A View from Afar

Will Atlanta United’s tide lift other clubs?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

There’s an old saying that a rising tide lifts all ships.

Right now, there is a rising tide in MLS, courtesy of three clubs: Atlanta United, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders. The question is what that tide will do for MLS’s other clubs.

Toronto will host Seattle in the MLS Cup final next week, a dream matchup for MLS that could be one of the most watched U.S. professional soccer events ever, coming off the heels of an Eastern Conference final that MLS fans should remember for years.

Atlanta United may be just as significant.

With its importing of the biggest name manager in years — and perhaps ever — to come to MLS in his prime, former Barcelona and Argentina head coach Gerardo Martino, Atlanta has followed up with some big signings, notably this week’s reported $8.5 million capture of 23-year-old Paraguayan international playmaker Miguel Almiron from Argentine champions Lanus.

That is big money for a solid name entering his prime, and a marked difference from what most MLS clubs do. (And buried in the fine print is the fact that Atlanta had to pay Seattle for the right to sign him. Seattle had apparently claimed Almiron on their discovery list.)

A few years ago, the big name expansion team import would be a free transfer from Europe on the downside of his career, such as New York City FC’s importing of Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard (and, to a much lesser extent, David Villa).

Atlanta seems to be adding to the groundwork for MLS 3.0. They have clearly been emboldened by the biggest game-changer, Toronto’s signing of Sebastian Giovinco, and with owner Arthur Blank’s deep pockets, they have the money to burn.

The question is whether this tide can lift other clubs or whether it will leave them behind.

Teams like the Philadelphia Union, Columbus Crew, Houston Dynamo and Colorado Rapids didn’t suddenly have their pockets deepened by this. Sure, the entry of new, successful clubs into the league increases shared revenue, but that’s not enough in and of itself.

Can it boost their ambition?

We’ll have to wait and see in the short term.

More likely, you’ll see the bigger clubs like Seattle, Toronto, the Los Angeles Galaxy and maybe New York City FC continue to push toward bigger signings. Los Angeles FC will probably enter the league with at least as big a splash as Atlanta, buoyed by the fact that the club’s location in southern California will draw more big names.

In turn, those teams will likely agitate internally for looser roster rules to allow them to spend more on player personnel.

That, along with general increased revenues, will probably gradually push other clubs, like the Union, toward bigger spending.

You are already seeing, to a degree, with the Union’s signing of Alejandro Bedoya. Will that be a one-off? One year into Earnie Stewart’s tenure, we don’t have enough of his track record within MLS to identify trends or predict how he and the Union will progress in terms of player acquisition. It’s safe to say he’ll continue to look for talented free transfers on the international market, but we don’t know how else the club’s acquisition model will change.

Some teams will take routes based on their unique strengths. With Dallas, you should expect them to lean heavily on a productive academy while continuing to sign talented young players from South America, thanks largely to the ability of head coach Oscar Pareja of developing young players and forging them into competitive teams. Montreal will probably continue leveraging its relationships in Italy. D.C. United is probably in a holding pattern until their new stadium is built and completed, but they could once again become one of the biggest clubs in the league once it is. And so it goes.

Ambition may rise with Atlanta, but it will be a slow process with most teams. The question is how slow and whether a team like Philadelphia will grow their own ambition to match that of these other clubs.


  1. Every professional American sports league can be broken into the moneyed, the middle mediocre, and the miserable. Sadly, no tide can change this structure (though the cohorts may shift in the long view). Our Union’s place has been, is, and will be in the lower tier(s) for years to come. Your point is encouraging but I don’t offer much substantive disagreement and really just wanted to wallow in my own sad despair.

    • I love how this is still the attitude even though we paid for Bedoya this year and have in the past for other players.

      YES, none have been Giovinco 8 million a year signings, but there is such a place as the middle ground.

      And I feel like we belong in the middle, not the lower tiers. Christ, the lower tiers are like … Columbus. *shiver*

    • While I sometimes wallow knowing a team like Seattle is elite (and a favorite child) when in fact they are as big a city as Philly and we should therefore be one of the big fish too… I still come back to the idea one team was built over night while the other has an extensive history.
      Finding a middle ground to youth development and infrastructure and creating a business model that can grow and thrive and compete at the highest levels is the ultimate goal and at the same time important to remain patient over — when this team is still only six years old— literally built from dust to dust.
      Build a youth pipeline (that plays in Philly and/or is sold overseas for opportunities to play and grow at the highest levels)…. and add pricey pieces to compete within the table.
      For me one thing has never changed… create players locally finding minutes on first teams at the highest levels whether for Philadelphia or not and improving our National Team to lift the Holy Grail.
      Quite simply… we need more players playing in games like we are all going to watch the next three days in Champions League and Europa League while the domestic league continues to grow and grow and God willing thrive and compete against our CONCACAF Champions League rivals.

