MLS: Atlanta United (partially) to blame for transfer window craziness

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - JANUARY 30: New signing Miguel Almiron poses for photos at St.James' Park on January 30, 2019 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United)
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - JANUARY 30: New signing Miguel Almiron poses for photos at St.James' Park on January 30, 2019 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United) /

MLS players are being sold to the English Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, and Liga MX. Atlanta United shoulders some responsibility for this.

Remember when Don Garber said Major League Soccer should become more of a selling league? Yeah, that turned more than a few heads.

Now, the league is selling players at full force. First, Alphonso Davies was sold from Vancouver to European giants Bayern Munich for a then-record $22 million (after incentives). Then, Tyler Adams made news with his transfer from New York Red Bulls to sister club RB Leipzig, also in the Bundesliga.

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In the late stages of the January transfer window, MLS then jumped into a higher gear. Atlanta United sold Miguel Almiron to Newcastle United of the English Premier League for $27 million, shattering both the MLS record for an outgoing transfer and Newcastle’s record for an incoming transfer. Less than 24 hours later, news broke that Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco, one of the best players to ever play in MLS, was sold to Saudi club Al-Hilal. Minutes later, a report came out that D.C. United’s Luciano Acosta left D.C.’s training camp to fly to Europe for a medical ahead of a move to either Ligue 1’s Paris Saint Germain or the Premier League’s Manchester City.

Those huge transfers don’t even include a significant amount of other sales, such as Colombus Crew’s Zack Steffen to Manchester City, FC Dallas’s Chris Richards to Bayern Munich, or Alejandro Silva to Club Olimpia. For an added bonus, there was heavy interest from FC Barcelona for LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The league’s newly found selling identity is a product of many things, but Atlanta United is largely responsible for this change.

Paving the way with Almiron, Martino

Atlanta United broke league records from the beginning. It started with signing Miguel Almiron from Lanus in Argentina for a reported $9 million fee, which was an MLS record at the time. Atlanta’s signing of Almiron sent shockwaves through the league. An MLS team spending $9M on a player? From South America? The Five Stripes’ first few signings broke the mold that MLS was a retirement league for ageing European stars.

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To follow up their inaugural season, the club broke its own record for an incoming transfer fee, dishing out $14.53 million for Ezequiel Barco, a 19-year-old attacking midfielder from Argentina. Yet again, Atlanta drove the narrative that MLS should buy young talent with an intention to sell.

During the past offseason, Atlanta once again broke its own record, spending $15.62 million on Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez from River Plate in Argentina. Although Martinez is 25 and in his prime, both the club and player have said that if a European team comes knocking with a solid price, Martinez will get a shot overseas.

Without Atlanta’s ambition from the start, we might not have seen the craziness of this transfer window. This isn’t the first time MLS players have been sold for solid money, but it is the first time it happened so suddenly and at a high volume. Atlanta’s front office made its intentions clear when it entered the league, and as they drive the notion that young talent can be bought and sold, so too do other MLS teams begin to sell their young talent.

Increasing global presence

MLS is becoming more visible around the world. MLS players to Germany and France and England wouldn’t be possible without some level of visibility. The pathway to MLS becoming global is beginning to make itself clear, and Atlanta is at the forefront of that.

Again, it started with the expensive signings of young talent. Almiron, Barco, and Martinez were being looked at by European clubs when Atlanta bought those players. However, Atlanta had another weapon in its arsenal to enlarge its position on the global market. Signing Gerardo “Tata” Martino was one of the best moves the club made. Before Martino, there was a stigma that foreign coaches struggled in MLS. Atlanta helped to change that.

Now, of the 24 MLS clubs, half of the coaches are from outside the US and Canada. This is compared to 2016, the year before Martino’s arrival, when the league only had five foreign coaches for 22 teams. With a 28% increase in foreign coaching comes a growth in presence in the global market.

Add in the attendance records and grown soccer culture in Atlanta, the glitz and glamor of LAFC, and the dominance of both of these newer clubs, and you see an increase in MLS’s position in the world.

Selling Almiron, Dallas a cautionary tale

The most interesting aspect of Almiron’s signing was the cub’s intention with the player: sign the player, give the player an opportunity to showcase his skills, then sell the player for profit after a limited amount of time in MLS.

When Almiron signed with Atlanta, it was with two intentions: learn and play under South American legend Tata Martino and use MLS as a stepping stone to get to Europe. With Almiron’s sale of $27M to Newcastle, that business model is so far realized. Barco’s signing at age 19 signifies a continuation of that model, with the idea that the young Argentine will be turned for profit after a couple of years in MLS.

There is another large factor in the league selling its players so suddenly. A few years ago, Weston McKennie signed with Schalke of the Bundesliga. McKennie spent seven years in the FC Dallas youth system, only to reject a Homegrown player deal in favor of signing with Schalke. Dallas are now missing out on millions of dollars.

Fast forward to the present, and you see Dallas selling youth product Chris Richards to Bayern Munich. Although the reported fee of roughly $1.5 million doesn’t turn heads, it is likely Dallas will get a percentage of any future sale of Richards. This is in stark contrast to their situation with McKennie, where they received nothing for him and will continue to do so.

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Atlanta United didn’t completely set this recent window in motion, but because of their clear philosophy in the world market and their ambition in spending money, they are setting a path for other MLS teams to follow, as evidenced in the willingness to sell players. This a new MLS now and Atlanta is at the very forefront.