In 2017, the MLS added two new expansion clubs to bring the league up to 22 teams at the time. The two teams, Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC, arrived in the midst of push to expand the MLS to 26 teams by 2020. Minnesota took a seemingly slow and steady approach, in 2017 they had the 18th highest payroll at around $5.6 million. It’s an approach we see by expansion teams all the time. Other teams have a huge head start, so why try to jump to the front of the line when a new team can slowly build up a solid foundation before pushing for a championship. That’s good logic for someone entering the highly competitive NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL (just don’t tell that to Vegas). The chances of fighting for glory are already low, the chances that a new franchise is just going to pick it up right away is near absurd.
However, the MLS is different because the MLS sucks. It is not the be-all-end-all of its sport like the other leagues are. There is so much room for improvement across the board that anyone with the right moves can make leaps and bounds in the league. There is also an expansive talent pool that exists outside the MLS. No need to swindle trades or wait for the draft because the better talent is almost always abroad. Someone just needs to be willing to spend a little to tap into the wealth of talent in soccer. Enter Atlanta.
Unlike their expansion counterparts, Atlanta did not want to wait around to be successful. In their inaugural season, Atlanta trotted out a roster that already had the 8th highest payroll. They accomplished that by writing out three of the biggest checks in MLS transfer history, including the highest transfer ever in the league. Atlanta United FC paid over $14 million in transfer fees to bring in Hector Villalba, Miguel Almirón, and Josef Martínez. One thing to note is the MLS’s reputation as a retirement league, where old European stars come to play against lesser talent. It’s how players like David Villa, Kaká, Sebastian Schweinsteiger, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have all been able to continue their careers long after their prime. However, Atlanta avoided all of that and paid top dollar for players who were 22/23 when they were signed. On top of that Atlanta was able to bring in Gerardo “Tata” Martino as their head coach. Before coming to the MLS he coached Barcelona and the Argentinian National Team, a resume the league had never seen before.
So did it work?
Well, in 2017 Minnesota finished 9th in the Western Conference and missed the playoffs. They stuck to the build-it-up-from-the-ground mentality the following offseason, this time finishing 10th in the West. Atlanta began their franchise history with a 4th place finish in the East, before ultimately exiting in the first round via penalties. Josef Martínez poured in 19 goals, good for fourth in the league. Unsatisfied with their finish, they once again broke the bank to bring in a star. This time, they smashed the old transfer fee record (which they just set) by spending $15 million to bring in 18-year-old midfielder Ezequiel Barco. Apparently spending money is good for you because they improved to second in the East, falling two points behind the Red Bulls in the Conference and in the Supporters’ Shield race. This time Martínez led the MLS with 31 goals, breaking the all-time single season MLS record. They also breezed through the playoffs up to this point and are in the MLS Cup Finals.
They don’t just dominate the standings, as they have been murdering the attendance records as well. Give credit to Atlanta fans because boy do they show up, though it helps to have a product on the field that is actually pleasant to watch. In both years of their existence they led the league in average attendance, toppling the Sounders who were consistently on top. They also hold the top SEVEN single game attendance records. The former record had been in place since 1996. Now you can go around saying it’s because of the large capacity stadium that they share with the Falcons, but people still have to fill up the seats, and they fill them up in droves. In addition, they hold the top three single game attendance records for playoff games. They have only ever played in three playoff games. They haven’t even been to the finals, and people still buy tickets to watch them. I mean just look at this…
One would think that this was Camp Nou during El Clasico or something. Three games, three attendance records, each one beating the last.
It’s not like this showed up out of nowhere, someone has to actually be writing these checks. That man is Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and as of 2017 Atlanta United FC. As an NFL fan, it was fun watching the New England Patriots blindside this idiot as he stood on the sideline at Super Bowl LI watching his team fall apart. Robert Kraft would go on to claim his fifth title while Blank had to stand there with the confetti falling for the Patriots. As an MLS fan, though, Arthur Blank blows Kraft and every other MLS owner out of the water. Kraft hasn’t paid for a good player since Jermaine Jones in 2014. Jones brought them to the Finals, but when he asked to be paid, Kraft shipped him to Colorado. Blank, on the other hand, understands that if you want to make money, you need to spend money. It’s working. The product on the field is great, and the people want to see it. I have full respect for this man and his ability to own a soccer team, and I hope other owners begin to see the lucrative side of soccer.
Atlanta United FC, in their second season, are in the MLS Cup Finals on Saturday the 8th against the Portland Timber, the 2015 champs. I am hardcore rooting for Atlanta because I want teams to see that what Atlanta is doing is working. It might be nice to slowly build up one’s academy and sign young homegrown players in hopes of building a solid foundation. But in a country whose youth just isn’t that good and in a league that is just waiting for someone to jump to the top, the better option might just be doing what Atlanta is doing. It’s worked with other teams, too. New York City FC signed aging stars Andrea Pirlo and David Villa and they are always in the top of the standings. The newest team, LAFC, had the third highest payroll this season and achieved the fifth best record and eight highest average attendance. It does not take a whole lot to be competitive in this league, and the talent to do so certainly exists. Atlanta is an example that an exciting soccer team will bring in excited soccer fans. Soccer is a universally loved sport, but no one in the U.S. seems to be getting it. Atlanta, however, is doing soccer right.