  2. The detail that gets buried in Atlanta’s predetermined emergence is this:
    “With its importing of the biggest name manager in years — and perhaps ever — to come to MLS in his prime, former Barcelona and Argentina head coach Gerardo Martino…”
    I like and respect Curtin, but the league as a whole needs to start bringing in more world-class managers. I know David Moyes isn’t a world-beater, but he’s marketable, and brings clout. Someone along those lines would improve the league’s image as well.
    As far as players coming in, LAFC is going to go nuts. I’m guessing that’s where Ibra makes his debut, along with [insert massive world-class player here].

    • Hell, I’d settle for better youth managers too. Its not just the top of the top thats important.

      • I agree. But you need to start with the top of the pyramid when it comes to managers. It’s marketing. Those big names will make others take a second look at coming over.
        Maybe managers like Harry Redknapp will choose New England instead of some random team in Dubai (although Dubai will pay him about 100x what MLS will…but we’ll overlook that for now.)

      • I wouldn’t mind Curtin being a youth coach. Frankly, I really don’t want him out of the organization, just out of the #1 spot.

    • I hear some guy named Jurgen is looking for a job…

  3. Lucky Striker says:

    I have an opinion, I always do……..but myopically, until game week begins…..it’s just that.

    No need to discuss, because it all gets revealed in the end.

    An equation is postulated.

    Time to stand outside (current “myoptics” aside) and simply wait for my silent response to be validated.

    Or not………..

  4. Early looks at Atlanta show the club is doing two really smart things:
    1) Locking up talented young players
    2) Scouting and recruiting quality South American players, where I think you’re likely to get more talent for your dollar than shopping in the second divisions of Portugal, Netherlands and France.

    Again, the league is only going to get more difficult. This is going to be a big year for Earnie Stewart to prove his GM bona fides.

  5. I bet when you’re on a tsunami it looks like a rising tide, when you’re the Union it just looks like a ****-ton of water crashing over you.
    Bedoya is prima facie evidence of the “quick do something so it looks like we’re competing”. $1M for a guy who is a square peg in a few different holes isn’t the same spending. TFC and now ATL are following and expanding the LAG/SEA blueprint. Develop your own defenders or MLS source them. Splash the cash on guys who score. The U in the past have had it bassackwards, spending on keepers (Mmmmmmbolhi) or defenders (Eeeewwwdu) and rolling out CJ or LeToux or a bargain bin Casey to score. The tide is rising but there’s a hole in our boat. Hoping and praying on Sapong doesn’t feel like ambition.
    As for the academy, meh. Pfft. Double pfft. Don’t tell me how awesome these acorns are going to be one day, I’m paying for seats to today’s team. They’ll invest in 100 kids to see one become, what, Pfeffer? That’s the FO’s alt plan to develop talent, but they have a large and widening talent gap in today’s senior team. A lot of you are still basking in the afterglow of 6th, gonna feel like a distant warm memory if they don’t up their game.

    • I’m not saying Bedoya is a Mix Diskerud, but I hope that he integrates with the team better than he has. I think he can do great things for us, but he’s not the one to push us over the edge.

      I’ll reserve judgement on Ernie Stewart to see what we can get over the winter. We’ll need some big pick-ups to replace Barnetta & Noguiera.

    • I agree that you are paying to see the first team right now and that is completely within your right to demand better quality from them.
      Having said that, comparing the kids today to the unfortunate case of Pfeffer isn’t a fair comparison. Pfeffer wasn’t developed by the Union. He was signed at 15 as a kid developed by other youth clubs. The U didn’t have any semblance of the development structure in place from full-time academy to Bethlehem to first team. He was getting a handful of minutes here and there and playing in a dreadful reserve league.
      With the infrastructure in place now, the U will start churning out legit talented players that could go on to have careers in Europe if they desire. It’s not going to happen overnight, but within 5 years, I would be surprised if the U haven’t turned out at least 10 legit pros of much higher quality than Pfeffer (no disrespect to him as I really like the kid and think his development was badly mishandled).

      • Actually, I think Pfeffer is an accurate representation of the ceiling for a majority of these players. Trusty, Jones, whatever. The Union won’t be developing the next Pulisic, he next Pulisic will go straight to Europe. The next Pfeffer will look to train with the first team and make a match day 18, like Trusty and Jones. If they were of starting quality, they would, you know, be starting. If no less an eye for talent like Curtin won’t fit them in over Creavalle, well, draw your own conclusions. So please pardon me if I don’t share the excitement of the U14 pipeline when the arms race leaves us behind today. Judging by BSFC attendance figures, most of us like the concept of development but don’t want to go watch it happen. I don’t drive to Reading to watch the Phils draft picks or wherever the hell the Lehigh Valley Phantoms play. I spend a fair bit on this team, would be great to see Jay Sugarman do the same.

      • I think your 10 pros (legit or otherwise)in 5 years metric is grossly optimistic. There are 26 homegrown players for 2016&2017 right now. For ALL of MLS. Total. For 21 teams. I just don’t think most American parents are thinking that’s the route for their kid, and at 16/17/18, they very much are still making those decisions. Yes, it’s necessary for the U to develop an academy and try, but many fish will miss their little net because kids in this country are not focused on going pro in high school. Should they be is a wholly different argument. If you build it they will come makes a nice baseball movie, but I’m not yet convinced that in 5 years all the good soccer kids are clamoring to get into an academy.

