Pity Martinez has arrived in Atlanta, with the River Plate star's move to MLS imminent. Now, the league champions just need to figure out their roster logjam.
Atlanta United won't have anbody's pity for the conundrum in which the MLS Cup champion currently finds itself, but urgency is starting to ramp up on a key decision for the season ahead.
During an offseason that has been conspiculously quiet on the player acquisition front, Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez would mark MLS's biggest arrival in 2019 yet, and it would be a case of the rich getting richer. Martinez, most recently a River Plate midfield star, touched down at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport in the early hours of Monday morning, greeted by Atlanta United fans. By all accounts, he'll be the newest Five Stripes star.
Martinez has done little to conceal his pending move to MLS. After River Plate won the Copa Libertadores title at the expense of rival Boca Juniors following multiple delays and a relocation to Madrid, Martinez openly announced his signing with Atlanta, claiming it was the club that clearly coveted him the most. He had just scored the goal that iced the continential triumph in extra time but wasted little time in confirming the rumors that had followed him across the Atlantic Ocean.
Martinez is reportedly the subject of a $17 million fee, which would mark the second straight season Atlanta sets the MLS record for an incoming player.
But for Martinez to arrive means another Atlanta Designated Player must depart. MLS only permits three per team, and big-spending Atlanta has been at its quota since its inception. The odd one out is not going to be Josef Martinez, the 25-year-old reigning league and MLS Cup MVP who signed a five-year extension with Atlanta last week.
That leaves last winter's signing splash, 19-year-old Ezequiel Barco, and 24-year-old Paraguayan playmaker Miguel Almiron. The former underdelivered in his first MLS season (four goals, three assists in 26 games) and was banished to the bench in part for disruptive off-field reasons by former manager Tata Martino. Barco, who just had to withdraw from Argentina U-20 national team camp with a knee injury, carries immense value and potential. Atlanta bought him from Independiente for a then-MLS-record $15 million fee, undoubtedly doing so expecting prolific play on the field and knowing there's plenty of future value for when the time comes to offload him permanently.
The same was the case two years ago for Almiron, who wound up in Atlanta despite interest overseas. Such has been his performance in MLS, that a departure to Europe became imminent this winter, with offers galore said to be rolling in from the Premier League–except he's still an Atlanta player. United president Darren Eales hasn't wavered from his claim that Almiron is a $30 million player, with the club standing to profit by more than $20 million after purchasing him for a reported $8 million from Lanus. Newcastle, long been touted as his most likely destination, reportedly can't afford or won't pay what would be a club-record fee for Almiron, leaving other suitors with just 10 days to get a deal done before the transfer window shuts.
It makes the most sense to move on from Almiron, who, despite remaining under contract with Atlanta through the 2020 season, had the body language and words of a player leaving a city that worshipped at his altar for two seasons in which he amassed 22 goals and 30 assists (regular season and playoffs combined). Bringing him back and loaning out (or being compelled to sell) a hobbled Barco seems unlikely at best, even if it would give Atlanta the best on-field product for the 2019 campaign under new manager Frank de Boer.
With time ticking on the European transfer window and the MLS roster compliance deadline a little over a month away, it's decision time for Eales and Atlanta. And with Martinez physically in the home of the MLS champions, it would appear that decision will be coming quite soon.