What Atlanta United’s early success means for the Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

March 5. Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company. A party for the Philadelphia Union opener vs. Vancouver.

Backdrop: Expansion side Atlanta United has just cut apart NYRB in the first half of their debut. They looked more dynamic, incisive and skilled than the Union have ever looked. Well-timed runs, quick distribution from the back, gorgeous wing-play. While the Red Bulls’ experience eventually took over and righted what looked to be a capsizing ship, Atlanta outplayed them for much of the game.

Everyone noticed.

About 25 minutes into the first half of the Union’s tepid affair with the Whitecaps, I sent a text to a friend:

“They’re very disjointed.”

His response:

“Atlanta would be eating them alive.”

Ultimately, Philadelphia wrestled to a 0-0 draw. Pragmatic to get a point in a road opener, yes, but not very sexy.

To make the envy matters worse, a week later, Atlanta trashed Minnesota’s home opener, winning 6-1. Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez were rampant.

Scintillating start, billionaire owner, new stadium on the way. Check.

Meanwhile, in Chester, the Union look better than they did in week one, but still have to settle for a contentious 2-2 draw against a below-par Toronto and one very poor referee.

There are multiple reasons to find all this troubling, if your hope is to see the Union win an MLS Cup.

With the Union’s understandably modest approach of building a team through draft picks, homegrown talent, and frugal transfers (read: Moneyball), the only way to win a title is to have that one season where you catch lighting in a bottle. Best case scenario, you’re Everton. Worst case, you’re West Ham and thanking your lucky stars there’s no relegation.

In Atlanta United’s approach, you recruit top personnel staff, hire a coach with world-class experience, and have your billionaire owner spend an estimated $24 million in transfer fees. (Some perspective: Atlanta paid $13 million for Almiron. The Union’s record transfer is the $1 million reported fee for Alejandro Bedoya).

Should Atlanta be successful — and some theorized before the start of this campaign that they could contend for the MLS Cup in their first season — it sets a troubling precedent. Los Angeles FC joins the league in 2018. Miami has already been granted a club, which will bring the total to 24. Don Garber stated in December 2015 that the MLS plans to expand to 28 teams in the near future. This could dilute the pool of talent, and drop the league into a period of insipid parity, much like the NFL experienced after it expanded to 32 teams.

More likely, it could see spending increase to the point where the Union won’t be able to compete financially. Some of the ownership groups vying for those four remaining expansion franchises include NFL, NBA, and MLB owners. The MLS salary budget is rising consistently, and it’s slowly becoming a more attractive league for a better and better class of player. And that player will be expensive.

The Union have yet to demonstrate they can compete in that environment.


  1. …what?

    Another negative as hell article?

    What is with this? Am I the only one who remembers that ancient time known as 3 weeks ago when we identified this as a brutal start to the season, when we had very basic questions about Jones, and we all thought we would have 0 points at this stage?

    Can we please get an article that doesn’t make it sound like we lost our first two games by a combined score of 12-3?

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    a little bit of jealously is a good thing…envy though… this is where trouble settles in.
    Atlanta United can spend their way LAFC too. Please see my comments in today’s news round up. Its all good. Union are in good hands. Heading in the right direction. The entire franchise needed to turn the steaming Captain-less vessel in another direction related to NS firing.
    Tacking correctly now. Clipper over the shoulder. “Full speed ahead, Damn the Torpedoes.”
    Growing. Building. All going to be okay.
    Otherwise, thank you for the time spent writing the article, Rob. Keep em coming.

  3. First, thanks for writing. I appreciate everyone who puts effort into writing for this site and giving us grist for conversation.

    Second, and with all due respect, I disagree with the entire premise of this piece.

    1) Yes, Atlanta has some really skilled attacking players and they have real quality, but looking good and then losing against Red Bull and then blowing away what many agree might be the worst MLS team ever assembled does not make Atlanta the Barcelona of MLS. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hype train leave the station so full.

    2) As for Atlanta’s spending, it’s true that no method of team building has ever been shown to produce more consistent results than spending more money than other guys, but lets see how that works when a majority of cash has gone towards a trio of young attackers leaving a defense composed of players other MLS teams couldn’t bother to protect in the expansion draft.

    3) There is no limit to the soccer playing talent pool. Unlike the NFL, which plays a sport that no one outside the United states has time for, soccer is played by nearly every country in the world in hundreds of leagues. All MLS would have to do if it expected the domestic talent pool was getting thin is to expand international roster spots per team. With academy systems in place and thriving — and with our own Derrick Jones demonstrating our academy’s worth — there’s no reason to cap the domestic talent pool just yet. Things are getting better.

