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Examining the process of MLS clubs acquiring green cards for their players

International slots are tricky. Here’s how teams maneuver around them.

Atlanta United

Atlanta United fans have gotten used to learning about the convoluted MLS roster rules. There’s TAM and GAM, SuperDraft and Expansion Draft, Homegrowns and Designated Players. But from the start, Darren Eales and his team have impressed fans with their ability to build a squad full of talented players within the strict confines of MLS regulations and salary cap.

One of the many complexities Darren Eales deals with is that he’s limited in the number of foreign players he can put on the roster. Each MLS team is given 8 slots for internationals. However, clubs have ways to make room for more foreign players—they can trade for a slot with another team, put a player out on loan, or as Atlanta United and other MLS teams have done, get the player a green card.

Not surprisingly, Eales and the Five Stripes have deftly used green card acquisition to their advantage. Atlanta recently announced Romario Williams and Hector Villalba got their green cards, and Chris McCann received his last season. Doug Roberson from the AJC recently reported the team is working on getting one for Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and might be working on getting more for Josef Martinez and others.

As these announcements came out, I realized I knew nothing about how to get green card. Is it hard to do? What’s the application process like? How long does it take?

To get answers, I turned to Google. But I soon realized I was out of my depth and should instead talk to actual, real-life experts. I then reached out to two immigration attorneys: Joseph Rosen of Immigration Law Group, P.C. and Loren Locke of Ford & Harrison LLP.

“It’s really all very convoluted,” Locke told me toward the end of our phone conversation on the topic. So buckle up, Five Stripers, it’s time for a rank amateur to dive head-first into the complex world of immigration law!

Let’s start at the top. When soccer players first arrive in the U.S., they’re typically here on a P visa that requires a team sponsorship. (Celebs like David Beckham might get an O visa.)

“If you’re in an international professional league, like Atlanta United, then it makes it a little easier to come in because they have kind of blanket approvals, if you will, that will deal with these,” said Joesph Rosen.

According to Rosen, who’s says a quarter of his firm’s clients are international athletes and entertainers, most pro players get an EB1-A green card reserved for an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability.” (Think Tito, not Superman.) This type of green card is reserved for people who are recognized as exceptional in their professional field within the arts, sciences, or sports.

From there, the EB1-A green card application process can begin. The first thing the team does is gather documentation proving just how amazing the player is. These documents can include: letters from former teammates and coaches, mentions in the media, individual or team accomplishments, and the recommendation of their home country’s soccer federation. Basically, Rosen says, the team needs to showcase the player and demonstrate “where they stand in the world of soccer.”

Documenting individual accomplishments is the most important and most time-consuming part of the process.

“Each application is individually determined by how good the documentation is you submit,” said Rosen. “The biggest delay is in terms of getting all the materials documenting their expertise.”

Once complied, the team submits all this paperwork in an I-140 form, while the player files an I-485 Adjustment of Status form. And starting this year, applicants are now required to do a personal interview at the USCIS field office in Atlanta.

Then…they wait. But only for a few months, assuming Atlanta United forks over the “premium processing” fee. This puts the total cost of the application at $3,200, roughly the amount of cash you’d find in Arthur Blank’s couch cushions.

It’s a relatively painless process, and one that’s good for the team and player, who can now stay in the U.S. even after he leaves the team.

The team better get cracking on the applications though because by my count, they only have 6 international slots available. Atlanta started with 8, acquired a slot from the Colorado Rapids back in late 2016 in exchange for a SuperDraft pick (9), but have since then have traded slots to San Jose (8), LAFC (7), and Portland (6).

Here’s where the team’s roster stands as of Feb. 28: