Sure, Tierra del Fuego is 2,000 miles from Buenos Aires where the Argentine connected players Atlanta United signed are from or play, but there is no denying that Atlanta United is being built around a core of young players connected to the country. United looks set to start the MLS season in remarkably good shape for an expansion team. Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and Tata Martino have gone all-in on MLS 3.0 - focusing on young promising talent from Latin America to form the core of the team.
While adding two prominent USMNT players in Greg Garza and Brad Guzan made news, the moves that made the most headlines this off-season were on the acquisitions of players that fit the mold of Mauro Díaz rather than Frank Lampard. With the exception of rumored Atlanta United target Josef Martinez, Atlanta United’s latino players are all from Argentina or were transferred from the Argentine Primera División.
Increasingly, MLS is becoming a destination for players looking to make a move from the Primera División. Ignacio Piatti of the Montreal Impact, Diego Valeri of the Portland Timbers, Luciano Acosta of DC United, and Mauro Díaz of FC Dallas represent well known players in this trend, but there are more Argentinians in MLS than any other nationality other than players from the US. In addition, those players have been instrumental in their teams’ success. Diego Valeri led Portland to MLS Cup last season and Nicolás Lodeiro, a Uruguayan brought in from Boca Juniors, did the same for the Seattle Sounders while Mauro Díaz led FC Dallas to last season’s Supporter’s Shield.
For their part, Atlanta United signed Miguel Almirón, a Paraguayan from Argentine team Lanús, along with Argentine nationals Héctor Villalba, Yamil Asad, and Leandro González Pírez. Of course, Atlanta United manager Tata Martino is also from Argentina. But what is pulling these players to MLS?
The reason that MLS is now a destination for Argentine players is in part the same one that brought Tata Martino to Atlanta United: Argentine soccer is going through a troublesome time.
When he resigned as the head coach of the Argentina National Team following the team’s Copa America Centenario second place finish, Martino noted the chaos in the federation in his decision to leave the team. He said that “Due to uncertainty over the designation of new authorities in the Argentine Football Association and the serious problems in putting together the team that will represent the country in the Olympic Games, the staff have chosen to resign.”
The turmoil in the Argentine Football Association came to light after the death of long standing federation president Julio Grondona in 2014. A vote to install a new president ended in a 38-38 tie with 76 votes cast by 75 voting members. An embezzlement scandal involving government funds for television broadcasting of Primera División games has also put the league and its teams in financial trouble. Furthermore, individuals and companies involved with Argentine soccer were named in the FIFA investigation by the US Justice Department. As a result, FIFA convened a ‘normalisation committee’ to take steps necessary to resolve the issues that the AFA is facing, if it fails there is a risk that FIFA may sanction Argentina and prevent it from playing in the 2018 World Cup. The dysfunction in the AFA also led to players in the league being owed a reported $30 million in unpaid wages.
That, coupled with the need that Argentine club teams have to sell players in order to stay solvent, makes MLS an attractive destination for players in the Argentine Primera División. In addition, the economy in Argentina has slowed down in recent years making a transfer to MLS more attractive to players. Bringing in Tata Martino as manager gave Atlanta United the advantage of having a manager familiar with Argentine players and the difficulties that the league and federation is facing. Adding him enabled Atlanta to not only get a world class manager, but gave the team credibility with Argentine league players considering a move to MLS and knowledge of the Argentine soccer landscape.
Expansion teams are put at a lot of disadvantages and face a steep learning curve when it comes to joining MLS. The Argentinian players have certainly strengthened MLS and have raised the level of play in the league and Atlanta United was shrewd in building the roster around players from the Argentine Primera División. This is clearly one case where Atlanta had a blank slate when it came to roster decisions and took full advantage of the opportunities that it had when it came to finding players and building the team.