As I wrote last week, Atlanta United FC are making history at the box office.
With just about seven months to go before they make their MLS debut, Atlanta have already set a league record with more than 22,000 season tickets sold for their inaugural 2017 season. That’s wildly impressive, and should firmly put to rest any fears about Atlanta – which has a reputation for being hot and cold when it comes to professional sports – not showing up for year one of MLS.
While the club is making unquestionable progress off the field, just who will be leading the team from the sidelines at Mercedes-Benz Stadium remains an open question. Club president Darren Eales told me last week that the team has been in touch with a number of potential coaching candidates since he arrived in December 2014, but that they have yet to conduct any formal interviews.
The clock is ticking. Atlanta only have seven players under contract for next year, and only two of those seven – Young Designated Player Hector Villalba and striker Kenwyne Jones – could be considered high-profile.
They’ll need to continue to build through the international market (look for the team to engineer some pre-contracts before the transfer window reopens in January) and prep for the still-unconfirmed Expansion Draft, which will presumably be held in December, and SuperDraft in January.
Atlanta plan on having a coach in place to help technical director Carlos Bocanegra and director of soccer operations Paul McDonough identify those players, with Eales telling me the club are hoping to make a hire sometime around the end of summer or start of the fall.
Eales also said he won't limit the search to a specific coaching profile or nationality.
“I think a case could be made for both taking an American coach who’s got that experience in the league because clearly it is different, but also if you’ve got a coach who’s an experienced coach, who’s come from a different part of the world and you put around him a team that understands MLS, I think at the end of the day that can work as well,” Eales said.
“I think they’re factors that you put into the mix along with everything else. For us the core values that we have, in terms of what we expect from our coaches, we want an attacking philosophy in terms of our style of play. And there’s a roll up your sleeves mentality I think at a start-up club that is totally different from anything that most jobs would have when you come in right from the start. Whether you have experience in MLS or not, that is something different, so you need to have an energy and a drive to do that. So there’s a myriad of factors in there. I don’t think there’s any one thing that trumps the other.”
Signing a coach currently managing in Europe any time in the next few months would be logistically tough, however. Europe’s top leagues either recently began their 2016-17 seasons or will do so in the next few days. Not counting potential midseason firings, most managers currently working in Europe won’t be available until next May, at the earliest.
Things are a bit more fluid with coaches working in South and Central America, where the biggest leagues employ a split season schedule with a break typically coming in December. Eales mentioned the region when discussing the broad parameters of Atlanta’s coaching search, though MLS sides have only rarely tapped into the area to hire head coaches.
Which brings us to local candidates. This is where I think Atlanta should look.
Clubs have been trending towards hiring managers who know the league for years, with all but one active head coach – New York City’s Patrick Vieira – having either played or coached in MLS before being hired for their current job.
The obvious benefit to hiring coaches with experience in and around MLS is that they have a working knowledge of the league’s roster rules and salary cap structure, as well as an understanding of the league’s player pool.
The other positive? Most of them understand that an MLS job requires a good deal of teaching. Success here requires solid man management, but it also demands coaxing improvement out of players.
As far as candidates go, and this is speculation, a couple come to mind immediately.
First is Columbus Crew SC assistant Josh Wolff. The longtime MLS forward grew up just outside Atlanta, and has been an MLS assistant since he retired following the 2012 season. He’s spent the last three years working under the famously meticulous Gregg Berhalter in Columbus, and has certainly picked up a few dos and don’ts from his time in Ohio.
He also goes way, way back with Bocanegra. The two played three years together with the Chicago Fire and spent plenty of time together on the national team, both making the US squad for the 2006 World Cup. Wolff is widely respected around MLS – I’d be surprised if he didn’t at least have a conversation with Atlanta about their gig.
Second is former Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath. The Englishman obviously has experience running an MLS expansion team and actually cobbled together a decent record before being dropped by the Lions earlier this summer. He also is connected with McDonough, who served as Orlando’s GM before parting ways with the club in December as part of the organization’s technical staff shakeup.
A few other names who merit mention include Sigi Schmid (though he has far more connections to LAFC than Atlanta), Red Bulls assistant and former Fire head coach Denis Hamlett (an assistant in Chicago during Bocanegra’s time there) and perennial candidates Toronto FC assistant Robin Fraser and New York Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese.
One dark horse from Europe? Former USMNT defender Steve Cherundolo, who played with Bocanegra for years on the USMNT and is currently an assistant at 2.Bundesliga club Hannover 96.
Just where Atlanta turns remains to be seen, but expect the club to get their man in place relatively soon.
Salt Lake’s Salcedo saga finally comes to an end
DeAndre Yedlin’s move to Newcastle drew more attention, but another former MLS Homegrown defender made a bigger European switch this week.
Mexican international Carlos Salcedo, who played for Real Salt Lake in 2013 and 2014 (Note: I worked in RSL’s PR department from July 2012-July 2014), sealed a loan move from Chivas de Guadalajara to Serie A club Fiorentina on Tuesday. Like Seattle did in the Yedlin move, Salt Lake will receive a cut of the fee thanks to a sell-on clause included in the initial transfer to the Liga MX giant.
However, instead of receiving a percentage of Salcedo’s fee as many sell-on clauses are structured, RSL GM Craig Waibel told me this week that Chivas will pay Salt Lake a set amount that the parties agreed to when Salcedo’s moved to Mexico in January 2015. A league source told me that payment is $200,000, which is considered a transfer fee by the league.
