When Major League Soccer began in 1996, the league was all about fair play across the board. The rules were set so the league had final say on all player acquisition in order to keep balance and keep interest in all sized markets.
Those rules still exist, but new ones have come into play since the early days of MLS. The league instituted a Designated Player spot, where each team can sign someone above the salary cap. That money comes straight out of the owner's pockets. This was done in order for David Beckham to come to the LA Galaxy, but now every team has at least one DP.
The league has expanded the Designated Player rule, allowing teams to have multiple DPs and the ability to trade those slots. Teams can also pay down salaries through allocation money in order to prevent a player as being labeled DP if they don't have another slot.
Columbus Crew SC's Wednesday night opponent is a perfect example of how the league has changed from its humble beginnings. New York City FC kicked off the year with former Barcelona striker David Villa on the roster and the promise of former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard heading to the Big Apple in the summer.
As City prepares to come to Columbus, Lampard has finally arrived and midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who appeared in the Champions League Final this past year with Juventus, is also on the roster.
"It's interesting because they certainly have quality," Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said of New York City this week.
On the opposite side of the field on Wednesday will be Berhalter and Columbus. While the Black & Gold have been a major player in the first 20 years of MLS' existence, the club does not have the means to compete on the transfer market with teams like New York City or the Galaxy.
"We have a different way of operating, a different structure," Berhalter said. "But we're proud of the way we play soccer and we're proud of the guys and what they've been able to accomplish in such a short period of time.
"I think what it gives you now is it gives you the flexibility to use different approaches. You have the ability to go out and get players that you normally couldn't get. [Sebastian Giovinco] wasn't coming to the league 10 years ago. So it does give you that flexibility and it gives other teams different ways to do it as well."
As sporting director, as well as head coach, Berhalter has had to be creative when it comes to acquiring players. The team's one Designated Player Federico Higuain was in Columbus before Berhalter arrived, Kei Kamara - who leads the league in goals - is the biggest signing of the Berhalter era, but players such as Giancarlo Gonzalez, Mohammed Saeid, and Steve Clark have all been value buys for their return for Crew SC.
From a player's perspective, having the bigger names coming to the league doesn't take away from the balance, but actually makes things more competitive.
"It's exciting," Columbus midfielder Wil Trapp said of the prospect of going against City. "I don't think we think of it as a disadvantage to us in anyway and we're not allowed to make excuses anyway. At the end of the day, we're here to win and beat these teams week in and week out and that's what we're tasked to do. It's awesome to get to play against high quality players and it makes for a good challenge."
For Trapp and fellow central midfielder Tony Tchani, Wednesday will be quite the challenge. Even if Lampard, who is questionable for the match, is ruled out, Pirlo, along with former Crew SC target Mix Diskerud and others still present a quite the task. Throw Villa in up top and the Black & Gold have their work cut out for them.
"Obviously they have quality players, very quality players, and they can hurt you if you give them time and space," Trapp said of City. "So we're just going to try and limit their key players on the ball and always be aware where runners are, where Villa's running off the back shoulder or coming into between the lines. It's an awareness thing, it's an organization thing, and communication. Those are going to key points for us in our success tomorrow."
While the Black & Gold don't have the name recognition, in terms of their star players, that teams like New York City do, Berhalter does believe the team has the stars to be competitive.
"There's been a lot of talk about Lampard, Pirlo, and Villa and rightfully so. We've been talking about those guys for the last 15 years if we're honest," he explained. "But where's the talk about Kamara? Where's the talk about [Ethan Finlay?] Where's the talk about Higuain? About Tchani?
These are quality guys and in my opinion, they're guys that have been performing at a high level in this league. The top scorer, the top assist, one of the best players in the league the last couple of years. So it's not only about the name and the player's reputation, it's about how they're producing. You look at our guys and they've been producing at a high level."