It was one of the worst kept secrets in Major League Soccer — Pity Martinez was joining Atlanta United. The Argentine attacker had given interviews about his future, he had taken photographs in New York’s Times Square, and even as recently as this week he had touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.
The club officially confirmed the deal on Thursday, and usually, a signing of this magnitude would be met with universal joy and excitement. Unfortunately, there is an elephant in the room, one that fans do not wish to discuss — its name is Miguel Almiron.
Atlanta’s decision to sign Almiron for $8 million in 2016 was an early show of ambition similar to that of Martinez. At the core of the club’s transfer strategy was the intention to sign talented South American youngsters and improve them before earning a healthy profit on the initial investment. They have undeniably achieved the first goal in their two-part plan with Almiron, but the second is proving a touch more complicated.
Atlanta’s plan was a plan paved with good intention, and some may say that is where the problems begin. Almiron has not been short of potential suitors. The midfielder has drawn interest from the Premier League and La Liga, with Newcastle United seemingly the most concrete in their interest. The problem arrives in negotiating a deal. Darren Eales, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur, has been adamant stating a price tag for Almiron. Eales wants upwards of $30million for the Paraguayan — the MLS record stands at $22 million.
Prospective buyers have been lukewarm in their response. MLS has slowly garnered an image for developing young talent, but it is yet to cement itself as a league for exporting that same talent. The likes of Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies have secured transfers to RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich respectively, but they represent rare examples of selling to top European sides.
That has made it hard for Atlanta to negotiate a record-breaking fee. Almiron is a star in MLS, but he is not a teenager like Davies. His ceiling of potential is closer to being hit, and it is why bids have peaked at £15 million. If Eales were still in North London and discussing a deal for Harry Kane, he could end negotiations and keep his player, but MLS is not like any other league in the world.
MLS limits teams to no more than three Designated Players. These individuals can realistically earn whatever their team wishes to pay them, but their cost against the salary cap is limited to a set amount or ‘max charge’ (with the team’s owner making up the difference). Atlanta currently have four Designated Players; Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, and Pity Martinez. To be ‘roster compliant’ they must shed one by the opening weekend in March.
The entire situation leaves MLS at something of an impasse. If Atlanta chooses to loan out Barco (there were rumors the player had been offered to Boca Juniors) it denies them a talented youngster they are keen to develop. Being forced to take a lesser deal for Almiron also seems unfair, and while Atlanta could have done more to keep the Martinez deal quiet to lay blame at their door seems hyper-critical. In essence, the optics of the situation are clear — the leagues’ mechanisms are stifling ambition.
There have been murmurs that the league may expand its DP allowance to help Atlanta. The LA Galaxy find themselves in a similar predicament after re-signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a big money deal. Their choice sits between trying to trade away a player internally, or buyout Mexican attacker Giovani Dos Santos from his $6 million a year deal.
Both Ibrahimovic and Bastien Schweinsteiger have voiced concerns over the league’s financial restraints and how it negatively impacts growth. MLS is growing quickly, and the rules that once provided stability are now proving stifling. Where it goes from here is unclear, but the Almiron transfer — or lack thereof — could be a watershed moment in the history of MLS and its future direction.