Because Salcedo was a Homegrown player, that means 75 percent of the sum, or $150,000, will go to RSL as general allocation money and the remaining $50,000 will go to MLS. That’s a decent haul in MLS terms, but still only a third of the $600,000 that Goal.com's Ives Galarcep is reporting Seattle will receive as their cut of the $6.6 million Yedlin deal.
Why the discrepancy? It all goes back to Salcedo’s messy exit from MLS. After a promising rookie year in which he made 13 regular season appearances, 12 of which were starts, Salcedo appeared just 12 times and only made eight starts in 2014.
That wasn’t as much time as he would’ve liked, and he made his displeasure known in the offseason. He posted a message to Twitter shortly after RSL was eliminated from the playoffs stating that he had decided not to return to the club in 2015 due to what he called “personal differences” with then-RSL GM Garth Lagerwey.
The declaration put Salt Lake in a bit of a bind. Bringing Salcedo back into their locker room would be difficult if not impossible, and his very public statement left the club with little leverage in negotiations. Still, RSL thought they’d worked out a palatable deal. Waibel – who had just been named technical director under then-president Bill Manning after Lagerwey left for Seattle – says the club had an agreement to sell Salcedo to another Liga MX team for a $1 million fee with a 25 percent sell-on clause.
That would’ve been a good piece of business for RSL, but Waibel said it fell through when Salcedo and his representatives – who, as is the case for every player, must consent for any transfer to go through – backed away in the final stages.
After the initial deal was scrapped, Salcedo made it clear to RSL that he only wanted to go to Chivas. RSL had two options: Bring back Salcedo or try to get the most they could out of Chivas.
Thanks to his Twitter post, the first option was a non-starter for the club’s decision makers. So they took option two, selling Salcedo to Chivas for what Waibel said was around $450,000 and the aforementioned $200,000 sell-on fee activated by any paid loan or transfer. Waibel said that the sell-on fee will only be collected once, meaning RSL won’t receive compensation in any future Salcedo transfer.
“From our perspective, the one-time fee is significant,” Waibel said. “We would always prefer a percentage and we will never structure another deal like this, but that was the way to expedite this, to get it done. And that was the priority, getting the deal done.”
RSL making progress on Cassar contract
In other RSL news, Waibel told me that the club is making progress on a new contract for head coach Jeff Cassar, whose initial three-year deal is set to expire at the end of 2016.
Cassar, who took over following the 2013 season, led RSL to a fourth-place finish in the Supporters’ Shield standings in 2014. A rough run in the playoffs that year – Salt Lake lost 5-0 on aggregate to LA in the first round – set the table for a tough 2015, when RSL finished ninth in the West and missed the postseason for the first time since 2007.
RSL, who broke ground on a new $50 million training facility on Tuesday, have rebounded this season and currently sit third in the West ahead of Friday’s Rocky Mountain Cup match against the Colorado Rapids (8 pm ET; UniMas in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).
“There’s been discussions and continued discussions,” Waibel said. “It’s in the very early phases, but the discussions have definitely started. Of course, resolutions are always the biggest piece of any contract negotiation and we’ll see if we get one of those sometime soon, but the conversations have started.
“I think, as an organization, we’re recovering from all the transition that happened,” he continued. “There were a lot of really important keys handed over to myself and to Jeff in a time where this organization was going through a lot of change. I think Jeff and myself, as well his staff and my staff, have done a great job of really trying to create some stability for the team and the organization. And I think Jeff’s done a really good job in terms of his own personal evolution as a coach.”
As long as RSL continue on their current path towards the playoffs, I expect Cassar – who said earlier this year that he didn’t “want to be going into September not knowing” his status for 2017 – and the club to work out a deal without too much trouble.
Torres’ activation brings hope, questions to Seattle
The result pulled the Sounders, who looked dead in the water and parted ways with former head coach Sigi Schmid just a few short weeks ago, within one point of the Timbers for the sixth and final playoff spot in the West. Seattle, who have a game in hand on their archrivals, will play at Portland in a massive encounter on Sunday (5 pm ET; ESPN in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).
The draw wasn’t the only bit of solid news Seattle got this week. The club announced late on Tuesday that Panama national team center back Roman Torres has been activated from the disabled list, making him eligible to appear for the Sounders for the remainder of 2016.
Torres, who signed for Seattle last August and played four matches for the club before tearing his ACL in September 2015, made the 18 but didn’t play on Wednesday. I’d be pretty shocked if he made his first start in what will be a supercharged contest on Sunday, but, regardless of when he gets back into a match, the Sounders should be psyched about his return. He's a beast in the middle, and should only add to the strength of Seattle's defense as they continue to make their playoff push.
While his return is no doubt a positive for the Sounders, it likely means Brad Evans is set for another position change. Evans, who has played next to Chad Marshall in the middle of Seattle's defense for the better part of the last two seasons, will probably be forced elsewhere when Torres moves back into the XI. It’ll be interesting to see where interim head coach Brian Schmetzer lines up his captain, who has played plenty of games for Seattle in central midfield and at right back.
Right now, Seattle looks pretty good at those two spots. Ozzie Alonso and Cristian Roldan have been really, really good in the midfield of late and right back Tyrone Mears has picked it up recently, particularly in the attack.
Choosing how to deploy Torres and Evans will not only be a big test for Schmetzer, it'll also have big implications for the surging Sounders. Keep an eye on this one.