    I do agree that we’re going to see teams come in with big time investments behind them with big names on the squad. I’m expecting LAFC with Chicharito on the roster to make a dent next year. But lets let these teams put a few months of play under their belts before we give them the league in the case of Atlanta or banish them to doom and gloom in the case of the Union. This squad looks capable of competing. I want to see how they play the rest of the east in the next month — Orlando, DC and NYCFC. That will give us a good measuring stick.

    • The whole point of the structure of the league and salary cap is to prevent it from becoming like the leagues overseas where you just become the big club and buy yourself a guaranteed spot at the top every year. Because of this structure, any team will always have a shot.

  4. “This could dilute the pool of talent, and drop the league into a period of insipid parity, much like the NFL experienced after it expanded to 32 teams.”

    Sorry, I just don’t see this happening. The NFL’s talent is almost exclusively a US based college product. You can’t go to Argentina, Brazil, or Holland for your new rookie linebacker. As for MLS, maybe 10 years ago with few teams in the league and woefully low salary caps you could say that the market for talent was limited to US based college grads. Now with MLS’s rising salary caps, TAM, GAM, Designated Players, and new owners willing to spend on transfer fees, the world player market can fill any “talent” vacuum. (Example.. Atlanta United)

    Also, with the last expansion draft, how many players could an existing team actually lose? One, max. As there are more teams in the pool to choose from with each expansion, the chances of actually losing a player to a new team diminishes. Very little dilution.

    And finally, more teams have or are starting to produce homegrown players that are actually making the first team. More talent into the talent market.

  5. Atlanta lost at home and then beat a Division 2 squad handily. Let’s give it a few weeks before we get too green with envy.
    I’m tired of all these comparisons to European soccer. Even with the DP rule, it’s not possible for teams to just buy titles, the dollar amount isn’t enough.
    We are only a year and a half from Columbus vs. Portland for MLS Cup. TAM is spread equally amongst all teams. Make quality signings and get enough players who don’t count towards the salary budget (through the Generation Adidas and the Homegrown Player System) and you can (for now) make things happen in this league.

  6. Unfair to compare the two. MLS-then for us and MLS-now for them is like apples and oranges. From here on out I don’t think we’ll see the Cleveland Brown-type teams like the Union will continue to emulate until Sugarman sells. Atlanta jumped into the game feet first with fistfuls of cash. The Union’s ownership group thought, “oh, soccer, that’s some interesting diversification”. It’s unfortunate but ATL’s success isn’t surprising and I don’t even know why it’s a talking point to be blunt. Obviously they’re going to succeed, they’re committed to the team with billions, with a capital B.

    • pragmatist says:

      You’re leaving out a dynamic: Arthur Blank wanted a piece of MLS and he wanted a team. Because of the SOB and the fanbase, MLS was forced to go find an owner for the Union. No one was volunteering.
      Willing owner versus unwilling owner (led around by a charlatan).
      Like you said, VERY different circumstances.

      • Also Blank has years of pro sports ownership and Jay’s industry is still recovering from 2008 crash and asset value decline.

  7. It’s early in the season and the Union just like everyone else, is trying to get into that rhythm where everyone is on the same page. So Atlanta played well against NYRB and still lost. They beat a very challenged MUFC. So let’s not anoint Atlanta world beaters just yet. The Union battled a strong Vancouver to a stand still and they have the same record as championship finalist TFC who they matched shot for shot and chance for chance. They even had the better of the conference champs early on. Bedoya beat the TFC goalie only to have the shot hit the post and Altidore got beat off of a clean 1V1 with Blake. I don’t see how comparing Atlanta to the Union has anything to do with anything. IMO there is a lot about the Union to be excited about. Anything can happen. But unlike the past we have a solid foundation from top to bottom and it’s constantly evolving for the better. Sure we can be critical as things go wrong but unlike in the past, the positive outweighs the negative from what I can see. Would I love to see the Union bring in stars like LA,NYCFC,SEA..etc,sure who doesn’t. But I also feel that the Union are not a team to be taken lightly.

