ATLANTA UNITED: THE MODEL FOR THE REST OF MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER

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Billionaire owner of the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons, Arthur Blank, wanted to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to the city since early in the expansion phase of the league. Blank’s plans were initially knocked back as he was unable to secure external funding to create a soccer specific stadium in time for the team to enter the league.

Blank was determined to build a new stadium for the Falcons so that he would be able to have the ability to host Super Bowls in the future. As NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell said Atlanta would not be able to host a Super Bowl until they had a more modern stadium, and MLS commissioner Don Garber was unwilling to provide Atlanta with an expansion franchise without the promise of a purpose-built football stadium. Blank negotiated a deal to have a new 71,000-seater stadium (expandable to 83,000) built that would accommodate both franchises, with the stadium able to close off the top tiers for MLS matches to amplify the noise levels.

With the new stadium in place, Atlanta was awarded one of the two expansion spots to enter the league prior to the 2017 season and becoming one of the three South-eastern locations to be awarded a franchise, following Orlando City and before the David Beckham-led Miami franchise.

Atlanta’s inaugural season in the league was a roaring success. A 55,000 strong crowd witnessed a narrow 2-1 opening match defeat to the New York Red Bulls, with Yamil Asad scoring their first ever goal, which was followed by a resounding 6-1 victory at fellow expansion side Minnesota United. The following weekend, United defeated Chicago Fire 4-0 in front of a crowd of over 45,000 to record a first victory in front of their home fans.

The regular season ended with Atlanta in fourth place in the Eastern conference, ultimately losing on penalties to Columbus Crew in the first round of the playoffs. At the time of writing, United are sitting atop the conference, hoping to progress further through the playoff system this season.

Atlanta’s success on the field is to be commended, success which comes from clever planning at the executive level of the franchise. The model with which Atlanta began its journey in Major League Soccer is one which has enabled them to hit the ground running. With the American men’s national team struggling in recent years, failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Atlanta’s strategy of targeting younger stars is one which can aid both MLS and the United States national team.

Back in 2007, to raise the profile of the league, the Designated Player rule was introduced. The rule, commonly referred to as the “Beckham rule”, meant that franchises could attract higher quality players with only $400,000 of their salary counting against the salary cap (the remaining amount would be the responsibility of the owner). The rule was pushed for by the Los Angeles Galaxy so that they were able to bring the talents of England international David Beckham to the Californian coast.

Since Beckham arrived on American shores, he has been followed by some of the finest talents from the latest generation of players. The likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger (Chicago Fire), Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy), Wayne Rooney (DC United), Kaká (Orlando City), Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact), David Villa, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC), and Thierry Henry and Ráfael Marquez (New York Red Bulls) have all crossed the Atlantic to play in the United States. Zlatan Ibrahimović recently joined LA Galaxy using the new initiative of Target Allocated Money, another initiative enabling the salary to not count against the salary cap.

Franchises have even used one of their designated player slots, with the number having risen to three in 2012, to sign returning leading American players who had left to try their hand in the European leagues. Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids) and Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy) have all taken up designated player spots once they returned to America.

Prior to the arrival of Atlanta and Minnesota to MLS, the two most recent expansion franchises, New York City FC and Orlando City both entered the league with big name stars on their roster. Villa, Pirlo and Lampard were to lead the newest New York side, and Kaká was the poster boy for the southeast’s first football side since the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny left the league in 2001. Even Los Angeles FC, added to the league in 2018, started with André Horta and Carlos Vela on their roster.

However, Atlanta, and even Minnesota to a less successful extent, began with a different game plan. The most well-known name across both teams was arguably Atlanta’s goalkeeper Brad Guzan. There appeared to be a strategic method involved in the planning for both sides; find younger players that the club could develop and use to achieve success.

The three designated players on Atlanta’s roster? Miguel Almirón, Héctor Villalba and Josef Martínez, all of whom were aged 25 or under at the start of the 2017 season. The three ended up as Atlanta’s top scorers throughout the season, with nine, 13, and 19 goals respectively. Certainly, a large portion of the success that Atlanta had during their inaugural season can be ascribed to the impact that these players had on the squad.

