Atlanta, Minnesota take stark differences in approach to inaugural MLS season

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Thursday March 2nd, 2017

Back in December, Atlanta United seemed like it was about to add another jewel to the crown of its already-impressive attack. Oscar Romero, a rising star who had just carved out a role with the Paraguay national team, was reportedly on his way to Georgia to play under Tata Martino.

As it turned out, Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua hijacked Atlanta’s bid, and Romero, after being loaned for a year to Alaves in Spain, headed elsewhere. But what’s most telling about Atlanta United’s attitude isn’t that failure to secure a target–it’s what came next. In early February, Atlanta signed Venezuelan international Josef Martinez, himself a dynamic forward just coming into his prime. Atlanta missed out on a top player, and got a top player to fill its third Designated Player slot anyway.

On its own, the Romero/Martinez saga is a tale of an MLS expansion club willing to sink money into its product and hope to make the biggest, loudest splash possible. But zoom out a bit, and you realize that Atlanta United’s strategy is just that: One strategy, which its expansion companion Minnesota United, one of two teams in the league currently without a DP, hasn’t utilized.

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Atlanta seemed to design every public mention as a chance to make a big impact. Minnesota has opted for what could charitably be described as a slower, more methodical approach, and less charitably be called an inferior lead-up to an inaugural seasons in MLS.

Minnesota manager Adrian Heath, understandably, sees it as the former.

“If we allow this process to go straight through,” Heath told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “I expect us to be capable, in three years’ time, of challenging at the top of this division.”

Still, for the time being, Minnesota simply hasn’t looked like it’s totally up to speed. Take for example December’s expansion draft, which took place hours before Atlanta’s link to Romero became public. By that point, Atlanta had already signed fellow Paraguayan international (and reported Arsenal target) Miguel Almiron, promising Argentine winger Héctor Villalba, Trinidad and Tobago international striker Kenwyne Jones, along with a few U.S. youth internationals and a star of a coach, Tata Martino. Atlanta went into that expansion draft with a roster that, while incomplete, was certainly beginning to take shape.

Minnesota, meanwhile, entered the proceedings with just three players under contract for the coming season—defenders Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas (both holdovers from the club’s NASL iteration), and the just-acquired former Colorado Rapids defender Joseph Greenspan. It had named Heath, fired earlier in 2016 from Orlando City, as its new manager just two weeks before.

The differences went beyond the rosters. During the expansion draft, live feeds of the teams’ respective “war rooms” gave observers a glimpse into the clubs’ vastly different circumstances. Atlanta United’s brass sat at a massive wooden table in owner Arthur Blank’s offices, the club’s logo projected behind them, looking like the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company.

Minnesota, meanwhile, was in a small conference room, gathered around a group of white tables pushed together. Cruel, reductive and judgmental as that may be, it was hard to ignore the stark difference.

While Atlanta missed out on Romero but landed Martinez, Minnesota’s biggest additions have been that of Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra, both players that already had strong ties to the club but don't quiet have the same international pedigree as their counterparts.

Ramirez scored 51 goals in 90 appearances for the Loons during the club’s run in NASL, and is, in effect, following the team in its “promotion” to MLS. Ibarra’s play up north earned him looks with the U.S. national team and a move to Mexico’s Club Leon.

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Their next big signing was Kevin Molino, acquired from Orlando City, Heath’s former club, for a whopping $650,000 in allocation monies ($450,000 in general allocation and $200,000 in targeted). While opting to spend big on a player coming off an impressive 11-goal, eight-assist season, Minnesota could have used that money on a player with more international clout or to pay down one (or several) new signings’ contracts, as Atlanta will presumably do with some of its signings.

There's no rule that says all clubs must spend alike, and there are many different ways to win in MLS. It’s even possible that Minnesota could thrive with its team, while Atlanta implodes. Or maybe both new teams will fail, just like the last round of expansion. Manchester City-backed NYCFC spent big in its first season, while Orlando–Kaká aside–spent more frugally, and both missed the playoffs in their first go-around.

Before either team has played a game, though, the differences in ambition appear to be quite staggering.

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