ATLANTA — Asked if recent roster moves were an indication Atlanta United could be active in Major League Soccer’s summer transfer window, manager Frank de Boer did not mince words.
Atlanta announced Friday that Julian Gressel and Gordon Wild have obtained their green cards, thus freeing two international slots for the club. The Five Stripes opened up a roster spot by waiving 2019 draft pick Anderson Asiedu.
So, what kind of player might have de Boer’s eye? He would not go into specifics regarding position.
“Of course, we are interested in good players,” the manager said. “It has to fit, of course, in the salary cap and everything and the rules that we have here. But, yeah, probably we are going to — only when it’s a player that we really think, ‘OK, he can step in directly and not have to wait one year, one-and-a-half years to adapt.”
Qualifying a player as someone who is ready to help the team right away is the same sort of comment de Boer made before Atlanta acquired former Columbus Crew winger Justin Meram last month. De Boer has extensive knowledge of the European market, and club vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra is familiar with the American talent pool. Any move made will be for a player de Boer is comfortable with starting on day one.
Depth at forward or fullback?
The Five Stripes’ roster is loaded with talent that can play on both wings and throughout midfield. There are three quality centerbacks in Leandro González-Pírez, Michael Parkhurst and Miles Robinson. No one can replace the value of Josef Martínez up top, but Atlanta does have a stable of reserves in Brandon Vazquez and Romario Williams. Wild, who had been moved to fullback at the start of the season, is once again training as a center forward, too.
Depth at fullback is an issue. When right back Franco Escobar went down with a collarbone injury in preseason, it forced de Boer to begin the campaign with his team deployed in a 3-4-3 formation. The results were disastrous. Left back George Bello has not played since the Concacaf Champions League opener at Herediano. He is not expected to return from an adductor injury until July or August. Bello is 17 years old, and there is no telling how long it will take him to achieve full match fitness once he rejoins the team.
Parkhurst and Brek Shea have platooned in Bello’s absence. The effort has been admirable, but they have not consistently provided the attacking support de Boer wants from his fullbacks. Atlanta could looking for someone to come in and take the starting job at left back.
Or, maybe, de Boer would like a better option off the bench at center forward. None of Vazquez, Wild nor Williams have proven they can adequately fill in should the 2018 MLS Most Valuable Player go down with an injury.
Replacing a current starter?
Replacing a player who is a regular in the starting 11 might be a necessity too, as Dirty South Soccer’s Rob Usry notes.
Darlington Nagbe was the subject of preseason trade rumors that have not died. In April, MLSSoccer.com analyst Matt Doyle wrote “a Nagbe trade is still very, very possible.” The United States international did not exactly squash that report.
“Honest answer, I don’t know,” Nagbe said when asked about the speculation. “I’m just showing up, playing. Maybe that’s a question for the club.”
An Atlanta spokesperson would not comment, citing club policy regarding transaction rumors. If Nagbe were traded this summer, the Five Stripes absolutely would need to sign a like-for-like replacement. No one else on the team can possess and advance the ball in midfield with such quality. This type of player is necessary for de Boer’s system.
González-Pírez’s name also came up in the preseason rumor mill. Boca Juniors, the biggest club in LGP’s native Argentina, reportedly showed interest in signing the centerback. If Boca comes back this summer and makes an offer Darren Eales cannot refuse, again, Atlanta would need a like-for-like replacement. Parkhurst has been vital for the Five Stripes in their first two-plus years of existence, and he is a fine option for spot starts in the middle of the back line. But he no longer possesses the athleticism to snuff out counter attacks by manhandling and outpacing opposing forwards.
“I think Leo and Miles are doing a great job together, very concentrated,” de Boer said after the Chicago game. “They are really defenders, you know? They have speed, they have height, they have force, strength. Typical centerbacks, and I’m very happy with what they are showing right now. Miles, I think, still can improve a lot.
“Leo is more experienced, of course. I think if he plays very concentrated, he’s one of the best centerbacks in the U.S. There’s no doubt about it. His only weakness, I think, and I’ve told him a lot of times, is like an overconfidence. ‘I will do this,’ or something like that. When he is 100 percent concentrated, there is no better one than him.”
There has been scuttlebutt on the social media stating River Plate would like to buy back Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez, but it is hard to imagine Atlanta would be so quick to give up on the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year, or that River could afford the price tag Eales would apply to the 25-year-old Argentine. This one seems to be bunk.
Héctor “Tito” Villalba too has been rumored as a target by his former club. As with El Pity, it is unlikely San Lorenzo could afford Villalba. However, should a big club in Mexico make an offer, de Boer and Eales may listen. Club América, the biggest club in Mexico, was rumored to be interested in January. Villalba believes he is a starting-11 player, but the reality is he is likely destined for the bench when everyone is available. He may be interested in a transfer that comes with the allure of more playing time.
Gressel is considerably underpaid on his rookie contract. He and the club have not come to terms on a new deal. Would Atlanta consider a move so it does not eventually lose Gressel for free? Or will another player be shipped out to alleviate the cap space required to give Gressel a hefty raise? The German still plays an important role and can start all over the field for the Five Stripes, but under de Boer, he is not the assist-generating machine from the wing that he was in Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s system.
And then there is Ezequiel Barco. After a disappointing first season, Barco has been Atlanta’s best attacking player in 2019. He currently is playing with Argentina at the Under-20 World Cup in Poland, and he is the star of the tournament so far.
“Hopefully he doesn’t move after July,” de Boer joked when commenting on Barco’s showing at the World Cup.
The Five Stripes paid $15 million for Barco and would owe his former club, Independiente, 30 percent of any transfer fee it receives for the player this summer. It would take a massive offer to convince Eales to sell in 2019. English Premier League giant Arsenal is among the clubs already sniffing around, according to AS. Will the Gunners loosen their purse strings to acquire Barco as the centerpiece of a rebuild? Will some other European power swoop?
In its first two seasons, Atlanta United stayed quiet during MLS’s secondary transfer window. The club could be in for an eventful summer 2019. Building a roster from scratch is one thing, but maintaining one is entirely different. Atlanta’s business philosophy and ambition coupled with MLS’s strict salary cap means persistent transfer rumors — incoming and outgoing — will be the norm henceforth.