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Hold on, Zlatan fans! Spending wise, not big, is key to Atlanta United's early success

Atlanta United fans may want to pump the breaks on hoping AUFC signs big-time DPs like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney.

Elsa/Getty Images

Most of us have lived our sports fan-hood under the impression that the more our teams spend for players, the better our teams ultimately are. In Atlanta, the Braves and Hawks are scrutinized for their lack of spending most off-seasons, and the one year the Braves decided to spend money and make big moves, the transactions end up costing much more than just the bottom line.

Arthur Blank is not shy about spending money. Admittedly, about half of my overall excitement stemmed from the idea that Uncle Arthur would ultimately be more than willing to spend big-time Premier League money to acquire influential Designated Players. Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimović were among the names being touted as potential future DPs with Atlanta United. But the amount of money needed to make such transactions for the inaugural season would be astronomical, at least in Rooney’s case.

If you’re new to Major League Soccer, teams like LA Galaxy and New York City FC have made major headlines with their most recent transactions. One team is doing it right, and the other is clearly doing it wrong. The newest expansion teams also provide important details as to how to spend organization money. Not surprisingly, success in the MLS relies on HOW money is spent, not HOW MUCH money is spent.

NYCFC didn’t build a team to win games. Instead, the Manchester City overlords have built a team that sells tickets. And it’s working. NYCFC average 29,000 per game average attendance. That figure includes a 10-game winless streak in which the team was still averaging 26,000 per game. Many would be quick to attribute the success of NYCFC to being the newest sports franchise added to the state of New York, but the New York Red Bulls already existed. Fans of the beautiful game already had an outlet to scratch the soccer itch. I will concede, however, that the glitter had all but rubbed off from what was once a shiny new toy for MLS in the New York Red Bulls. But still, soccer existed at a professional level in New York.

The more obvious reason to their inaugural season success off the field is due to their constant international relevance in the additions of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. Add a star bench player like Kwadwo Poku and a USMNT regular in Mix Diskerud and you have a recipe for even more consistent relevance in the states. It also helps that you’re in New York.

But the moves for aging, world-renown players haven’t amounted to success on the pitch for NYCFC. As of this writing the team sits eighth in the Eastern Conference with 31 points. While they aren’t out of contention for the playoffs, expectations for a strong playoff run are dubious. Regardless, their first season in the MLS has been a disappointment when considering the headlines the team has made.

Orlando City FC on the other hand, never seemed to carry the burden of expectation that NYCFC began the year with. They also never went through a 10 game winless streak to start the season like NYCFC did. But Orlando City is spending about $6.6 million less than NYCFC, Ricardo Kaka being the one high-priced DP expenditure on their roster. Orlando City did a relatively better job surrounding Kaka with players that could grow around their centerpiece.

While both are currently outside the playoff positions, the perception of the two teams is that one is a dysfunctional mess while the other simply needs another year to develop players, style and maybe acquire a piece to best supplement their needs. Oh and both teams play a style of defense that would only rival most middle school teams.

This is where Atlanta United comes into the picture.

The AUFC front office have a bit of a conundrum ahead of them. Arthur Blank and company will have to decide whether to build a team made up of stars that may or may not work well together, addressing other needs mid-season, or strategically build a team that plays to the strength of one or two central cogs. The latter would more than likely be a much cheaper option, and from what this MLS season has taught us so far, may be the better option. Many AUFC supporters (yours truly included) love that Arthur Blank would be happy to spend big time money on DPs. But before we decide to hand out Blank checks to big name players, just keep in mind the current status of MLS.

MLS Standings as of September 17, 2015:

Eastern Conference

1. New England Revolution - 46 points - $6,516,090

2. New York Red Bulls - 45 points - $3,676,728

3. DC United - 45 points - $4,229,764

4. Columbus Crew - 44 points - $4,685,015

5. Toronto FC - 37 points - $21,569,568

6. Montreal Impact - 33 points - $4,444,287

Western Conference

1. Vancouver Whitecaps - 48 points - $6,095,377

2. FC Dallas - 47 points - $4,717,792

3. LA Galaxy - 47 points - $19,415,300

4. Seattle Sounders - 42 points - $6,762,441

5. Sporting KC - 41 points - $5,910,976

6. Portland Timbers - 41 points - $5,312,916


Notice anything there?

It’s clear that the amount of money spent does not equate to results on the pitch. If you’re relatively new to MLS, I bet you’re also surprised at how little most of the league spends. Only two of the four teams spending over $10 million are in the playoff picture right now. The other two are NYCFC and Orlando City. NYCFC spends the third most of any team in the league at $17.8 million, while OCSC spends the fourth most at $11.1 million, and both are still outside  playoff spots. While they still aren’t mathematically eliminated, they are certainly on the outside looking in considering their current form.

Atlanta United has already come out and said they expect to be competitive in year one and while I, as much as anyone else, want those stars from Europe playing in Atlanta, over-spending for players is the worst kind of pressure to place on a new team and/or player. The fans will always blame the player for making outrageous wages and producing the goods. The truth is, it’s never the players fault for making whatever money he makes. The blame should be placed on the franchise for spending the money on said player. In other words, don’t get mad at Wayne Rooney for accepting a contract with AUFC and then not living up to the amount of money he makes. Blame AUFC management for signing a player who can’t live up to that contract. Now see Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard with NYCFC (Yes, I know it’s only been half a season).

When you tell your friends you can’t wait to see what DPs AUFC decides to sign, just recognize that the trend and reputation of the MLS is to sign older players generally viewed as "past their prime." It would certainly be a good business decision to sign popular European players, but the best front offices do a better job of finding players to surround those DPs with than anything else. That ultimately may mean not going after international players, or at least not as many as NYCFC has.

Be on the look out for the next Mouths of the South Podcast as we'll dive deeper into this discussion.