MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Atlanta United trades Julian Gressel to DC United: MLS technical staffers break it down

Julian Gressell -- Celebrates -- Larentowicz Goal

On the same day that the LA Galaxy broke the internet to sign Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, there was another massive transaction in MLS as D.C. United acquired Julian Gressel from Atlanta United for $750,000 — which could rise to $1.1 million — in Targeted Allocation Money.

Not even Hernandez's acquisition could totally overshadow the move.

The deal sees an original member of the Five Stripes, who played an integral role in their trophy-laden first three seasons in MLS, depart. He was one of the very best chance creators in the league, boosted further by the fact that he was doing it largely as a wingback and on his rookie contract. Now, he swaps Atlanta for D.C., where he is reportedly closing in on a new contract and looks to play a huge role for his new club.

But plenty of questions remain. Was the value right? What can Atlanta do with that allocation money? Could this potentially reset the market moving forward? spoke with a number of MLS technical staffers under anonymity, so they could speak freely. These are their biggest takeaways from D.C. United's blockbuster deal to acquire Julian Gressel from Atlanta:

Fair value?

In parting with a potential total of $1.1 million, Gressel's deal is one of the biggest in TAM history. Darlington Nagbe's trade from the Portland Timbers to Atlanta in 2018 for $1.05 million plus another $600,000 in incentives is the highest potential deal, while David Accam's $1.2 million trade from Chicago Fire FC to the Philadelphia Union is the most guaranteed.

Should Gressel slot in regularly at right back and all incentives be met, the deal could make him the most expensive defender in league history, above the $1 million Minnesota United paid to acquire Ike Opara from Sporting Kansas City

Here's what the technical staffers make of that valuation:

“I really like Gressel. I don’t think it’s a crazy valuation. ... If there was a mechanism in the league where you could straight up buy a player, then frankly, he’s undervalued at $1 million. That just doesn’t exist.”
“I thought it was ambitious for Atlanta to ask for $1 million-plus, but they got it. Any team would want Gressel and you’ve got to give them credit for spending it. It showed how much each club valued him."
“We kicked the tires on acquiring him as well. [Atlanta] made it very clear they were looking for seven figures. He’s a proven commodity in our league, but when you’re talking about money like that, you have to heavily scrutinize the return you’re getting. Fairly or unfairly, you have to start looking at: What position does he play? He can play right back, right wing, wingback, No. 8 or even No. 6. If he’s playing right back, that’s a lot of money to pay for a right back. He’s a great player, but he was also playing in a Rolls Royce team. He has incredible numbers with assists and he’s done it with [Miguel] Almiron and [Josef] Martinez. He could continue to play at a high rate, but the numbers he’s putting up could be influenced by the players he’s playing with.”

What can Atlanta do with that TAM? 

In short, a lot. 

For context: This offseason, Atlanta have executed two separate trades that each netted them potentially more than a million in allocation. Prior to Gressel, the club traded Nagbe to Columbus Crew SC for $1.05 million. They can turn that money into signings, use it to buy down contracts on the salary cap and more.

"It’s a good example of the challenges of moving high-level players inside MLS. It’s not unreasonable for Atlanta to ask for a million in allocation; The production is there. But you’re effectively saying he’s two $1-million-dollar players on your salary cap, because you have to give up the million now and then sign him to a new contract.”
“I can imagine they’ll need to use it for salaries, you know how it is with successful teams.”
“Having that amount of allocation is massive, it gives you so much room to do so many different things. Acquire players, buy current players down.”

Can the trade reset the market?

Every deal colors negotiations in future dealings. Contracts are one-upped often, as are transfer records. Could Gressel's deal change things moving forward? Could these deals happen with more frequency in the coming years?

“I don’t see it really re-setting the market. Truthfully, we’ve seen enough million-dollar allocation trades at this point. You can make a fair argument that Gressel, at the very least, fits into that category. Darlington Nagbe, Ike Opara and others.”
“He’s a good player without any question. It’s the same with transfer sums: Once you’re spending a lot of money, you’re setting a benchmark. Everyone is watching that carefully, everybody thinks for themselves. ‘Okay, my player isn’t that much worse than Gressel, maybe I can get $1.1 million in allocation money.’ In a way, it’s dangerous. Allocation money is limited and because it’s so flexible, it's really valuable.”
“You might begin to see more intra-league transfers for MLS stars.”