Stejskal: Atlanta's options for getting down to three Designated Players

Josef Martinez - Miguel Almiron - Atlanta United - celebrating - tight shot

Editor's note: This article originally ran on Jan. 15, 2019. It has been updated to reflect Pity Martinez's official signing with Atlanta on Jan. 24, 2019.

Atlanta United have finally signed Argentine playmaker Pity Martinez from River Plate, with reports putting the transfer fee in the range of $17 million. Now that he's arrived, he will join Miguel AlmironJosef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco as the club’s fourth Designated Player. That’s an embarrassment of riches – it’s also against MLS rules. Teams are only allowed to have three DPs on the books when the roster compliance date hits just before opening day, meaning Atlanta will have to move at least one of Almiron, Martinez, Martinez or Barco this winter.

There are a couple of ways they could get that done. Let’s dive in.

Option 1: Sell Almiron

Anyone following MLS for the last few months knows that selling Almiron is Option A for Atlanta. Perhaps the best player in MLS over the last two years, the Paraguayan has been public with his desire to go to Europe. He certainly has suitors, with English Premier League club Newcastle United and La Liga side Real Betis among the clubs reportedly interested in acquiring him from Atlanta.

The Five Stripes are willing to sell Almiron, but only for the right price. Eales has repeatedly indicated that he’s looking for a transfer fee north of $30 million for the soon-to-be 25-year-old. That’d be a record fee for an MLS player. Unfortunately for Eales and Atlanta, it doesn’t sound like there’s much of a market for it at the moment. Multiple sources have told in the last two weeks that European teams aren’t coming close to Atlanta’s desired $30 million fee. They said it’s more likely that a club would buy Almiron for a guaranteed fee around $20 million with performance incentives that could take the price higher, potentially into the $30 million range. Such a deal isn’t without precedent in MLS: The recent sale of Alphonso Davies from Vancouver to Bayern Munich was for a guaranteed fee of $13 million that could rise as high as $22 million if Davies hits certain benchmarks.

The sources said that type of structure would increase the odds of an Almiron sale before the European transfer window closes at the end of January. Whether Atlanta is willing to accept that kind of deal is another matter, however…

Option 2: Loan Barco now, sell Almiron in the summer

Atlanta have other ways to become roster compliant if they don’t get their $30 million guaranteed for Almiron and they aren’t willing to move him for anything less this winter.

The most likely alternative? Sending Ezequiel Barco out on loan.

Atlanta bought Barco last winter from Argentine club Independiente for a then-MLS record fee of $15 million. That big price brought big expectations, expectations that Barco fell well short of achieving. The 19-year-old had four goals and three assists in 31 regular season and playoff appearances for Atlanta in 2018. He started just 19 times. Only four of those starts came after he served a three-game suspension from July 21-Aug. 4 for what former head coach Tata Martino called “an act of indiscipline.”

Despite his struggles, the sources said that there’s still a market for Barco. The youngster has more than enough time and talent to get his career back on track. The sources said that Atlanta would prefer that revival takes place with them, but they noted the club would be open to loaning him out, perhaps back to Argentina, if they can’t find an acceptable deal for Almiron this winter.

That wouldn’t exactly be a bad option for the Five Stripes. They’d have Almiron, Martinez and Martinez for their run at the Concacaf Champions League this spring and Barco could resuscitate his value on a big stage back home in South America. If all went well, the club could sell Almiron in the summer – when the market is bigger and transfer fees are often larger – and replace him by recalling a more confident, in-form Barco. Those are some big ifs, however. The sources noted that the uncertainty around how Barco would perform on a loan and how he’d respond to a potential recall, not to mention how Almiron would react to not being moved this winter, make this a messier option than selling Almiron in the January window. It's further complicated by Barco's potential participation with Argentina in the U-20 World Cup this summer. That tournament is a massive platform for young players, and a huge part of the equation in any discussion about a loan of Barco. 

Option 348: Move either Martinez

Anything is possible in the wild world of global soccer, but the sources fully expect both Josef and Pity Martinez – no relation, in case you were wondering – to be in Atlanta in 2019.

It’d be a major shock for the team to move Pity just after acquiring him. As for Josef, he’s now locked in with the Five Stripes. The 2018 MLS MVP – who, unlike Almiron, has spent time in Europe – just put pen to paper on a new, five-year contract that sources told the week of MLS Cup would give Martinez a substantial raise from the $1.39 million he made in 2018(salary figure per the MLS Players Association).

What choice will they make?

Things remain up in the air, but the sources were clear that Atlanta’s first choice is selling Almiron this winter. If they can’t get the right price for him, the sources said that loaning out Barco and keeping Almiron until the summer is a viable option. Moving out either Martinez isn’t – at least not at this point.

Getting down to three DPs is the epitome of a champagne problem, but it’s still a problem for Eales, VP of soccer ops Carlos Bocanegra, new head coach Frank de Boer and Atlanta. How they solve it will set the tone for their 2019 season.