  8. I can’t help but feel the Union are trying to win the MLS 2.0 way, while the rest of the league is working on 3.0. Their situation is what it is with money ball and Sugarman. The academy and USL pipeline are wonderful things and E.S. has given this franchise a direction.
    But Where and when is the payoff?
    I don’t know how many times I’ve heard over the past few years about the Union having a chance to capture a greater audience because of the mediocrity of the big four. Those opportunities are almost gone. Even diehards have given up tickets( some post here). When the Union are good enough to compete for MLS cup, will more than 20k in this area notice? By then, the Phillies will be restocked and spending to win championships. The Flyers will have a wealth of their own youngins to bask in the limelight. The Sixers may already have their big three needed to compete for titles, with more reinforcements on the way in this year’s draft. The Eagles have their franchise QB and are in and unannounced rebuild without trying to fully rebuild. They will still keep their share of the market.
    Chances have been missed. Opportunities squandered. If this tree falls with a MLS cup will any but the surrounding trees hear it?

    • The answer is no, but that has nothing to do with moneyball or ES to MLS “2.0” versus “3.0”.

      People simply dont like soccer in this country, and on top of that PHilly is probably the hardest market for soccer to break into.

      So your first and second paragraphs are not connected. And honestly that second paragraph means nothing. No one cares if we break into the philly market. we are doing well for ourselves and thats all we need to concern ourselves with.

      • Plenty of people like soccer in this country. It’s the second most popular sport for people under age 25, according to ESPN’s surveys. Our response to the World Cup is off the charts these last two cycles. Twelve cities just submitted bids to host MLS clubs, with expansion fees at $150 million. 55,000 people just turned up for Atlanta United’s opener, and 35,000 showed up for Minnesota’s, even though the weather was ridiculous.

        And Philly is not the hardest market for soccer to crack. This publication is testament to that. So are the numerous adult and youth soccer leagues around the region. So were the Union’s consistent sellouts in its first years, before dissatisfaction with the product set in. Every market in America has been cracked by soccer.

      • +1.
        I’m tired of the “soccer isn’t a popular sport in America” and “Philly isn’t a soccer market” arguments.

      • I bet Sugarman cares how much he breaks into the market. I bet he cares if merchandise sold is up or down. Pretty sure he cares about the bottom line. So as for no one caring, well you’re wrong again.
        So why should you care? Pretty simple mathematics really. More caring, means more spending on tickets or merchandise and more exposure which equals more spending yada yada yada. Can you wrap your brain around that part? If Sugarman has more money to spend in the coffers, he may actually spend it (to get more exposure equaling more money).
        So where does the 2.0 vs. 3.0 come in? Ah well, as teams around the Union are spending to play a better (more attractive) brand of soccer, and further the overall quality of the sport in our country, the Union aren’t. The quality is more about hard work grinding it out, lump the ball up top, way of winning. Atlanta spent on international quality in their squad and for the coach. The Union gave the nice guy from the area a chance to make good. While filling out his roster with bargain basement deals from lower European leagues.
        If you have any trouble with these I can draw you pictures, but I’m not an artist and I’d say you have a 50/50 chance of understanding those too.

      • I don’t see the way Philly has built it’s roster as filled out with “bargain basement deals from lower European leagues.” This team has spread its money pretty evenly across all positions. It has guys on the bench collecting $200,000+ And it’s got nowhere near the lowest payroll in the league. I also think the team has emphasized improving the way it plays, not lumping balls forward for a target guy. In the two games it’s played so far, the play has been positive, has done a good job of keeping possession and has most definitely been an improvement over any prior year’s squad.

      • Philly has a strong,solid and growing fan base as does the USA to the point where it neither needs or wants people who simpley don’t like it. Philly has already broken into the market in spite their beginning and the naysayers. Soccer in Philly and the USA is here to stay. Per the powers that be in MLS Philly is a market that they need in MLS. Again the Union are a viable team and organization under Earnie Stewart. If some people don’t like it that’s on them. Haters gonna hate. We’ll get along. If they have another team or sport to support so be it. We don’t need them.

    • The Philadelphia metro are population is over 6 million. I’m pretty sure that’s enough to support 5 major sports. If the Union win they will see more people tuning in, even if the other teams are doing well.

      • To borrow from today’s Fontana feature the Union may soon have local & homegrown players that we saw in camp, with BSC – a claim that none of the other area pro teams can make. Philly do love Philly, and then one day years from now maybe . . . Pulisic!

      • That would be a-MAZ-ing.

  9. By the way, Rob isn’t the only one who asked this question.

    (Of course, pick out the most amusing part of the article …)

  10. I waited to comment on this article to think about the topic.
    After thinking about it a bit, I think the biggest thing to me is that just about everyone has called Atlanta a “success” so far. Two games into a season. Two games into a franchise. Two games – one a loss, the other a win against what almost everyone is calling the worst team in the league.
    I get the talent on the roster and resume of the manager. But, in my opinion, it is too soon to call what they have done such a success that other teams should follow their lead.

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