Success ain't free, particularly so in a salary cap league.
After three seasons of reasonable roster continuity, Atlanta United are feeling some of the unpleasant byproducts their first three trophy-laden seasons in MLS. Teams become great when most of the squad are outperforming their contracts. Then they're due for a new deal and interest both in the league and abroad swirls.
It's simple math: You can't pay everyone.
Over the last two weeks, Atlanta lost a pair of integral members of the squad. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was transferred to Club Tijuana in Liga MX while Julian Gressel was traded to D.C. United for an allocation package that may rise to $1.1 million. Gressel's trade came after about a year of failed contract negotiations while Gonzalez Pirez's camp was open to a move should there be an opportunity for him to earn more money elsewhere.
“We’re in a tough situation here in a salary cap league," ATLUTD vice president Carlos Bocanegra told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "When you look at the other leagues around the world, when a player outperforms their contract, you can increase it and keep them on your roster. Here, we have limits so we can only increase so many people before we run out of space. That’s the challenge we have, obviously that’s every team in MLS, but all those factors go into (decisions).”
Gressel and LGP aren't the only exits from Atlanta this winter. Darlington Nagbe was traded, Michael Parkhurst retired and squad players like Florentin Pogba, Justin Meram, Brandon Vazquez, Mikey Ambrose and Dion Pereira have all departed as well. Five members of the club's starting XI from their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs loss to Toronto FC are no longer with the team.
So, now what? The roster reload is well underway.
The same night Gonzalez Pirez's move to Xolos was made official, Atlanta announced the acquisition of Argentine center back Fernando Meza. The 29-year-old ball-playing defender is a plug-and-play addition on the backline, comfortable in a flat back four alongside Miles Robinson or back three with Robinson and likely Franco Escobar. Anton Walkes was signed for further defensive depth, too.
“What we like about him is he’s versatile," Bocanegra said of Meza. "He can play in a back three or four; He’s right footed, but played on the left a lot," Bocanegra said. "He played holding midfield for a lot of his career, so he’s comfortable on the ball building out of the back. I really like his cerebral part of the game, he reminds me of (Michael) Parkhurst a lot. Probably more athletic – and that’s not a dig on Parky by any stretch of the imagination. But similar to that profile.”
As for Gressel, it's a bit more complicated. It's not easy to replace 15 goals and 35 assists over three seasons. Plus, few players in the league can do precisely what he does, given he's one of the best crossers of the ball and an elite chance creator from wingback. Furthermore, the club may not even use a system that features wingbacks in 2020.
To that extent, Atlanta already traded for versatile right-sided player Brooks Lennon, who can play fullback, wingback and winger. But Bocanegra is more concerned about Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco — two Designated Players that combined for nine goals and 12 assists across 37 starts in 2019 — taking a big step forward.
“It’s a combination of guys that we have and hopefully guys that come in," Bocanegra said. "We’re also expecting more production from Barco and Pity this year to help get those numbers up. Not putting it on any one person (to replace Gressel).”
Elsewhere, center mid Emerson Hyndman was acquired permanently after a successful loan last season, and is in line for an even more integral role in 2020 with Nagbe now in Columbus. Another center mid is a priority for Atlanta, who hope to add a few more players before their season starts.
“We are looking to address No. 8, but if it’s not the player that we’d like to get in, we won’t force the situation this window and bring someone in that we do not like just to fill a need," Bocanegra said. "That’s something we’re looking to address, we feel confident we can get something done. But we also feel really good about our midfielders and make-up of our team, getting our top players on the field, whether that’s three at the back or four at the back.”
As currently constructed, Atlanta have 22 players on the roster, leaving out Andrew Carleton as Bocanegra confirmed the youngster's loan to Indy Eleven. Expect more additions, but as of today, below might be their best XI.