There is a unique charm to be found in the way Major League Soccer finds a balance between the traditions of the European game and the characteristics of the North American sporting scene.
Perhaps the starkest manifestation of this is in the expansion season and the introduction of a brand new team to the league set-up. No relegation, no promotion, this is the star-spangled way.
There have been seven new clubs admitted to MLS in the past decade, with Atlanta United and Minnesota United set to become the eighth and ninth inducted in that time, bringing North America’s top flight up to 22 teams. Both sides will offer something new, something different, but it is the introduction of the former that offers the most intrigue.
Are Atlanta United about to set a precedent for expansion sides?
Aggressive spending and recruitment ahead of their debut season means Atlanta United enter MLS with a fair degree of bluster and hype behind them. Even by the standard set by New York City FC and their big-time introduction two years ago, the Georgian club could set a precedent for expansion sides from this point forward. It might be a game-changer.
Certain expansion clubs have defined eras of MLS’ 24-year history. The introduction of Pacific northwest rivals the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps between 2009 and 2011, for instance, gave the league a real injection of authentic rivalry, with the 2015 introduction of New York City FC and Orlando City establishing two new major market teams, expanding the elite.
Atlanta United may well do the same for this era of soccer in North America. In the same way that the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps launched MLS 2.0, Atlanta might usher in the third phase in the league’s history.
Take into account how they have already broken the MLS spending record with the signing of Paraguayan winger Miguel Almiron, who joined from Lanus for $8.5 million complete with an $11.5 million wage packet over five years. Almiron attracted the attention of Premier League giants Arsenal and Chelsea as recently as last summer, so his move to Atlanta makes a real statement about the club’s competitive intent.
US international goalkeeper Brad Guzan has also been lured to the club, despite the fact he could have quite easily stayed in England where he has proven himself as an exceptional shot-stopper over a number of years. United might not stop there either. There’s no suggestion that they will, anyway.
Making waves on and off the pitch
Of course, it helps that they are bankrolled by billionaire and Home Depot co-founder Arthur Bank. His money has already seen Atlanta United appoint former Argentina and Barcelona manager Tata Martino as head coach, as well as the construction of a billion-dollar multi-function stadium and a $60 million training ground. It’s not just in the transfer market that the Georgians are making a profound impression, but off the field too.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) January 30, 2017
This isn’t to say that Atlanta United are becoming the Galacticos of MLS, though. Far from it. They look to have paired their big-money, big-name transfer market strategy with a shrewd recruitment drive of experienced MLS performers and promising young prospects.
Michael Parkhurst, Jacob Peterson, Zach Loyd, Mark Bloom and Jeff Larentowicz have all been added to the roster over the winter, meaning Atlanta will arguably boast the most MLS experience of any expansion side in the league’s history. Then there’s the contingent of Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin and Brandon Vasquez, all US youth internationals with bright futures ahead of them.
All this points to United enjoying a successful debut season, especially if they can find a natural playmaker to tie everything together. Expansion sides are often measured by the unrealistic measure of making the play-offs. The Seattle Sounders were the last debutantes to do that back in 2009, but while it is still early days, with a competitive ball yet to be kicked, Atlanta might stand the best chance of any side since Seattle of pulling off the same achievement.
It is the bigger picture and the grander scheme, though, that makes Atlanta United such a compelling case. If MLS is to one day establish itself as a truly top tier destination for the world’s best players, and the Georgians are already helping in achieving that objective. It is players like Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro and Almiron, not the likes of David Villa, Steven Gerrard and Kaka, that will change perceptions of the North American top flight. Adhering to that ethos, Atlantic seem intent on signing players in their prime rather than those in the twilight of their career, using MLS as a place to wind-down.
MLS has come of age in recent years, with the marquee clubs no longer concentrated in only one or two major market areas. Atlanta United will only further that. They are the epitome of how North America’s top flight has changed in a very short space of time. They are the vanguard of the new MLS.