This edition of "The Gold Rush" comes with a disclaimer: I am half Ecuadorian. As one of the hosts of the Mouths of the South podcast, I make no excuses about my biases. Unlike an earlier Gold Rush where the writer let you know that he tries to be unbiased whenever possible, I have trouble hiding my biases when it comes to teams and/or players I root for. However, that doesn't mean that a player that I personally would want to see in an Atlanta United shirt wouldn't also be a good fit for the team. Enter Antonio Valencia.
As an Ecuadorian, I always want to see a compatriot do well. Antonio Valencia grew up in third world conditions in the city of Lago Agrio, Ecuador, just outside of the Amazon rainforest. He helped his mother sell drinks outside of their local stadium on game days and would then find the empty bottles to sell back to the bottle-deposit in the capitol city of Quito. He started his playing career for El Nacional in Quito, but would quickly be noticed by the Yellow Submarine of La Liga: Villarreal. I was thrilled when I learned back in 2006 that Villarreal had loaned him to Premier League side Wigan Athletic. One of my favorite players would be playing in my favorite league, and I'd have the chance to watch him much more.
During his time at Wigan, Valencia turned heads for his blistering pace and accuracy delivering crosses from the wing. It didn't take long for some of the bigger clubs to take notice, and Valencia even turned down a move to Real Madrid in January of 2009. At Wigan, he would play for Manchester United legend Steve Bruce (who played for Sir Alex Ferguson), and that would have some influence on his next club.
In June of 2009, Manchester United paid what was rumored to be a £16 Million transfer fee to Wigan for Valencia's services and I was over the moon. My favorite club had signed AN ECUADORIAN PLAYER!!! While he wasn't the first Ecuadorian player in the Premier League, he was the first to play at a big club. Manchester United jersey sales skyrocketed in Ecuador, and the pairing was mutually beneficial right off the bat (or should I say right off the boot?). A player that would see immediate benefits to the Red Devils signing Valencia was Wayne Rooney. Rooney constantly praised Valencia in the media for the quality of his crosses and he would see an uptick in goals because of it. In fact, Rooney's highest goals scoring season in a United shirt also happened to be Valencia's best season to date.
The 2011-12 season would be Valencia's best in a United shirt. He finished tied with Chelsea's Juan Mata for second in the Premier League in assists with 13 and would also score 4 goals in the league. On his 100th appearance for the club, he would score this goal, which would win Manchester United's goal of the season award. It is still one of my favorite goals ever to this day:
To cap off this season, Valencia would be voted Manchester United's Players Player of the Year and the Fans Player of the Year. Following the 2011-12 campaign, Valencia would continue to be a vital part of the Red Devils squad, even playing a good bit of right back due to injuries at the position. His versatility and team first attitude have always been some of his best assets.
If signed by Atlanta United, Valencia would only be 31 when the 2017 season starts. A lot of players that come over from Europe are well over the hill, but Valencia would be a guy that still, in theory, have plenty left in the tank. He already has experience at the top levels of world soccer, having played in both La Liga and the Premier League. That kind of experience cannot be taught, but it can be shared with teammates. Having been away from "home" for so long, Atlanta United might prove an enticing offer for Valencia, as it would bring him much closer to his native Ecuador. He is an extremely hard worker and has been praised wherever he has played for that work ethic. He is also a team-first player, and will play a number of positions. For Ecuador, he is relied upon in a much more central role and, as mentioned earlier, he filled in very well at right back for Manchester United when that was needed.
Another big pro with Valencia is his pace. While not at the level it once was, Valencia still gives the left backs of the Premier League nightmares. He is very good with the ball at his feet and as a true winger, can get around defenders with the best of them. There's a reason Wayne Rooney loves playing with the guy so much. He uses that pace to bring out another strength: crossing. He really is at his best in a 4-3-3 as a pure winger where he can utilize those two strengths. Valencia is one of the most accurate crossers of the ball in England and constantly creates goal scoring opportunities with that combination of speed and passing ability. Whether those balls get put into the net or not isn't on him as much as it is on the MUFC striking corps (or lack thereof...).
A third pro for Valencia to AUFC is that he might not require a designated player salary. He is signed with Manchester United until 2018, but could be deemed surplus to requirements if and when a new manager comes in and makes sweeping changes. I'm not exactly sure what kind of contract he would command on the open market, but if Atlanta United could sign him and not have to use a DP slot to do it, then this would be a no-brainer.
This section is pretty simple. The cons to signing Antonio Valencia are that his most prominent skills have all seen a bit of deterioration. He isn't as fast as he used to be and his crosses have seen a small drop in accuracy. That doesn't mean that he isn't a worthy signing, it just means that he isn't an elite Premier League winger any more. That being said, there is still a big difference in being elite in the EPL and being elite in MLS.
The other major con to signing Valencia is his temper. He's had a few moments at Manchester United where he's lost his head a bit, but this has been a much bigger problem when he plays for Ecuador. He is the Ecuadorian captain, and at times, I think he takes that responsibility on a little too strongly. He has been sent off a few times during various World Cup qualifying campaigns, and we've seen recently that MLS really is a no nonsense league with this kind of thing and how they instruct their officials to deal with "hot-head" players.
Antonio Valencia is a player that will most likely be viewed as expendable by whoever takes over at Manchester United once LVG gets the ax. This could be great news for Atlanta United, particularly if they could sign him without giving up an ever-valuable DP slot. He would immediately help the team connect with their Latino fans (Atlanta actually has a pretty high Ecuadorian population) and American fans that will love his work ethic and drive. All I know is that if this move were to happen, the follow up episode of the Mouths of the South podcast would certainly be a can't miss listen (although, aren't they all? #CheapPlug).