Atlanta United technical staff during Expansion Draft - 12/15/2016

Atlanta United won’t play their first match for four more months, but the 2017 expansion club are already changing the paradigm in MLS.


Atlanta are building a new model for roster construction in the league, splashing serious cash on young Designated Players who have yet to enter their prime and building around them with a combination of experienced veterans, intriguing teenagers and, reportedly, US national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan.


Last week, Atlanta splurged for 22-year-old winger Miguel Almiron, reportedly sending around $8 million to Club Lanus in Argentina for the one-time Arsenal target. According to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, they’re now on the verge of adding another Paraguay international, attacking midfielder Oscar Romero, from Argentine side Racing.


Both players will be Designated Players, should the deal go through, and both command large transfer fees. In addition to the $8 million paid for Almiron, Atlanta will reportedly send a fee “in the $6-7 million range” to Racing for the 24-year-old Romero, who Carlisle reported will make in the neighborhood of $2 million annually. Both fees will be among the biggest in MLS history. 


A source told me on Wednesday that Real Salt Lake actually hold Romero’s MLS discovery rights. That won’t be a significant barrier to Atlanta landing him, however. The source said that RSL aren’t planning on making an offer for Romero, meaning that Atlanta – per league rules – will only need to send Salt Lake $50,000 in general allocation money in exchange for his MLS rights. Atlanta went through a similar process with Almiron, sending GAM to Seattle for his discovery rights.


Assuming the deal gets done, Romero will join Almiron and fellow Young Designated Player Hector Villalba, a 21-year-old Argentine, as the club’s three DPs (at least for now; I wouldn’t be shocked if Villalba is bought down with targeted allocation money to make room for a DP deal for Guzan). They’re all talented, all boast a solid pedigree and all have yet to hit their respective primes, though bringing them in without signing a more established field player as a DP is a bit of a high-risk, high-reward play.


It’s also a pretty new model for MLS. Traditionally, the best DPs have come to the league in their early 30s, slightly past their prime but still with a decent amount left in the tank. That’s started to change a bit in recent years, with Toronto leading the charge by signing Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore while all three were very much in the midst of their primes, LA following suit with Giovani dos Santos last summer and Seattle making perhaps the most valuable move of all by adding Nicolas Lodeiro in July.


Atlanta’s three South American DPs are the next step in that evolution. The club are betting on the three players not only to lead them to success in MLS, but they’re likely looking at them as investments, too. If they perform well, all three – especially Almiron, who, as mentioned, has already been the subject of plenty of European attention – will draw high-priced interest from foreign clubs. It’s no sure thing that they’ll pay off or provide good value for Atlanta, but the ceiling is very, very high.


The risk in spending so much money on three young players is somewhat mitigated by the rest of Atlanta’s roster, a veteran group long on both experience and leadership.


It’s easy to imagine the DPs lining up underneath longtime Trinidad & Tobago international striker Kenwyne Jones in a 4-2-3-1, with Villalba and Almiron on the wings and Romero in the middle. With Guzan reportedly close to signing, former Columbus Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurst in the fold as a starting center back, 29-year-old English Championship veteran Chris McCann on board in the central midfield and capable MLS vets Zach Loyd, Jeff Larentowicz and Mark Bloom picked up this week, that makes for a pretty solid core constructed by head coach Tata Martino, technical director Carlos Bocanegra, president Darren Eales and director of soccer operations Paul McDonough.


This group doesn’t come together without all four pieces of that technical staff complementing each other very well, by the way. Martino has the South American and Paraguayan connections needed to land Almiron and Romero (he was still managing Argentina when Villalba was signed), Bocanegra has the relationships and cachet to sell a USMNT player like Guzan on an expansion project, former Orlando executive and player agent McDonough has the knowhow to navigate MLS’s various quirks, while former EPL exec Eales has backroom experience making big-money deals.


It’s still very, very early, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the way Atlanta have started. With their emphasis on young South American stars, established vets and an already thriving academy, they’re building like FC Dallas but spending like NYCFC. Their model looks great on paper, and I can’t wait to see how it translates to the field starting in March.


Juninho wants MLS return


Just one year after being sold by the LA Galaxy to Mexican side Club Tijuana, Juninho is interested in returning to MLS.


A source close to the player told me on Wednesday that the defensive midfielder would like to return to the league and has Tijuana’s permission to seek a move. The source said that any potential return would likely be a one-year loan deal with an option to purchase at the end of the agreement.


Juninho’s interest in returning to the league was first reported by Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep on Monday.


The 27-year-old spent six productive seasons in LA before moving to Mexico last December, recording 187 regular season appearances and helping the club to MLS Cup titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.


He’s had a rougher go south of the border, appearing 14 times in the Clasura campaign in the first half of the year before only taking the field six times in the recently completed Apertura. His lone start in the Apertura came in the second leg of first-seeded Tijuana’s opening round playoff exit to Club Leon on Nov. 26, a match that saw the Brazilian earn a 16th-minute red card before Tijuana – who had a 3-0 halftime lead – gave up two late goals to drop the series 5-3 on aggregate.


When Juninho was sold to Tijuana, LA had three Designated Players on their roster and were preparing to use targeted allocation money to acquire defender Jelle Van Damme and midfielder Nigel de Jong and re-sign forward Gyasi Zardes to a new deal. Now, after de Jong’s midseason departure, the offseason exits of DPs Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard and the recent infusion of TAM, the Galaxy have plenty of money to play with, but they’d have to jump through some hoops if they want to re-acquire Juninho.


Because he was sold for a transfer fee greater than $500,000, Juninho would go through the allocation process if he returned to MLS. Atlanta will soon hold the first spot in the allocation order, though they’ll reportedly use that to sign goalkeeper Brad Guzan. That’d give fellow expansion club Minnesota the first crack at acquiring Juninho if he returned to the league, followed by Chicago, Houston and Columbus. LA will start at 17th in the league’s 2017 allocation order.


If the Galaxy want to bring Juninho back, they’d have to make a trade to move towards the top of the allocation list. Of course, that’s a big if. LA just acquired the rights to defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones from the Colorado Rapids on Tuesday. They’ll now attempt to negotiate a new deal with the out-of-contract Jones, who will likely command a significant salary. Spending serious money on two holding mids in Jones and Juninho, who the source said is making more than the DP budget charge of $457,500 in Mexico, might not be palatable for LA, who have several other needs this offseason.


Not that Juninho wouldn’t make sense in MLS. He’s proven himself as a high-quality, reliable central midfielder, and, as a returning player, is familiar with MLS’s travel schedule, opposing players and overall setup. I’m not sure he’d make sense for Chicago if they do end up landing rumored target Bastian Schweinsteiger, but he’d be an intriguing potential add for Minnesota, Houston and several other teams lower down the allocation order.