Photo: Paul Rudderow
March 5. Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company. A party for the Philadelphia Union opener vs. Vancouver.
Backdrop: Expansion side Atlanta United has just cut apart NYRB in the first half of their debut. They looked more dynamic, incisive and skilled than the Union have ever looked. Well-timed runs, quick distribution from the back, gorgeous wing-play. While the Red Bulls’ experience eventually took over and righted what looked to be a capsizing ship, Atlanta outplayed them for much of the game.
About 25 minutes into the first half of the Union’s tepid affair with the Whitecaps, I sent a text to a friend:
“They’re very disjointed.”
“Atlanta would be eating them alive.”
Ultimately, Philadelphia wrestled to a 0-0 draw. Pragmatic to get a point in a road opener, yes, but not very sexy.
To make the envy matters worse, a week later, Atlanta trashed Minnesota’s home opener, winning 6-1. Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez were rampant.
Scintillating start, billionaire owner, new stadium on the way. Check.
Meanwhile, in Chester, the Union look better than they did in week one, but still have to settle for a contentious 2-2 draw against a below-par Toronto and one very poor referee.
There are multiple reasons to find all this troubling, if your hope is to see the Union win an MLS Cup.
With the Union’s understandably modest approach of building a team through draft picks, homegrown talent, and frugal transfers (read: Moneyball), the only way to win a title is to have that one season where you catch lighting in a bottle. Best case scenario, you’re Everton. Worst case, you’re West Ham and thanking your lucky stars there’s no relegation.
In Atlanta United’s approach, you recruit top personnel staff, hire a coach with world-class experience, and have your billionaire owner spend an estimated $24 million in transfer fees. (Some perspective: Atlanta paid $13 million for Almiron. The Union’s record transfer is the $1 million reported fee for Alejandro Bedoya).
Should Atlanta be successful — and some theorized before the start of this campaign that they could contend for the MLS Cup in their first season — it sets a troubling precedent. Los Angeles FC joins the league in 2018. Miami has already been granted a club, which will bring the total to 24. Don Garber stated in December 2015 that the MLS plans to expand to 28 teams in the near future. This could dilute the pool of talent, and drop the league into a period of insipid parity, much like the NFL experienced after it expanded to 32 teams.
More likely, it could see spending increase to the point where the Union won’t be able to compete financially. Some of the ownership groups vying for those four remaining expansion franchises include NFL, NBA, and MLB owners. The MLS salary budget is rising consistently, and it’s slowly becoming a more attractive league for a better and better class of player. And that player will be expensive.
The Union have yet to demonstrate they can compete in that environment.