A new Major League Soccer season is upon us. Twenty-six teams (including two expansion teams) will battle it out for the MLS Cup. Historically, the league’s global reputation hasn’t been excellent. It’s mostly seen as a tournament where some big-name athletes choose to “retire” while collecting a nice paycheck. But when Atlanta United entered the league in 2017, they threw out the playbook and ushered in a new era for MLS. Thanks to the Five Stripes, MLS is now a competitive arena where many young, talented players take the next step in their careers.
Reap What You Sow
With a front office composed of Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and Paul McDonough (now with Inter Miami), Atlanta United set out a different plan from previous expansion teams. Rather than persuading aging European megastars to come to MLS, Atlanta offered young South American talent a platform to hone their skills.
They signed “Tito” Villalba (Argentina, 22), Miguel Almirón (Paraguay, 23), and Josef Martínez (Venezuela, 24), and won the 2018 MLS Cup in just their second season.
Their success on the field also translated to the books when they sold Miguel Almirón to Newcastle United for $27 million. Again, at the time, a club-record fee, as well as a record for an MLS player.
In January 2019, Atlanta finalized the signing of 25-year-old Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez from River Plate, confirming their continued commitment to their business model. Pity is a player in his prime. He was named 2018 South American Player of the Year just before Atlanta announced the signing.
Leaders And Laggards
Los Angeles FC played its first MLS game in 2018, and by now, it is clear that they are following in Atlanta’s footsteps. Since its inception, the Black and Gold have signed two talented Uruguayan youngsters: Diego Rossi (20) and Brian Rodríguez (19). In addition, they acquired Mexican superstar Carlos Vela, who is 29 but still in top form, as their first designated player.
Meanwhile, a few miles away in Carson, the LA Galaxy are still splashing out on aging stars like Zlatan Ibrahimović and Chicharito, despite tangible evidence that this approach is outdated. Atlanta and LAFC had won four combined trophies in the past two years, whereas the Galaxy’s last award was plated in silver when Landon Donovan still steered the ship in 2014.
State Of The League
Other teams have since followed suit. Inter Miami acquired Matías Pellegrini (19), and Argentine youth international Julián Carranza (19). For example, in Minnesota, The Loons signed Thomás Chacón (Uruguay, 19) as a young designated player last season. And numerous other examples prove that the way MLS front offices operate is changing.
MLS is more exciting than ever. The current champions, the Seattle Sounders, have their sights set on the Supporters’ Shield, and other fan-favorite teams like LAFC and NYC FC are angling to make deep runs in the playoffs.
And that’s not all.
The LA Galaxy could be a force to be reckoned with if Cristian Pavón and Chicharito can forge a solid partnership. Meanwhile, Thierry Henry’s Montreal is seeking to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Newcomers Inter Miami and Nashville SC expect to be competitive from the get-go. And don’t sleep on Columbus and Minnesota!
Unfortunately for our trailblazers, Atlanta United, Josef Martínez tore his ACL on opening day and will likely miss the rest of the season. This setback will undoubtedly test the mettle of their team, management, and fans. Here’s hoping this bad luck won’t cause them to panic and abandon their model. On the contrary, it’s made their team, and the MLS, better.
Main Image: Eric.Jason.Cross