Atlanta United sets youthful new blueprint for MLS expansion

Hector Villalba was the first of three 23-year-old Designated Players signed by MLS expansion club Atlanta United.
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ATLANTA — The Atlanta United brain trust wasn’t looking to simply make a splash. The approach has been to foster sustainability, a point driven home by how the Major League Soccer expansion club filled its Designated Player spots.

There’s no David Beckham, no Thierry Henry, Kaka, Frank Lampard or Andrea Pirlo. Instead, Atlanta has bucked the typical league approach to roster construction with a trio of 23-year-old young DPs in Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba.

“Right from the very start, when I spoke with (owner) Arthur (Blank) and was considering coming over to Atlanta United to take the role as president, we had a chat and the vision for the club was ‘Let’s try and be different from how teams had done it in the past,'” said club president Darren Eales.

The acquisitions — who will be on display when the club plays its first game March 5 vs. New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium — were made with the purpose of building around talent that was fast, could play multiple positions, and was … yes, young. All allowing Atlanta United to develop players that fans could connect with.

“If we’re able to win and put a good product on the field, our players will be able to turn into stars,” said club technical director Carlos Bocanegra, who himself is an MLS alum. “We don’t need to buy stars — so to speak — it can happen organically.”

It didn’t hurt that in terms of the roster construction, Atlanta United already had a household name in soccer circles in place with coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino. With a resume that includes leading the Argentina and Paraguay National Teams and world power FC Barcelona, he gave the club a cachet few, if any, MLS franchises can match.

“In a way you can almost say he’s a Designated Player Coach because he is a coach that’s different from other coaches that have come into the league before,” Eales said. “… We always had a vision and knew what we were going to do and that was a hiring that, perhaps in the wider MLS league, made people sit up and take notice that we’re trying to do things differently.”

That process began in July with Villalba, an explosive winger Argentina native who has made over 100 first-team appearances with San Lorenzo and scored 16 goals.

Atlanta United released a video that gave an enlightening look into the process of narrowing in on the first DP in franchise history. Bocanegra and Eales were given a presentation that was heavy on analytics, gauging Villalba’s percentage above or below the MLS average and showed he excelled in Crosses, Shot Accuracy and Minutes per Goal Involvement.

It’s a crucial step in the process, especially as Eales has transitioned from the heavy spending of the Premier League — where he was the director of football administration at Tottenham Hotspur — to the MLS’ salary cap world.

“The whole process always a bit of a knock-on effect,” Eales said. “… Every decision you make effects every other decision you make because we’re in a salary-cap league as well. So unlike my time at Tottenham, you sign a right back and if it didn’t work out, you sign another one.

“You can’t do that in Major League Soccer because the amount you spend on your right back effects what you’ve got to spend on your center, so every decision you make is crucially important because it has a knock-on effect everywhere else.”

With the first DP in franchise history joining six other players on the roster — Andrew Carleton, Junior Burgos, Kenwyne Jones, Chris McCann, Jeffrey Otoo and Alexandros Tabakis — Atlanta United would make what was seen as an ambitious signing in December with their second DP.

Almiron, a Paraguayan international with 10 goals over 86 games between Argentina’s Lanus and Paraguay’s Cerro Porteno and Copa America Centenario and World Cup qualifying experience, and was being courted by Arsenal. It took a reported $8.5 million to wrestle the playmaker away from Lanus.

“He’s already moved from one country to another and succeeded very quickly, so he ticks that box that Miquel’s been climatized,” Eales said. “Unbelievable character and phenomenal talent with a lot of interest from European clubs. So that we were able to take him when there was that interest says a lot for where Major League Soccer has gone in the global game.”

Venezuelan striker Martinez was the final piece, as Atlanta United signed him earlier this month on loan from Serie A’s Torino. He’d been with Toro the last three seasons, scoring 13 goals over 76 games.

“We end up there with three of the quickest players in the league coming into their prime and we’re really excited about that,” Eales said.

The latest iteration of the Designated Player rule — or the Beckham Rule — includes a provision that allows clubs to sign young DPs that not only include a lower salary cap hit, but teams can add a third without paying a luxury tax.

Taking advantage of that third spot helps Atlanta United in its stated desire to play a fast, attacking brand of soccer, and the process of fostering young talent could ultimately see itself pay off in a number of ways.

Potentially, the trio could feed into the kind of situations Eales has already been a part of, as he helped negotiate Gareth Bale’s $100-million move from Spurs to Real Madrid in 2013. Or, they could be part of a long-term foundation that brings MLS titles to Atlanta.

Either is an end game franchise leadership is behind as they set what could be a blueprint for MLS expansion clubs going forward.

“Hopefully they stay here two, three years and we win a few championships,” Bocanegra said. “That would be fantastic and they get bought by a massive club. That’s the thought process. You don’t know if it’s always going to happen. If they stay here eight, nine years and win all kinds of championships? Really happy with that as well.”

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.