last goal of the season on July 14.

Salihi made just over $487,000 in 2012. Boyd? A cool $1.5 million.

Both players appear unlikely to return in 2013. New Timbers coach Caleb Porter even went as far as to remark at his introductory press conference: "Kris Boyd is player that I think will have a hard time playing the way that we play."

So replacements were required for the two misfiring strikers. Symmetrically enough, it just so happened that United and Portland each signed new Designated Players this week.

As you'd expect, the signings signify a philosophical change for both teams.

On Wednesday, United announced its newest Designated Player, Rafael, an unknown 20-year-old plucked from Bahia of the Brazilian Serie A. Rather than anointing the young Brazilian as The Missing Piece, the team was a bit more guarded with its expectations for the striker.

"He's very mature at a young age, but he is young," Olsen said on a conference call. "So there’s got to be a certain patience with him. But I certainly think he has the potential to be a big-time forward in this league."

Rafael is only the second "Young Designated Player" signed by a MLS team since the league adjusted the DP rule in 2011. Under the Young DP rule, Rafael will count only $200,000 against the salary cap, as opposed to $350,000 for veteran DPs. (Timbers midfielder Jose Adolfo Valencia was the first player signed under such a designation when he joined the team last winter.)

Just a day after DCU announced its newest DP, Portland followed suit by snagging attacker Diego Valeri from Argentine first-division side Club Atlético Lanús. The Timbers will hope their newest DP works out a fair amount better than his predecessor.

Aside from the many common bonds between the two signings that we've already explored, there is one more important thread between the Rafeal and Valeri signings: Both deals are one-year loans with an option to purchase at the end of the season.

After being burned by high-priced, high-profile flame-outs, DCU and Portland are exercising caution with their new South American imports. They'll each be given a season to prove themselves. If either ends up another Salihi or Boyd, they'll be marked Return To Sender. And it won't cost anything to do so.

If they do work out, don't be surprised to see many more MLS teams follow suit.

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