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Risk and Reward: Year Two & the Upgrade Gambit

Atlanta United splits 9’s against a dealer’s 7

Esuebio's Night Out Photo by Clive Limpkin/Express/Getty Images

ATLUTD’s 2017 season was a tremendous success - certainly from a holistic on and off field view — but even from the narrower footballing-only perspective, the team was a Giovinco free kick away (or any number of other odd bounces throughout the year) from the #2 seed and a first round bye in a very strong East - a result most teams would consider as high as realistically possible in any season, let alone an expansion season.

On top of that, ATLUTD-17 featured hellishly long road trips, farcically high fixture congestion, two noticeably different playing surfaces and pitch dimensions, key injuries to designated players, and half a season with a backup keeper.

Play it soft?

In the face of this summary, my very risk-adverse brain screams, “If you consolidate what you have and make targeted, measured improvements in select areas, a HIGH table finish is probable in 2018!” The front office acting on a similar impulse might’ve followed an offseason playbook that looked something like this:

  1. Budget permitting, bring back Asad and Garza (and maybe Walkes if possible)
  2. Reinforce the right back position with “one of Tata’s picks”
  3. Trade out some limited 2017 contributors for added depth at CB, central midfield, and striker (Romario Williams would probably work for this)
  4. Count on a full season and off-season of team-building and experiences in the trenches to add further chemistry and improve the overall output of the team from a tremendously successful but wild 2017.

Play it hard

This is not the playbook Atlanta United have followed in the off-season.

Instead, they traded a solid midfield two of Jeff Larentowicz (holding) and Carlos Carmona (shuttling and pressing and linking) for a dynamic partnership of Carmona (holding) Jeff? (holding) and Nagbe (dribbling and linking and pressing?).

***UPDATE: As I was drafting this, Carmona was sold. And while this was likely not in the club’s plans — and this changes the overall tone of this analysis — it supports the overall conclusion that 2018 is less a consolidation and improvement and more about placing a large bet. OK, jumping back in.

And they traded Asad’s 18 combined goals and assists (real ones) and tireless energy in defense on the left, for a young, raw(ish) phenom with virtually limitless potential in Zeke Barco while smashing the previous MLS record transfer fee. Remember Barco’s fee, estimated at roughly 7X that of Asad’s does not indicate he’ll be 7X more productive. Most of that premium has to do with other more abstract factors.

Ceilings and Floors

Basically, the club passed up the opportunity to consolidate and build on an impressive first year and instead levered up on last year’s success increasing the ceiling for 2018 may yield while also lowering the floor. The range of outcomes has widened for this team. If at the beginning of the club’s first year in 2017, we might’ve imagined a ceiling of “first round bye (2nd)” and a floor of “just missing the playoffs (7th),” then having finished up a stellar 2017, one could imagine a consolidation strategy to narrow that range to a ceiling of “first round bye (2nd)” and a floor of “first round home field advantage (4th) — as good as last year or better.”

I posit that after adding Nagbe and swapping Asad for Barco, this club has widened the range to a ceiling of “capturing the Supporters Shield” and a floor of “just missing the playoffs (7th).” That floor may seem harsh, but I think it’s realistic, as is the upside of Atlanta United being a truly elite team in 2018. This is all to say I think it’s clear that ATLUTD have increased their talent level (and thus their expected finish) but also the range of possible outcomes in both directions. Again, Carmona thing torpedoes some of these conclusions and makes them even more dependent upon finding a successful replacement.

I can’t help but think the lower floor is scarier than the higher ceiling is inspirational for a team in their 2nd year of existence. If you offered me a 3rd place finish, a home playoff game, and a second straight playoff birth, I’d take it full stop.

Living Dangerously

If you’ve played Blackjack, you might say Atlanta United are holding a pair of 9’s and the dealer (the Eastern Conference) is holding a 7. The book might suggest staying at 18 here against the dealer’s likely 17, but what the hell -you’re playing with house money at this point, and there are a lot of 10’s in the deck. The club appear to be pointing two fingers to the table signaling a “split.” They’ll play two hands of 9 hoping for 10’s to double their winnings (or more).

This table shows the optimal choices for a blackjack player holding the various pairs (rows) against the dealer’s top card showing (columns). A pair of 9’s is often split, but in some cases it’s more of a tossup since 18 is often a winning number.

I particularly like this analogy because when you trade away your very solid 18 for two 9s, you might win the first hand and then bust on the second one (take a 4 and then a 10 let’s say). I find that this scenario captures the uncertainty of 2018 and Miguel Almiron - another reason for real volatility in the range of outcomes for the team. If the team were to have a good first half of the season and then sell him in the summer transfer window, the range of outcomes would widen. Sure, they would replace him with the next big thing - and it would be fun for the fans regardless. But, they would certainly be gambling - even if with decent cards.

I’m reminded of Darren Eales in the offseason leading up to 2017 talking about how he wanted to build a team that excited the city and won games 4-3 instead of 1-0 — a sentiment that is clearly reflected in the team’s moves headed into 2018. In a league that is changing drastically, the club is trusting its itself and rolling the dice to achieve the highest outcomes possible, and in doing so it’s accepting risk.

What do you think? Play it safe or push the chips in?