Update: Atlanta United chose Frank de Boer as manager instead of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who is heading to the LA Galaxy.
It has to do with playing style – de Boer's is closer to Tata's. President Darren Eales also decided that Atlanta can now recruit South America on the club's reputation, rather than the manager's. Time will tell how that works out.
The first thing de Boer must do is convince a big European club to pay Miguel Almiron starter's money in a transfer. Getting starter's money — $15 million or more — is a key to the whole project. We need to make a profit on turning starlets into stars. Do that often enough, build the league, and in time we'll be able to compete on salary against Europe, head-to-head.
Note that Zlatan is getting $7.5 million, which equates to a UK salary of nearly 147,000 UK Pounds a week, more than that league's top stars make, but less than many U.S. baseball shortstops make.
Let’s not talk about politics this week. It’s Christmas.
Let’s not talk about business, or technology, or global warming. Let’s talk about something fun and exciting.
Let’s talk about football.
The most important off-season in Atlanta sports history, the most important one in America’s soccer history, began December 8 with the sight of a sad coach losing a big game.
The coach was Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and his Boca Juniors club was overtaken by River Plate, another Argentine club, in the final of the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of Europe’s Champions League. The game was played in Madrid, because riots made it impossible to play it in Buenos Aires, where both clubs are based. Still, about 80,000 people filled the Santiago Bernebeu Stadium, home of Real Madrid, for the match. Millions more watched on TV.
Schelotto is the next step in Arthur Blank’s master plan to make Atlanta United not just a power in Major League Soccer, but a global brand, one that can drag MLS itself into the top rank of global soccer.
You’re going to laugh at that, but the first step has already been taken. Atlanta United has become, in two years, champions of MLS. Some 73,000 filled the Mercedes Benz Stadium for the match, the last under coach Tata Martino, who will soon be named coach of Mexico. That’s a promotion.
It may also have been the last game in Atlanta for stars like Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Julian Gressel. Almiron cost $8 million in transfer fees. It may also have been the last game in Atlanta for Ezequiel Barco, who cost $15 million just last year.
These players are keys to the next step of the process, which is dominating the continent of North America by becoming the first MLS club to win the CONCACAF Champions’ League, which chooses our representative to the Club World Cup, where the best club in the world is crowned.
So far, this has always been a European walkover, the Champions’ League winner winning each tourney easily. Even teams like River Plate and Boca Juniors can’t beat them. The other continents can’t even give them a game.
Here’s how that may change.
First, we get Schelotto. He is a world class coach who, as a player, led the Columbus Crew to the 2012 MLS title. He came to America for the lifestyle, one where he and his family aren’t hassled, and where while people enjoy their sports, we seldom riot over them, except in celebration.
The U.S. has over 300 million people, and a unique soccer culture. Look again at pictures from that MLS Cup. Unlike soccer crowds in other countries, our crowds are co-ed. Women here have raised their kids on soccer, and many are fans of our Women’s National Team, the world’s best. (You can easily tell the difference between a USA Woman’s uniform and one for the Men. The women have stars, three, maybe four after they win the cup again in 2019.)
In contrast, other continents’ fans are uniformly male. That’s why they riot. Global soccer is a test of machismo. Never mind the flopping and diving. This is an aerobic game where people run into each other, head-first, without padding of any kind, just flimsy shin guards that don’t even protect shins.
Back to Atlanta United. Almiron and some of our other stars are going to graduate this winter. Atlanta United executives need to get some fat contracts, and transfer fees that guarantee they’ll get a chance to start for the world’s biggest clubs. America has long been a feeder system for European soccer. We send our best young men there, they get treated like dirt, and they come home with tails between their legs. The only way to get respect is to start by sending players to Europe for starters’ money.
Almiron should be worth $15-20 million. He’ll improve the midfield of even top clubs like Arsenal and Bayern Munich. The same is true for Martinez up-top. Barco, because he’s just 19, may be worth even more. That’s cash Schellotto can splash on other young stars. Big transfer fees, the Atlanta United first team and training, are a story he can use to recruit the best young South American players to Atlanta’s standard. It’s cash Atlanta can also use in its academy, which has already produced starlets George Bello and Andrew Carlton, Georgia boys who both started and scored this last year, at ages 16 and 17.
Soccer has always offered American athletes something unique. Baseball players can’t go overseas and make big money. Football players can’t. Hockey players can’t. Basketball players can get cash, but little fame. Only soccer players become bigger stars in Europe. Soccer is a skill our athletes can use to make a living anywhere in the world.
None of this is a secret. Arthur Blank is actively encouraging other MLS teams to take similar paths. Dallas has already done it. Instead of getting superstars on their way down, like Wayne Rooney, we should be building with young guys like Almiron and Barco who are on their way up, and who bring more when we’re done with them than they cost to acquire.
American soccer deserves to be played in 70,000 seat football parks, not in 20,000 soccer bandboxes. Atlanta, and Seattle have shown it can be done. There are smaller stadiums in Europe, lots of them. But America now has its Manchester United, and its Theater of Dreams. This is what Atlantans have always wanted from our sports, anyway. We want to be the New York Yankees, not the Washington Senators. In soccer, they chase us.
Building the best team in North America, helping make MLS a league of global importance, is the kind of job Guillermo Schelotto was made for. He has the perfect background for it. Getting him to take the job is the first task of United’s management. If he doesn’t, we can still get someone just as good, because the opportunity is so large Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra know their business.
In five years, in 10 at the outside, this is what American soccer will be. The world’s biggest, most valuable, and most competitive soccer league. Through MLS, the USA will become a global soccer power. And through America’s rise as a soccer power, the world will see another way to play, one where women are equally as amped-up as men, and where fans don’t get hurt.