Atlanta United continues to experience remarkable success, advancing to the MLS Eastern Conference finals in their second season, thanks mostly to coach Tata Martino.
Atlanta, which attracted a postseason-record crowd of 70,526 for its 3-1 semifinal win Sunday over New York City FC, likely would not have attained these heights without Martino, who was hired a few months after leaving Argentina’s national team. Before Martino became available, Atlanta harbored modest plans; seating was to be limited to 29,000 at Mercedes Benz Stadium and there were no realistic thoughts of contending for a title.
Martino quickly changed expectations, forming a winning team featuring players who captured imaginations. United supporters responded, setting records for average regular-season attendance of 48,200 in 2017 and 53,000 this season.
But Atlanta will be adjusting to changes after this season.
Martino seems set to leave for the Mexican national team, soccer operations director Paul McDonough has moved to expansion team Inter Miami CF, and midfielder Miguel Almiron and striker Josef Martinez could be candidates for transfers, along with midfielder Julian Gressel.
Team owner Arthur Blank has been willing to delve into the transfer market for imports, but if Martino departs, he will have to find a replacement with strong connections and an eye for talent.
Atlanta could have difficulty replacing players such as Gressel, a first-round draft choice who played at Providence College from 2013-16 and has expressed a desire to return to Germany. Gressel has been among the top wingers in MLS this season, tying for seventh in assists with 14, and also excelling in midfield in both holding and playmaking roles.
Gressel is a part of a strong New England influence in Atlanta. Team president Darren Eales, a former Brown University striker, played a part in the hiring of Martino, and McDonough (former UConn assistant coach) helped assemble the supporting cast for Almiron and Martinez.
Atlanta’s starting lineup includes Gressel and former Revolution stars Jeff Larentowicz (Brown) and Michael Parkhurst (Cranston, R.I.). Miles Robinson (Arlington) joined Parkhurst in the starting defense, and former Harvard captain Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu (Bellingham/Roxbury Latin) was on the bench against NYC FC.
Atlanta and the New York Red Bulls, opponents in the Eastern Conference final, have charted different courses in attaining success. They have both concentrated resources into development academies and fielded reserve teams in the United Soccer League (Atlanta United 2’s top assistant coach is former Revolution defender Rob Valentino). But they have little else in common, and the outcome of their matchup could go far in influencing trends in MLS.
Atlanta’s investment in imports has paid off via players such as Martinez, a record-setting striker. The team has become a focus of attention by playing in an urban setting, though the stadium was designed for NFL games and the artificial turf detracts from the style of play.
Atlanta could be showing the way forward by raising the stakes for player acquisitions. The roster is valued at $38 million by transfermarkt.com, highest in MLS, and is in position to gain further from selling players.
The Red Bulls have rarely paid transfer fees to acquire players in their 23-year history. The team has been able to draw on local talent, the starting lineup featuring several players who competed for the reserve team, plus New York-area clubs and colleges.
But the Red Bulls remain on the margins of the New York sporting scene, competing in a small stadium outside the city before modest crowds (17,000 average this season). Despite developing players, the Red Bulls have seldom profited in the transfer market.
If MLS could combine the positive qualities of both Atlanta United and the Red Bulls, it could move toward maximizing the financial potential of soccer.
Not in striking range
MLS is becoming a league that features foreign stars and relegates US players to supporting roles with commensurate inferior salaries, judging by selections for the MLS Best XI team.
There are seven foreign and four US players on the Best XI — but no US attacking players have been named to the team since midfielder Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls) in 2016. MLS increased the number of forwards from two to three on the Best XI in 2012, but only twice have US players filled those spots (Mike Magee in 2013, Lee Nguyen in 2014). This season marked the fifth successive year no US forwards were named to the team.
These trends should not seem surprising, since most of the league’s highest-paid players are foreign and many of them perform in offensive roles in midfield or as strikers.
The MLS XI back line includes Americans Aaron Long (Red Bulls) and Chad Marshall (Seattle), plus goalkeeper Zach Steffen (Columbus), and Jamaican left back Kemar “Taxi” Lawrence (Red Bulls). Those four were the lowest-paid performers on the team; their combined paycheck totals (about $900,000) are less than the salary of Atlanta United’s Martinez ($1.3 million), the lowest-paid foreigner on the team.
Long, the MLS Defender of the Year, is listed at $73,125 annually by the MLS Players Association and could be in line for a significant raise. Or, Long could attempt to follow former Red Bull defenders Matt Miazga and Tim Ream to Europe.
Lawrence would have long ago departed for England, but has been held back by Jamaica’s low FIFA ranking, according to his agent, Damani Ralph of Stellar USA Soccer. Lawrence has established himself on the Reggae Boyz back line, along with former University of Hartford star Damion Lowe (IK Start, Norway), and Portland’s Alvas Powell.