Atlanta make their mark in MLS
Champions bring some Latin sparkle to the title
For MLS, 2018 was its most successful year yet, as well as being the most spectacular, with all the excitement centered on the city of Atlanta.
Although not usually thought of as a soccer mecca, the season proved just how dramatically the US soccer scene has changed over the past four decades.
In 1969 the North American Soccer League was on its last legs. After only two years of existence it was reduced to a mere five teams, including the Atlanta Chiefs. The NASL closed its swanky New York offices and fled to... Atlanta. The league struggled to stay alive but Atlanta had offered a lifeline and the NASL built itself up to 24 teams before a new crisis saw it fold in 1984.
But from what was one of soccer’s darkest hours, Atlanta has now emerged as the home of arguably the most successful professional soccer team ever seen in the United States.
The brand new Atlanta United played their first MLS game in 2017 and immediately drew huge crowds to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons gridiron team.
Coached by Argentina’s Gerardo Martino and built around young South American talent, Atlanta posted an astonishing average attendance of 48,200 in their debut season.
Nothing was won in 2017, but a year later Atlanta United beat Portland Timbers 2-0 to become MLS champions, with their average attendance jumping to just over 53,000 – with a league record 73,019 fans watching the MLS Cup Final.
But the enormous crowds were only part of the story for Atlanta who brought something different to MLS: the sparkle of Latin-American soccer. While Diego
Almiron of Paraguay ignited the team’s attacking play, the star of the show was undoubtedly Venezuelan forward Josef Martinez. Along with another Paraguayan, Hector Villalba, they made Atlanta the league’s most exciting team to watch.
Now a league with 23 teams, things look good for MLS and further expansion is planned, with a waiting list of cities eager to acquire a franchise allowing them to operate a team.
Inevitably, there were voices warning MLS not to overdo the celebrations and the most significant warning came from the MLS Commissioner Don Garber. In his 2018 “State of the League” address, he turned his attention to what has been a growing concern for years – that the ambition to become one of the world’s top leagues cannot possibly be achieved under MLS’ strict financial restrictions, such as salary caps.
MLS has been chipping away at those restrictions ever since the arrival of David Beckham in 2007 and the creation of the “Designated Player” category which allows for a top star’s inflated wage not to count against the salary cap.
At the same time, MLS clubs have been encouraged to spend millions on creating youth academies to nurture their own young stars.
But none of that has ensured MLS clubs turn a profit.
Garber put it bluntly, declaring that the league’s current policies of using mechanisms such as the Designated Player scheme to sign foreign stars, plus the spending on youth academies, are “unsustainable” if the club owners do not see a return on their investment.
The crux of the problem is that MLS cannot hold on to its young stars, be they imports or home-grown. Already, after only two years, Atlanta is losing its key player, with Almiron reportedly on his way to Europe. Martino is also leaving, to coach the Mexico’s national team.
This constant drain of talent cannot favour the development of club traditions and fan loyalty. But Garber suggests that the way out of this constant loss of players is simply to accept it as fact and learn to profit from it
“How do you retain your stars? Create consistency,” argues Garber. “We’re part of the global game, part of the beautiful game. We have been buying for so long and, as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment that we have to make in player development.
“We’ve got to have something that turns this model around or else it’s going to be unsustainable.”
Garber admits that “this is a big issue for our league” and cites the reality of “international clubs chasing our young players”.
He also says that MLS needs to be finding ways “to get compensated if we can’t protect or sign [these young players]”, and without such compensation he feels pushed to say that “I don’t know how we can justify making the kind of investments we’ve been making”.
In short, MLS “needs to become more of a selling league”.
The vision of a league that is incessantly selling off its best young players is hardly an attractive one. But to become a “selling league”, thus producing enough income to satisfy investors, the MLS academies will have to be producing a steady stream of young stars – which is something they have so far failed to do.
Yes, foreign clubs will invest in youngsters, but not by spending wildly. A recent payment of $20million by Bayern Munich to Vancouver Whitecaps for the 17-year-old Alphonso Davies has undoubtedly raised expectations. But the amount is exceptional and unlikely to be repeated. Such transfer fees are more usually around $5m – amounts that will almost certainly not make MLS a particularly profitable “selling league”.
Selling overseas stars such as Almiron will bring in higher sums, but they are offset by the bigger transfer fees paid by the MLS clubs to acquire those players.
In short, it seems that the only surefire way of hanging on to its star players is for MLS to enter the global soccer player market – which means paying salaries at a level far higher than current MLS rates.
Attraction...the MLS Cup Final drew a record crowd to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Number two...Atlanta’s Franco Escobar scores against Portland Timbers
Germany calling... Alphonso Davies