At the time of writing, Atlanta are going even better this season, currently leading the Eastern conference by four points, and this has come largely on the back of Martínez and his league-leading 26 goals. Almirón has contributed with 11 assists, providing the spark from midfield.

What Atlanta’s success shows, and the message which should be heeded by the ownership groups of the future expansion teams Cincinnati, Miami and Nashville, is that it is possible for teams in the United States to build a successful side on the pitch and enjoy a large following in the stands (Atlanta averaging 48,200 fans during their first season and 51,291 in 2018, with the five largest attended MLS matches being held at the Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium), even with the absence of a world-renowned name in the twilight of their career.

This decision to focus on talented youngsters can also be taken by the national team of the United States in order to improve their own fortunes. Whilst the Atlanta players outlined are not American internationals (Martínez – Venezuelan, Almirón – Paraguayan, Villalba – Argentinian), their success paves the way for young American internationals to be afforded an opportunity in the league.

With the make-up of MLS rosters, each franchise has a limited number of spots available for international players. These spots are tradable between the clubs, but the rule was added to try and promote the development of American international players. The success of this approach is highly debatable.

Numbers provided by the Elias Sports Bureau state that the playing minutes for U.S.-born players has dropped from 52.7 percent in 2013 to 42.2 percent during the 2017 season. If it were to only include U.S. eligible players, the same number would have dropped from 52 percent in 2012 to 37.7 percent in 2017 according to ESPN. These are numbers that pale in comparison to the Bundesliga (50.5 percent) and are smaller than even the Premier League, a league often criticised for its reluctance to offer chances to young English players (38.8 percent).

According to Alex Olshansky, only 2% of the minutes played in MLS in 2017 were played by Under-22 level U.S. internationals. This, again, is a percentage significantly smaller than that of the major European leagues (Serie A – 4.2%, Premier League – 4.5%, La Liga – 5.1, Bundesliga – 7.6% and Ligue 1 – 9.5%).

The limited minutes cannot be attributed to a lack of talent. Tyler Adams is a versatile midfielder who has nearly as many youth international appearances as games for New York Red Bulls (35 to 43), Weston McKennie lasted less than a year in Schalke’s youth setup before being promoted to their senior side, featuring 22 matches during the previous German season, and Christian Pulisic needs little introduction, having broken through at Borussia Dortmund as a 16-year-old and recently been linked to a £60 million deal with the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United.

There is clear talent being produced by the United States. In Pulisic, they have a player with the potential to be a leading star in world football. The problems arise with nurturing the talent who can fill out the remaining places in the squad.

Erik Palmer-Brown opted to take a chance at Manchester City, where he has subsequently been loaned out to two separate teams in the Netherlands, allowing his contract to expire and leave on a free rather than staying at Sporting Kansas. Emmerson Hyndman decided against going through the FC Dallas youth academy, instead gambling on making it through the ranks at Fulham and then Bournemouth, with loans to Scotland. Timothy Weah, son of George, also left the youth academy system, this time that of the Red Bulls, and joined the ranks of Paris Saint-Germain, where his opportunities may be coming soon.

The potential is there. Developed correctly and the United States could have a men’s side that may begin to challenge for successes, having been dwarfed in terms of achievements by their female counterparts. Too many of these youngsters are deciding to take their talents to foreign shores in a gamble at making it, rather than staying in America, even for just a few seasons, learning their craft and then breaking onto the European scene.

The constant influx of high-profile stars arriving in MLS has undoubtedly help to raise the profile of the league and bring in interest from across the globe. It has also hindered the growth of many potential American internationals and facilitated the rise of youth players heading to Europe to continue their development and getting lost in the vast systems that these clubs have.

If the success that Atlanta United have achieved so far can offer any lessons for future expansion sides, the league itself and even the wider system of U.S. football, it is that there needs to be a willingness to trust younger players. If more Americans are given a chance in their highest domestic league, the quality of those coming through will increase, and everyone from the individual players to the United States Soccer Federation will benefit.

BY MICHAEL GALLWEY