      • He has a point, DK. Homegrown talent of Europe-bound quality aren’t going to spend much time suiting up for their home club. If you look at Dallas you see clear HG success but are those kids Europe-bound? That being said/asked, your five-year viewpoint of development is one I’m looking forward to.

      • I think Europe-Bound is a poor term now because of how much better MLS has gotten. Before you could go to any league in Europe and it would be better, but that’s clearly not the case now. So every few years MLS gets better than some leagues over there and the Europe dream becomes less exciting. Why move over there away from your family for roughly the same quality of play (look at Steffen). Now clearly the top leagues are way better, but they all have their own academies (with American players mind you too). So basically the Academy is going to allow us to produce some starters, a lot of our bench, and the few that turn into real studs will get us a profit from their sale. Yes most players won’t make it, but that’s the case in any developmental sport.

      • Plus, lets see what we do this off-season before we complain too much about the first team. (though I agree we have a bunch of improvements necessary). We have spent a good deal of cash on team improvements every year, and hopefully that’s all pretty much done and some of that money will go towards players now.

    • John P O'Donnell says:

      Point one, develop the back line. Year one, signed homegrown Auston Trusty. Drafted Joshua Yaro & Keegan Rosenberry. Gone to say they are following that plan.

      Second point of spending on a striker…..totally agree on this. Name a team in the East that would take CJ over their current starter?

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    A nugget of concrete information. Some where in the information about Atlanta signing the 23 year-old Paraguayan was the phrase “the mandated $50,000 in General Allocation Money” paid to Seattle to get the right to sign him.
    We never see stuff like that usually.

  7. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Some details.
    Recall please that in a fashion I have not reviewed so am not certain about as I type, for every third designated player signed by an organization, there is a charge paid to the league that is pooled with all the other such charges and divided among the teams without three DPs, as General Allocation money I think.
    The Paraguayan is a Young DP, not a DP. Means half the salary and half the cap hit.
    The richer clubs will agitate, but they are not a majority. Minnesota is joining also, and is not behaving as the super rich do.
    The tide has risen every year. Le Toux was a League best XI in 2010. Much as I admire him, the idea is laughable in 2016.
    Last, in the options declined lists, do note that they are sprinkled well with DPs.
    YSC Academy needs time, as does Bethlehem Steel.
    Tommy Wilson is the name of the Director of the Academy. Give him time to work his magic.

  8. John P O'Donnell says:


    This is an interesting list of all the DP’s and where they rank in the league. There is also an argument that TAM money has been more effective than the designated player rule. After 25 a lot of players are signed for potential or just can’t stay on the field. I think it’s time to tinker with the DP rule and make at least one spot only age 28 and below. Also raise the TAM money after next yearas is fine it’s job.

  9. I am looking forward to watching Atlanta play but I will whole heartedly be rooting against them due to the annoyance of their hype

    • Agreed. I roll my eyes as every new expansion team thinks that they are gonna take MLS by storm and it just doesn’t happen as it’s really hard to do. I’m referring specifically to brand new clubs that are newly formed as opposed to USL/NASL organizations that made the leap.

      • Even the teams that make the leap are basically forming brand new rosters. It’s not an easy thing to do.

    • I think most of their hype is substance. That’s the thing here. Nobody is hyping Minnesota. It’s not like NYCFC, who were hyped simply because it was NY. Atlanta is making waves with things they are actually doing. This column didn’t even mention that they’ve sold a ton of season tickets, far more than anyone expected. I’m surprised by all of it.

  10. I got it someone mentioned Mix before and how their trying to offload him in NYCFC great lets do a straight swap we give them Edu they give us Mix. Ok Mix hasn’t been Mix, but Pontius wasn’t Pontius and had a career year last year. Lets just think for a minute Mix played with Bedoya before. Mix can play the 8 as far as I know he isn’t injured like Edu. He has size ability and can see a pass. And when he was on you can’t argue that he knows how to control a midfield. I think that is a worth while trade if it could work, but probably unlikely. I mean right now that gives you Pontius LW Alberg 10 Bedoya RW(This is where I want him) Mix 8 and Carroll 6. Now okay you probably need to upgrade the 6 and maybe a different 10 cause we all know Alberg is a second striker, but its likely an improvement.

  11. Also is it just me or does Atlanta already clearly have a better roster than the Union. The Union need to drop some cash yes I know we’re not going to pay 8 million for a player. Fine, but lets put out $5million for 4-5 players or something of that nature. I mean there are only more teams coming in bringing in better prospects. And were stuck with watching CJ Sapong who has never scored double digits in goals in his career in a season. Let me repeat this again Union as I don’t think you understood it when you gave him a contract extension CJ SAPONG….. HAS…… NEVER….. SCORED DOUBLE DIGITS IN GOALS IN A SEASON….. EVER.

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