By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jan 25, 2019) US Soccer Players - Thursday morning delivered the news that everyone knew was coming. Atlanta United, the defending MLS Cup champions and a club that has already rocked the foundations of Major League Soccer in just two years of existence, announced the signing of River Plate attacker Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez.
We knew Martinez was coming because Martinez himself dropped not-so-subtle hints of his move to Atlanta last month. Following River Plate’s dramatic and controversy-laden triumph over Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores final second-leg where Martinez scored the final River goal, he told Radio Continental that Atlanta would be his next club.
Martinez pointed to the rising profile of MLS and United’s willingness to pay River’s asking price. Martinez also played up the club’s “trust” in him as a player.
Atlanta showed Martinez the love. More importantly, Atlanta was ready to spend. On the back of the team’s success in its first seasons and the fame of signing Tata Martino and now Frank De Boer as head coaches, South America’s recently named top player decided to move to America.
United’s messaging is now amplified, again. The clubs figures to continue to do well in South America, especially if it can execute a big money, high-profile sale of one of its group of Latin America stars. The only way Atlanta’s move would make more of a splash is if we knew the amount the club was spending on Martinez. For all the progress MLS has made in the business of the sport, the lack of disclosure for transfer fees and salaries remains frustrating for fans.
Just two years in, Atlanta is playing a different game off the field than any other club in MLS. An uptick in spending has led to purchases over $5 million in a few places, but they cannot compare to United’s moves for players at triple that number.
Pity Martinez’s arrival presents a problem. Now that he’s on the roster, the MLS champs have a big decision to make about which DP to move out to make room for the reigning South American futbol king. Miguel Almiron’s possible transfer out of MLS before the end of the European winter transfer window sits at the center of any resolution. The club has held firm on a $30 million price tag for the talented Paraguayan, but do not have a suitor who is willing to meet that number with a week left in the window.
Martinez’s comments about his MLS move last month likely damaged Atlanta’s leverage in the sale of Almiron, since any bidders would know that Atlanta would be facing a DP problem. Any club interested in Almiron can just wait the club out.
Not that selling Almiron is the club’s only option. Loaning out one of the four DPs would also free up a spot and bring the club in line with the regulations. The most obvious candidate for a loan is 19-year old Ezequiel Barco, the $15 million MLS record signing the club acquired last winter.
Loaning out Barco is fraught with problems, however. The additional six months the club would get out of Almiron, who the club cannot justify holding onto past the summer, would be negated by the message letting a talented player out on loan would send to players across the Americas. To put that much into Barco only to banish him a year later doesn’t tell potential future signings that Atlanta values it’s young talent.
Coupled with preventing Almiron from making a move now, when the interest is there and the club stands to more than double its money no matter the final fee, ”fixing” the DP problem by loaning Barco seem foolish. It’s also possible that Atlanta is “exploring” loan options only as a means to claw back some leverage in the negotiations over Almiron’s transfer price.
MLS is better for having a club like Atlanta United pushing against the ceiling of allowable ambition. That United even has a DP problem, with every one of the players involved representing major investment in Latin American talent on the attacking end of the field, speaks to the club’s desire to break free of league norms.
Atlanta is posing publicly through its actions a question about league ambitions and whether MLS is comfortable preventing its teams from reaching higher. Why are MLS limited to only three DPs? Why are the DP rules in place at all?
Cost-control and parity are the dual pillars of the MLS salary budget rules. The former is less of a concern than ever before thanks to deep-pocketed owners and a desire to compete outside of the borders of the US and Canada. The league appears to be thriving and the billionaire class of owners entering through expansion want to flex their sizable financial muscles.
The other pillar, parity, is a trickier issue facing the league’s ability to grow. MLS rules box Atlanta in not because the club lacks money. Instead, it's because allowing Atlanta to spend what it wants might unbalance MLS to the point of destroying parity. Providing every club a modicum of belief that it might be able to lift the championship trophy at the end of the season guides the thinking around every budget rule the league has in place.
This feels like an inflection point. Fully engaging in the transfer market means dealing with the repercussions. Handcuffing Atlanta United in its dealings won’t just upset United and investor/operator Arthur Blank, it limits the league’s ability to make money. In this case, holding onto longstanding ideas about competitive balance might mean acting against the league business prospects. Yet, MLS clearly wants to swim in the global waters.
The fear is that the decline or active erosion of parity will push too many fans away from the league. Not every club can be Atlanta. If the clubs on the bottom end of the spending list can’t compete, it stands to reason that they will struggle to remain relevant in their markets. MLS already has a few cities where interest is low, attendance is poor, and the media rights drive little to no revenue. Entrenching the “haves” and the “have nots” by removing spending barriers might only exacerbate the problem.
At that point, MLS becomes a league where every club’s fan base prays for a wealthy savior to swoop in and inject capital into the organization. That sort of boom-bust cycle sometimes turns middling clubs into juggernauts (see Manchester City), but more often leaves the clubs in back in dire straits when the money dries up.
MLS faces a decision, with the important caveat that the cow is already on its way out of the proverbial barn. Slow play the growth in spending, restricting clubs and complicating the issues of buying and selling in a bid to maintain parity and to a lesser extent control costs. Or, let clubs loose and give them the freedom to act as they will.
If there’s a middle ground, it lies in removing the intricate rules and simply installing a hard cap and/or exempting transfer fees from the salary budget. Without distinctions between DP and non-DP players, a problem like Atlanta’s just doesn’t exist.
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- Columbus in 2019
- DC United faces expectations in 2019
- Indy Eleven and MLS expansiont
Logo courtesy of Atlanta United