Atlanta United FC president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra aren’t naming any names, but the expansion club executives confirmed to MLSsoccer.com this week that multiple players from their squad attracted serious transfer interest from teams in Europe and Mexico over the summer.
“I’m not going to comment on any names, but yes we did get significant interest for our players,” Bocanegra said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
That’s not a huge surprise, of course. Atlanta Designated Players Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba and on-loan attacker Yamil Asad are young, talented and wildly productive. The quartet have totaled 30 goals and 24 assists in 81 combined appearances, and are the driving force behind Atlanta’s excellent attack. It would be odd if none of them drew any foreign interest.
Martinez has already played in Europe, joining Atlanta this winter from Italian Serie A club Torino. Almiron drew plenty of interest from across the pond before he transferred to Atlanta from Argentine club Lanus in December, with Arsenal and Inter Milan among the bigger clubs that were rumored to be interested in the Paraguayan international.
While the interest in their players was significant, Eales said it wasn’t near a level that ever seriously tempted Atlanta.
“Oh, no, no,” he said when asked if Atlanta were ever close to selling Almiron, Martinez or Villalba. “It’s got to be big, it’s got to be big,”
Atlanta have blown away all expectations on and off the field this year. They’ve shattered attendance records while playing at their temporary home Bobby Dodd Stadium and are set to host the first soccer match at brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday against FC Dallas (3:30 pm ET; FS1 in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada). They’re only making 42,500 tickets available for this weekend’s match, and they’ve already sold out that entire allotment. They’re opening up the entire stadium for the first time next Saturday against Orlando, and Eales expects an MLS record crowd of 69,275 to turn up.
On the field, they’re in a good position to become the first expansion team to make the playoffs since Seattle turned the trick in 2009. They're currently sixth in the East and hold a minimum of two games in hand on every other club in the conference.
They’ve passed test after test with aplomb, but they haven’t yet dealt with the calculus that goes into selling a marquee player.
Finding that balance is tricky for all MLS clubs. On the one hand, teams want to remain competitive in the short-term, something that’s obviously much harder to pull off if a top player is sold. On the other, it’s natural for clubs to want to get a return on their financial investment, something they can achieve if the right offer comes along. How a transfer decision might affect the mood of a player, the locker room and supporters have to be considered, too.
For an expansion club like Atlanta, even more factors come into play. Selling a player like Almiron in the club’s first year would damage the team’s on-field identity and off-field culture while both are in their nascent stages, something Eales alluded to on Wednesday.
“It’s always going to be a balance, but now we’re at a point where we’re building the club as a new expansion team, so it’s a little different,” he said. “But the one thing I’d say is you’ve always got to be prepared because you never know what may come down the line. It’s extreme, but if someone came in and offered us the money that they’re offering to Neymar, that would be something. Now, between that and zero there’s a just a few million dollars [laughs]. But that’d be my job to have the chat with [owner] Arthur [Blank] and make the best decision for Atlanta United.”
At some point, Eales acknowledged, it’s likely that Atlanta’s course of action will involve selling a high-caliber player. Until then, he’s happy for the club to continue excelling in the expansion season, and for the brain trust to continue calibrating their transfer strategy.
“At the moment we’re pretty excited with the team we’ve got, with the team we’re building,” he said. “I’m sure there’s going to be continued interest for our players because we’ve got some amazing young players, they’re very talented. I’m sure at some stage there will be that too-good-to-refuse offer that comes in and that’ll be the right move for everybody – for the club, for the player, for the league. So when that comes, we’ll cross that bridge.”