Atlanta United will set the new standard for MLS' next era

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Atlanta United FC's aggressive spending and recruiting is a game-changer for MLS expansion teams, Paul Tenorio writes.

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The Seattle Sounders changed the league when the franchise entered as an expansion team in 2009.

It was a cultural shift as much as anything else – thousands of fans packing into an NFL stadium to watch soccer in the Pacific Northwest – but there was a sense of ambition with Seattle that precipitated a swing in the investment of the newest ownership groups.

If the Sounders helped to launch MLS 2.0, consider Atlanta United FC the standard-bearers of the next phase.

Atlanta will announce the signing of Paraguayan national team winger Miguel Almirón this week, perhaps as soon as Monday afternoon, according to league sources. The league’s newest franchise, guided by billionaire Arthur Blank, paid a transfer fee of $8.5 million to Lanús for the 22-year-old, one source said, which will rank among the biggest paid fees in MLS history.

The total investment in Almirón will approach $20 million over a five-year deal, the source said. That is in addition to the millions spent on young designated player Hector Villalba. Atlanta also has one DP spot left to use and will likely shop in the same price point as Almirón.

These are not moves for the future. Almirón drew the interest of Arsenal and Chelsea as recently as this summer. He is being brought to Atlanta to win now. That’s what you’re paying for when you plop down $8.5 million on a transfer fee.

MLS wants to be a world player in the immediate future. To do so, it will need teams willing to pay big money for players, and not just over-30 players that help sell tickets. We’ve seen an uptick of such players in recent years: Ignacio Piatti, Nicolas Lodeiro and, of course, Sebastian Giovinco. Atlanta is taking that to the next level by inking a young player being chased by top European teams.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Pair that type of vision with a billion-dollar stadium, a $60 million training facility and a coach with Barcelona and Argentina on his resume, and Atlanta is already competing in the global market.

This is not Orlando City, which paid smaller transfer fees for young designated players to pair with the uber-marketable Kaká in the hopes they would develop over a three-year period. Nor is it New York City FC, which signed big-name stars on the back end of their career in Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and MVP candidate David Villa, who has been a fantastic addition to the league.

Atlanta is setting a new path with its signings. These are not developmental players. They are also not marketable stars brought in to sell jerseys and tickets.

Almirón is an attacking midfielder who could be one of the most dynamic players in MLS from the start. On a line that already includes the speedy Villalba and the looming presence of Kenwyne Jones up top, Atlanta could potentially field one of the more dangerous attacking teams in the league.

The big money is being spent on the types of players you usually see savvy European teams chase. And the players are being inked with 100 percent ownership, which means Atlanta will reap the benefits if Almirón continues to draw interest from the top clubs in Europe.

Atlanta is also balancing that with an eye towards the youth. U.S. youth national team stars Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin and Brandon Vasquez are an indication of that vision, as is the work being done in the youth academy. If United is smart, it will also try to strike a balance with MLS experience on the roster – especially when building its depth.

Right now, on paper, United looks well on its way to being the first expansion team to make the playoffs since the Sounders did so in 2009. More important than on-field results in year one, however, Atlanta’s investment has made it a transformative expansion team in the league’s history.

If this is where MLS is going – and many believe LAFC will operate with a similar mentality – we’re bound to see a very different league in the near future.

MLS Cup potential

Call a spade a spade: A Seattle-Toronto match-up is a dream come true for the bigwigs in the MLS offices, topped maybe only if the game had included a New York franchise.

Two of the highest-spending teams will face off against each other. There will be plenty of star power. Two fan bases which consistently show up for games will fill the stadium in Toronto – even in the bitter cold of mid-December.

The potential for this MLS Cup is huge when it comes to the visibility of the league.

If people are going to tune into MLS, it is going to need to prove it can entertain. The Eastern Conference final was a great example of how the league can expand its visibility. Those games no doubt drew in new fans – in Canada for sure.

MLS Cup has the potential to do the same, especially if the stars in the game – Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Michael Bradley – can live up to the hype.

Soccer lovers and MLS fans will tune in no matter what. We can all appreciate the pretty soccer Columbus played last season and enjoy watching the midfield triangle of Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chará. But those games won’t always resonate outside of the core fans.

MLS needs to start reaching the outer rings of fans, and a star-driven MLS Cup final is a pretty good way to do just that. We’ll see if the game can live up to the potential.

The Final Third

U.S. U-17s dominate

The departure of Jurgen Klinsmann has not instantly fixed the U.S. youth national teams.

The programs have had too many disappointing finishes on the biggest stages. It will take time to right things. But there should be some excitement about the actual talent that exists in the U.S. men’s youth ranks.

The U.S Under-17 national team dominated the Nike Friendlies this week, outscoring opponents 15-2 en route to the title. That included a 3-0 win over Brazil and a 7-1 dismantling of Portugal.

The players in this pool – and really the U.S. Under-20 pool – are some of the most talented to come through the system in some time. That includes Christian Pulisic, Joshua Perez and Cameron Carter-Vickers, all of whom are still just 18 years old. It also includes Carleton, Vasquez, Ayo Akinola, Timothy Weah and Josh Sargent.

There is a lot of development that still has to occur between U-17 and making an impact at the senior level, but the performance is an encouraging sign of talent – and we haven’t seen many encouraging signs out of the U.S. youth national team levels in a while.

"I was in this job previously in my career and I've talked about it a lot, our soccer and tactical understanding are getting better," U.S. U-17 coach John Hackworth said in a release. "The players are technical enough now that we can play against the best teams in the world and in some cases, not only compete with them on a technical and tactical side, but be successful like we were this week. I don't like to put results and development together as one, but it is an important part of the process that you learn how to be successful, in these games and tournaments.”

NASL future

Our own Richard Farley broke down the NASL and its grim future here.

One question that is worth asking, though, is what might happen to some of the top NASL players if that league should fold or go on hiatus. There are plenty of good players in the league, and many on decent salaries who won't be willing to go to the less secure pay structure of the USL.

Might we see MLS clubs raid the shelves for the players?

The future of those players, by the way, is why I wrote last week that the failure of the NASL would be a massive letdown for U.S. Soccer. The more clubs in existence to employ players in this country, the better. And that includes older U.S. players who aren’t at the MLS level, but play a key role in developing some of the younger players as they come through. The NASL’s ambition to compete as a top league in the U.S. may ultimately have been its downfall, but it is also why it is an essential part of the American soccer landscape. Teams independent of the MLS clubs will continue to push those clubs forward, and they will operate much differently than the USL B teams we see popping up every year. They provide a home for a key demographic of players in this country. If we lose the league, we may lose those spots.

Quote of the Week - “The only thing that we’re alike in is that we’re short,” – Sounders star Nicolas Lodeiro on the similarities between him and Giovinco.

Soccer read of the week – This isn’t directly about soccer, but for a sport that is played on FieldTurf around the country, this investigation from certainly has an impact on the soccer world in U.S. youth circles.

Non-soccer read of the week – Soccer is no stranger to hiding money and shady bank dealings. This New York Times story about how the wealthy hide their money is a good one.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.