Two teams, two markets, two very different approaches to inaugural roster-building -- both will show on the pitch at Yankee Stadium this Sunday, May 7 (4 pm ET, Univision and Facebook in US; MLS LIVE in Canada).
When New York City FC announced their first Designated Player, they chose "Spanish superstar and World Cup winner" David Villa as the club's foundational piece. Soon, "England National Team and Chelsea FC legend" Frank Lampard followed, and then "World Cup and UEFA Champions League winner" Andrea Pirlo.
On paper, of course, those look like dramatically different strategies.
To be fair, all three Atlanta DPs are accomplished in their own right. Villalba debuted for Argentina's San Lorenzo as an 18-year-old, racking up 16 goals and 100 appearances. Almiron had already earned a transfer from Paraguay's Cerro Porteno to Argentine power Lanus, also breaking into the starting XI for Paraguay during last fall's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. Martinez – initially loaned from Serie A side Torino – had been capped 37 times at signing, with nine international goals to his name.
Breaking into a new market, Atlanta executives were bolstered by owner Arthur Blank's commitment to their vision of signing younger players and have them develop into stars on the field, in front of their burgeoning supporters.
"People underestimate the fan base's knowledge in America," says Atlanta Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra. "We have so many people in this generation that are coming to the games. The fans follow all the different leagues from around the world on their phone, the TV, the Internet. So the fans are really knowledgeable; fans travel abroad, watch games, they like watching Champions League games, wake up early to watch the Bundesliga and also the EPL.
"We were confident in the knowledge of the fan base, that they would appreciate what we're doing, and they would see our strategy and they would do the research and find out about these players. We had a big season-ticket base, which we're very fortunate about – and it's grown even bigger – these fans are passionate. If they're playing in front of 45,000 people each weekend and they're performing and doing well, they become stars."
The early returns on Atlanta's gamble on relative up-and-comers – and, given the reported fees involved on acquiring that trio, this was certainly a gamble – have proven staggering. Martinez, before being injured, racked up five goals in the first three weeks. Villalba has filled in for him up top with three goals and assist since. Almiron has two goals, four assists and has filled up the highlight reel while causing scouting nightmares for opponents looking to contain Atlanta's commitment to running you ragged.
So how does that stack up to the strategy favored by their Sunday opponents, NYCFC?
Pirlo, though his playing time has diminished in Season Three, tied for eighth in the league with 11 assists last year. He's also captivated the MLS universe with his preternatural social media presence.
As for the departed "Super" Frank Lampard, his injury-plagued two-season run included a crucial mid-season explosion that rocketed NYC to its first playoff appearance. Also, he served up the first franchise hat trick.
Lampard's exit opened a slot, one that also signaled a shift in the Big Apple boardroom. Rather than go for a similar kind of marquee name, head coach Patrick Vieira and company instead opted for Maximiliano Moralez.
"That was a different time for the club," Reyna told MLSsoccer.com earlier this year, about their early DP strategy and their decision to sign Moralez. "I think every decision has to be taken where we are currently, and we felt that [signing Moralez] was the right thing to do and it was just strictly a soccer decision."
At the time, Reyna explained that the decision to sign the 30-year-old Moralez was one that considered how he fit with the other DPs, on-field and off. It was also important that he could link the midfield to the attack, that he could score, that he could speak multiple languages (Spanish and Italian), and that could lead, given the makeup of the current roster. (Someone too young could have thrown off the balance.)
It was something of a vote of confidence, in other words -- and Moralez has repaid the confidence in kind, with a goal and four assists through eight games. In short, he's provided exactly the type of link-up play Reyna and Patrick Vieira envisioned.
"It was decided and that it's not going to be the other type of player that's a worldwide name," Reyna said. "It was all soccer-led."
Two teams, two markets, two strategies converging – to success.