Four months ago, Atlanta United set the record for the largest play-off crowd in Major League Soccer history, packing 67,000 people into Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was just the latest milestone in a record-breaking and head-turning season for the Georgia-based football club. Three months on, they have signed the league’s most expensive player. Ever.
The home team that record night was coached by Gerardo “Tata” Martino and two Argentine assistants, and featured six South American players and three Argentines in its starting line-up. December saw the purchase of Franco Escobar, another young Argentine who will likely break into the first team next season.
In January, the club broke the MLS transfer record with a US$15-million fee for Ezequiel Barco, the 18-year-old wunderkind who scored the goal that won Independiente the Copa Sudamérica in 2017. Last week, the reserve team added two youngsters Newell’s Old Boys academy system, the same where a certain Líonel Messi got started.
South Americans in MLS is nothing new, nor is it unique to Atlanta United. This winter alone, 24 have signed contracts with US top-tier clubs. Yet, United’s bold bet is brazen in its embrace of youth and reputation-less talent, validated by the velocity of success. As other clubs look to Atlanta, a new model could be emerging, with South Americans – and Argentina featured prominently – playing a crucial role, having a significant effect on how Latin American footballers enter the global stage.
‘THE GENIUS GUY’
It all began with Martino. For a country as starved of football history and experience as the United States, signing the former coach of Argentina and Barcelona as the man to lead its first campaign was a massive coup.
“All the players have full faith in him, they talk about that all the time,” says Doug Roberson, who covers Atlanta United for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the city’s newspaper. “It’s been a homerun hire for Atlanta United so far.”
Knowing Martino would be the one to guide them played a major part in nearly every South American’s decision to sign on the dotted line. “He was one of the best possible people who could’ve called me,” says Leandro González Pirez, the 25-year-old veteran of the Argentine first division who started 32 games at centre-back for Atlanta United last season. “That’s why I decided [to come to Atlanta], for the reputation of the coach and the ability to learn from him.”
From the beginning, Martino imposed his vision on the team, developing an exciting, flowing style of play that produced 70 goals, the second highest in the league last season. “He’s known as the genius guy. People understand him, the way I think all coaches would like to be known as, just by his style of play,” says Will Leitch, the founder of the sportblog Deadspin and an Atlanta United season ticket holder.
AN ATTRACTIVE RUNG
Argentina has a long history of exporting high quality players abroad, second only to Brazil in that category. Many go directly to Europe, a litany of stars like Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala, and, of course, Messi. Mexico has also become a big destination for Argentine footballers, yet the rise of Atlanta United poses a deep challenge to the traditional narrative, giving South American players an attractive alternative on their way to achieving their dream of being picked up by one of Europe’s greatest clubs.
MLS offers players a three-point advantage. For one, it’s a secure lifestyle, as pay is good – particularly for promising foreign players, and facilities are top notch. In his first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune, Miguel Almirón, the Paraguayan who was one of Atlanta’s first stars, says he struggled to make ends meet early in his career, sharing a bed with his mother in his childhood home while already a professional. Last year he earned US$2.3 million.
Second, MLS can be a place where players cut their teeth abroad before jumping into the deep end that is Europe. It’s almost as if MLS offers the possibility for a kind of university experience for South American players. Instead of jumping straight from home, across an ocean and into the biggest spotlight possible, they can spend a few years in a new place learning the ropes of competing professionally abroad.“When you move to another country it won’t be as hard, because you’ll have already lived in a foreign country once before,” Pirez says. “You’re going to be able to assimilate much better.”
EUROPE’S RETIREMENT HOME
Intensely focused on growing TV and matchday audiences, MLS has long targeted big name European stars to come past their primes. They have almost always been “designated players” (DPs), the three roster spots that don’t count toward a team’s collective salary cap, allowing clubs to break the piggy bank.
“There’s been this myth that the only way you can get American fans to watch the MLS is to bring in David Beckham or David Villa at the end of his career,” Leitch says.
But the powers that be — Martino, President Darren Eales (previously Tottenham Hotspur’s executive director), technical director Carlos Bocanegra, and billionaire owner Arthur Blank — came up with a different plan. Atlanta made three (then-) nobodies their DPs: Almirón (24 years old), Venezuelan Josef Martí- nez (24) and Argentine Héctor Villalba (23). It was a gamble, but it paid off big time. “Teams were doing this before Atlanta started. But Atlanta United is probably the first that invested in three young designated players,” Roberson says, “it worked, and they were all South American.”
And it worked wonders. First, it earned a new, expansion team a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and only the second time since MLS’s founding season in ‘96. The strategy fit perfectly with the brand of football Martino pushed from the dug-out: free-flowing, inventive and exciting. This helped create a genuine bond with fans as it was organic, as opposed to relying on the imported brand power of established names, which isn’t always successful. While some have criticised it, Bocanegra has no problem with MLS becoming as “a selling league.”
“There’s always that burning desire, we get it, for players to potentially go on and play for a Champions League club,” Bocanegra said in an interview. “[MLS] should embrace being a league that can sell players on.”
Pirez is a perfect example. He thinks of Atlanta United as a rung on the ladder to Europe, where he wants to play for a storied club. “I think that’s not just my dream but the dream of any player. That might not be in reach right now, but that’s the end goal,” he says.
After one year, the jury is still out on the model’s economic viability, but the idea is to embrace players’ burning desire to sport the shirt of a Manchester United or FC Barcelona. “It’s part of Atlanta United’s business model,” Roberson says. “They want to buy young, buy low, sell high.”
For now, it’s wait and see. Leitch thinks Almirón will be the first to go, likely after the 2018 season. But Barco, and his massive price tag, is the real test. Only 18 today, Atlanta hope big European suitors will come knocking within a few seasons, willing to cough up the cash and help them break another record. Then Atlanta United needs to do it again. And again, and again.
THE LEAGUE’S FUTURE
Other MLS clubs see what Atlanta is doing, and will be thinking hard about how they can incorporate the same approach into their own plans.
The trend is already starting to show. Only 12 of 58 signings this winter were over the age of 27, according to Matthew Doyle, a senior writer for MLS. “It’s been a sea change in how teams do business,” he posted on Twitter.
If other clubs follow suit, the role of MLS in the global footballing landscape could really shift.
“What Atlanta United did was obviously so different and so successful you can’t help but notice it,” Leitch says. “It’s something that needed a lot of things to go right, but it also provides a model for other MLS franchises that you don’t have to do it the old, dumb American way.”