In the wake of the sale of Pity Martinez, the rumors swirling around Ezekiel Barco and the latest reports of interest in Lanus midfielder Marcelino Moreno, Atlanta United is well and truly a current player in the transfer market.
The club’s recent Designated Player signings have followed a certain trend centered around splashing the cash for big names and big prospects. It’s a strategy that clearly has its advantages, no doubt. But there is another way that can prove to be just as effective (or more), but is far less sexy: the loan.
Before we get into the pros and cons of doing a loan deal, we should acknowledge off the top that it’s not like teams do loans for loans’ sake. I’m not saying “Whoever Atlanta United targets and brings in should be on a loan,” but rather, “the loan market may offer different options than the transfer market, and those options should definitely be considered. And if a deal can be struck to loan with a purchase option attached (instead of a standard transfer), that’s something to consider as well.”
Loans are low risk
In what may be the most obvious and basic observation about loans, they are undoubtedly the most risk-averse way to go about a transfer. And that’s the beauty of them! A loan allows a club to see how a player will settle into a new country/league/team before it must make a decision on whether to 1) trigger a full purchase clause, 2) arrange a permanent transfer (if loan terms don’t include such a clause), or, 3) allow the player to return to the parent club and take a shot with someone else.
This means that if a player is successful during a loan spell, the club has a clear idea of his value to the club and what can be done to bring the player on board permanently. It also means that if the player doesn’t work out, the club isn’t stuck with an underperforming player occupying one of the three coveted DP designations.
Atlanta United has had great success with loans
It’s easy to forget, but Atlanta United signed Josef Martinez on a loan deal from Torino, only to trigger the full purchase after two games when it was clear he was going to be a key player for the team. And while not Designated Players, Yamil Asad and Anton Walkes were also players brought in on loan that allowed Atlanta United much-needed financial flexibility for it’s charter roster in 2017.
What’s interesting is all three of these circumstances were different. Josef Martinez was a player who’d been pushed out of the regular starting XI at Torino and was needing minutes as he entered his prime years in the hopes that he could market himself for his next long term deal. He did exactly that, as Atlanta decided it’d be the club to secure his services for the foreseeable future. Yamil Asad was in a similar position, but he may have come to MLS feeling more aspirational about making a permanent home in the United States, particularly after experiencing the league and feeling like it’s a place in which he could have success — something that certainly wasn’t happening for him at Velez Sarsfield. And Anton Walkes was a youngster coming up in Tottenham Hotspur’s academy, looking to prove himself as a pro. He did just that, and his parent club Spurs surely saw it as a successful venture as his market value and on-field development grew.
Loans offer flexibility
Loans can serve a very practical purpose, particularly in the context of a salary-capped league like MLS, to allow a smooth arrangement of a transfer. Such was the case for Emerson Hyndman’s move to Atlanta. Looking purely at the mechanics of the deal, a loan was the best mechanism to bring in a player the front office had identified while fitting him in under an initial lower salary number until the club could move money in the offseason. Remember, loaning clubs need not take on the entirety of a players salary, as was the case for Asad, who only cost $150k budget charge, and Walkes, who cost the club only $53k for the season.
Aside from the dollars and cents, flexibility extends to the roster construction as well. In theory, an MLS team’s M.O. could be to leave one DP spot open for different loan players that could cycle in every year. This could be advantageous for teams in a league with such strict roster regulations like MLS. And it’s not only in relation to DPs — when Anton Walkes was loaned at the league minimum in 2017, it meant he was able to fill a Reserve Roster spot, leaving more Senior Roster spots open for others.
If you’re the club, it can be tough to properly market a top player on the squad who may not be a long-term fixture at the club. And this is not so much about players placed on marketing collateral such as billboards and digital spaces, but more holistically. How does the club message this type of signing — this type of strategy — to the wider fanbase? And I’m not so much talking about you, the Dirty South Soccer reader, but the wider more casual fanbase. A club that’s established its brand as very “big club” might find this uncomfortable.
Developing players on behalf of another club
This isn’t always the worst thing in the world, as described in relation to Walkes above, but it would definitely be painful to acquire a player on loan who overperforms to such an extent that he becomes impossible to take in on a permanent deal upon the loan’s expiration. This is just one of the downsides that could limit the potential value gain on a player, though I’d imagine for DP-caliber players, a concrete future fee would be pretty much mandatory for Atlanta to agree to terms of the loan.
Fewer opportunities post-Covid?
In the new world we live in, soccer cubs around the world are in rough-to-desperate financial circumstances. While this could mean that clubs are willing to pawn players (and their wages) off to someone else temporarily, what’s more likely is these clubs need to use this opportunity to raise cash through permanent moves — particularly for players coming from South America. Those clubs are far more dependent on gate receipts to balance the books than teams in Europe that have significant corporate revenues through business deals, sponsorships, and TV revenue.
Thanks to the profit made by Atlanta’s $18 million transfer of Pity Martinez, there should be some more space in the budget to add players and reconfigure the roster beyond the open DP slot. Atlanta will have added up to $650k GAM, to the overall roster budget, which means there’s ample opportunity to bring in any number of players on loan or otherwise.