Atlanta United margin call – Dirty South Soccer

If you are a Atlanta United fan who is blissfully unaware of the state of the team in the offseason and has returned from hibernation to news of Josef Martinez Trade redemption (!), you might be wondering “what’s going on there? I mean, I know he’s not been the same since his injury, but come on.

While many will understand the feeling that it’s a bit pitiful the way Josef’s move happened, the truth is that 1) it was a step in the right direction for a club looking to build mid-range success /long term, and 2) moving Josef became necessary not only due to his own contract, but the acquisition of several other players who clogged the pipeline. Let’s break this last point down first so we can begin to understand the first.

(Note: I’ll keep this as simplified as possible, using ballpark estimates and a paraphrased version of the MLS listing rules so as not to get bogged down in details.)

If you’re here on Dirty South Soccer, you’re surely familiar with the Designated Player Rule – whereby teams can have up to three players who don’t count towards the salary budget (or salary cap). These are obviously extremely important slots and it is clear that Josef after his injury was not working at this level. This is why even Miami (who acquired him) was only willing to book him as a max-TAM player (paying him as much money as possible without going over the DP threshold). But even with Josef’s performance being what it is, Atlanta United might not have needed to make the unsavory decision to cut their most marketable star player outright, if not for other contracts piled on the listing.

Atlanta United’s front office, led by vice-chairman Carlos Bocanegra, can’t be blamed for not trying to add quality players to the roster. Perhaps they can be blamed for the opposite – going ahead and making every contract manipulation as heavy-handed as possible to keep the team an MLS contender. The result, after a brutal injury season that facilitated another terribly disappointing year, was a financially penniless team heading into the offseason 22-23. It was so bad that it looks like they couldn’t even sign Amar Sejdic – a low and middle earner in MLS – before withdrawing some top earners for the first time.

Atlanta United FC vs Los Angeles Galaxy

Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images

Alan Franco, Marcelino Moreno, Erik Lopez (who many Atlanta United fans probably couldn’t choose from a roster) and Ezequiel Barco highlight the list of highest-earning players who haven’t provided value on the land equivalent to their book value. And this for various reasons. Alan Franco and Marcelino Moreno are not evil players – both were sought after by Brazil’s top league teams, and we’ve seen them produce good, if inconsistent, performances for Atlanta United. But both were earning substantial salaries where, if you just look at the list, you easily recognize that they need a considerable TAM to pay them. But those wage figures fall far short of the true cost, which includes the transfer spend spent on those players written off their contract. Franco was around $3 million and Moreno was reportedly up to $6 million. So in Moreno’s case, if he signed a 5-year contract (as an example) when he joined in 2020, that would be $1.2 million a year on top of his salary of around $550. $000 (using the 2022 figure – it has been higher in previous seasons). You could do a similar equation for Franco.

In 2022, teams received $2.8 million in TAMs. So even just using these napkin calculations, we can see that Atlanta United were spending the vast majority of their TAM on two players. That’s not a mistake per se – if a player plays at a high level like, say, Gareth Bale did for LAFC last year, it can be worth such a cost. But these players haven’t delivered that value – not even close if we’re being honest.

Barco and Lopez are slightly different cases. Barco was a named player with no chance of being taken over (unlike Moreno, who was originally committed to a DP deal, but was only cheap enough to be removed from this designation). The Lopez case was its own clusterf***. Lopez was signed during the pandemic summer with the idea that he would be named as part of MLS’s new U-22 initiative. But the initiative was delayed, Lopez lost this entire season as a player, he unsurprisingly then struggled to play well in 2021 and is now in loan purgatory to keep him off the MLS salary budget from Atlanta.

Yeah. I said I wasn’t going to get bogged down in the smallest details…

But hopefully now you can see why getting rid of some of those big deals is going to help Atlanta United and return resources to them in the future. Some of these resources may not be available until this summer or even next year. It’s part of the pain, but it’s necessary.

To jump, you have to crouch down a bit. You must descend and store energy before you can ascend. You need to build up your power meter before you can use your special move. You must shoot the arrow back before it can fly forward. For too long, Atlanta United have tried to propel their arrows with force – pushing them from the bow. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these arrows were powerless in action.

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