At­lanta make their mark in MLS

Champions bring some Latin sparkle to the ti­tle

World Soccer - - Contents - PAUL GARD­NER

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

Champions...At­lanta United

Ger­many call­ing... Alphonso Davies

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