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Critical Roster Building Mistakes Continue to Haunt Atlanta United

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Did it have to be this way?

SOCCER: JUL 17 MLS - New England Revolution at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last Saturday, the Benz was honestly pretty chill.

I had expected one of the wilder atmospheres in recent memory, perhaps with fans antagonizing Gabriel Heinze or delivering a really powerful match-long protest on behalf of Josef Martinez, or just more broadly booing throughout, especially if the result started to turn poor, which it did. While I’d never encourage it, I expected to see shit thrown on the field.

Instead, while it ended with boo birds, the whole place just seemed fairly muted, lightly attended, and sleepy. Atlanta United did what they usually do — what bad teams do — and created no goals and less than a goal worth of chances, something we’ve come to expect ever since the 2020 season kicked off before the pandemic. They didn’t demand much of New England, and the whole thing felt pretty inevitable.

This was the case not because the team’s manager was disliked by much of the organization or by his players, or because the training was too difficult, and it was not because the team’s best player had been feuding with the manager and was up in a box suite somewhere looking down contemptuously like Sting in a 1995 WCW pay-per-view.

The game was a sleepy, uncontested, and deserved loss because the players were outmatched by their opponents in talent, experience, skill, and creativity. The visitors were the product of a club that is well run, that uses a combination of traditional scouting and data analytics (they boast the longest serving data analyst in the league and a President that is an avid reader of American Soccer Analysis), and that has built a shield-race leading squad based on the strength of a roster that earns around $5M less in total wages than that of Atlanta United. It was also a team, like Atlanta, without its most valuable player, perhaps the most valuable player in the league on the field Saturday.

If Saturday’s match was a dour affair, in September 2020 things felt very similar. Atlanta United was getting beat up and down the pitch by just about everybody and as the season was slipping away, during a virtual town hall for season ticket holders Carlos Bocanegra mentioned the team had effectively leveraged as many financial/budget resources as it could muster to reinforce the 2018 team knowing they had a chance to win a championship. He then admitted that in doing so and pushing the limits even further in 2019, the team had run out of rope, forcing drastic changes to the squad ahead of the 2020 season.

I’ve been thinking about that comment lately— the implication that in 2020 the club didn’t have the budget resources to maintain the squad strength Frank de Boer had enjoyed just the season before in 2019. In the interim, we’ve seen the MLSPA put out the annual player salaries for 2021 (and retroactively published the 2020 salaries as well). This year when those salary numbers dropped, I didn’t participate much in the annual MLS content frenzy on twitter that always accompanies it. I’ve done so in the past and written way too many words on MLS roster-building and the like, but it just felt kinda unsettling this year with all that happened with the CBA and MLS is Back and COVID the year before — the players taking pay cuts and the lockout and what not. Sometimes I think talking about individual player salaries is icky, and yet this old reported comment from Bocanegra has just kept bothering me, and so, forgive me. I have to do a little roster math today.

When it comes down to it, there were four major players on that 2019 team who were beloved by the fans and who did not return in 2020 but who continue to play well for their respective teams today: Hector Villalba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Darlington Nagbe, and Julian Gressel. None of these guys were Designated Players, but for a young franchise they were legends, and each would’ve cost Atlanta United significant cap space. But how much? Below is their combined 2019 wages of $2.4M. Atlanta would’ve gladly re-upped them all for this amount I have to imagine, so surely the real rub was that they wanted more money and it wasn’t there for the paying.

Above I’ve pulled in the 2020 wages LGP, Nagbe, and Gressel made at their new MLS clubs (per latest MLSPA drop) and used editorial license to give Tito Villalba a raise up to a seven figure contract, which all sums to a grand total of $4.3M.

OK sure, $4.3M is harder to fit into the cap than $2.4M, but was it impossible? Cuz we’re led to believe that it was, when in fact after trading Nagbe and Gressel away for a combined $1.5M in 2020 allocation money, the club spent that money and then an additional $3.7M in wages on new contracts totaling $5.2M for the below players:

What was he talking about? On an individual basis could the club have renewed Villalba (even at the very high wages that Jurgen Damm makes) instead of ... signing Jurgen Damm? Yes. Could they have renewed LGP for a similar total as the one they paid Fernando Meza? Yes. Could they have given Nagbe the money it sounds like they had promised him when he first arrived in Atlanta instead of paying Hyndman and Rossetto that money instead? Seems possible. And could they have paid Julian Gressel what he wanted, surely some number modestly below what DC ended up paying him? Yeah, you bet.

Could they have done all of the above at once? It’s hard to say. If you take the $5.2M wages for new contracts and subsidize it by the $1.5M they received in the Nagbe/Gressel trades, then as a starting point they would’ve had $3.7M of cap space to fit $4.3M worth of what I estimate to be the increased wages. This would admittedly make resigning Guzan difficult, and you’d need to grab some league minimum players to fill out the roster - and Damm came halfway through the year. It’s a gap, but it’s not insurmountable, and that’s for the whole package.

Now that we can see how much the 2020 rebuild actually did cost, any suggestion that none of those four fan-favorites could’ve been retained due to budget restrictions is farcical. If these figures from the MLSPA are accurate, with a little bit of maneuvering, Atlanta might’ve been able to retain all four of those guys, even while paying them massive wages. And this doesn’t even consider any undisclosed transfer fees the club would have avoided had they renewed existing players instead of signing up new players that year. Any combination of these contract renewals would have improved the team’s performances over the last couple years in ways that are difficult to fully grasp.

And by the way, this is not to say that trading/selling those contracts was 100% incorrect. If they had made those moves and generated the additional $1.5M in cap space, and then used that cap space to hit home runs on all of the replacements with similar caliber players, Atlanta would be sitting pretty and likely dominant in the East. So this is a critique of the player recruitment decisions and of the PR soundbite given - that the club just needed to tighten their belt in 2020 because of a loaded 2018/19 rosters - not necessarily the capology of the whole thing.

Back to last Saturday. Against New England Atlanta United conceded 1.8 xG worth of chances and created their own at a rate of 0.6, coincidentally a rate of chance creation per match which Tito Villalba has averaged single-handedly over his entire career. Also on Saturday, Darlington Nagbe scored a wonder goal for the Crew, still basking in the after-glow of winning his third MLS Cup with as many teams. Julian Gressel is averaging 0.4 xG+xA per 96 for DC this year, just above his career average in MLS while exceeding Brooks Lennon’s output by over 70%. LGP continues to produce at Inter Miami, with his output landing him in the top 10 for “Goals Added” figures for a center back.

Atlanta United sits in 10th place in the East with 13 points through 13 games as they play on the road tonight in Cincinnati.