The sudden fall of two MLS giants raises concerns

After Atlanta United, which fired Frank de Boer within days of its exit from the MLS is Back Tournament, the New York Red Bulls became the second MLS team to fire its coach since the start of the season when they sacked Chris Armas on Friday.

De Boer and Armas both were placed in difficult positions of replacing successful coaches with strong personalities who moved on to bigger jobs: Tata Martino (Mexican national team) and Jesse Marsch (RB Leipzig assistant coach, then Salzburg head coach).

One thing stands out: both teams are shadows of the teams they were two years ago when the Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield with a record 71 points and Atlanta United was second with 69 points and won MLS Cup.

Atlanta United, which finished last out of 24 teams with three 1-0 losses at the MLS is Back Tournament, was very lucky to escape with a 1-1 tie at Orlando City on Saturday night, needing a stoppage-time goal  from Adam Jahn to earn a point. It has just one win in seven games since MLS play resumed in July. 

Wednesday's 1-0 loss to D.C. United on a goal by Erik Sorga in the eighth minute of stoppage time extended the Red Bulls' slide since play resumed. Their only wins in seven games are a pair of 1-0 wins over Atlanta United and NYCFC, and they've managed to score three goals.

Beyond any coaching issues, both teams have struggled because they broke up winning lineups and failed to adequately replace the players they let go. MLS's roster budget constraints certainly play a factor in teams disposing of players they might other keep, but they are not the main factor in the problems Atlanta United and the Red Bulls have encountered.

Atlanta United has had some bad luck, losing Darlington Nagbe in the offseason after he requested a trade to Columbus and Josef Martinez with a knee injury in the 2020 season opener at Nashville SC. But the Five Stripes never could replace Miguel Almiron after his MLS record $27 million transfer fee to Newcastle United. Neither Ezequiel Barco nor Pity Martinez has come close to matching Almiron's production (21 goals and 28 assists in two seasons), and it looks like both players could be sold.

Atlanta United 2018:
Brad Guzan
Franco Escobar
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (transferred to Tijuana/MEX)
Michael Parkhurst (retired)
Greg Garza (traded to FC Cincinnati)
Jeff Larentowicz
Eric Remedi
Darlington Nagbe (traded to Columbus Crew)
Julian Gressel (traded to D.C. United)
Miguel Almiron (transferred to Newcastle United/ENG)
Josef Martinez
Note: In bold are players still on the team.

The Red Bulls sold young star Tyler Adams, who joined Vanney at RB Leipzig. Without Adams, their pressing game hasn't been the same. They later transferred Michael Murillo and Kemar Lawrence to Anderlecht. Kyle Duncan has filled in nicely for Murillo at right back, but Lawrence, MLS's top left back when healthy, has been much harder to replace.

NY Red Bulls 2018:
Luis Robles (released)
Michael Murillo (transferred to Anderlecht/BEL)
Tim Parker
Aaron Long
Kemar Lawrence (transferred to Anderlecht/BEL)
Tyler Adams (transferred to RB Leipzig/GER)
Sean Davis
Alex Muyl (traded to Nashville SC)
Danny Royer
Bradley Wright-Phillips (released)
Note: In bold are players still on the team.

There is no turning back on becoming selling teams. It's been good business for Atlanta United and for the Red Bull network, but selling teams only remain as strong as the new players they bring in.

The 2020 MLS season has been filled with uncertainty, complicating incoming transfers. On the eve of the season, MLS reached a new collective bargaining agreement with players and will introduce a Designated Player classification for under-23 players. How the COVID-19 pandemic impacts the international player market remains to be seen.

If Pity Martinez and Barco are sold, Atlanta United will aggressively move to replace them -- but the standard should be whether their replacements achieve Almiron's level on the field, not the value they offer as assets on the player market. The Red Bulls' signings of Dru Yearwood from the English Championship and Samuel Tetteh on loan from Salzburg don't exactly scream ambition -- especially not Big Apple ambition.

Becoming buying and selling teams involves a certain amount of risk. What should be their insurance policy is the production of their player development program. In neither case has the two teams stood out. The Five Stripes signed four Homegrown Players ahead of their start in 2017 -- all youth World Cup players -- but none is currently on the first team. Adams was the jewel of the Red Bulls' academy program. No player who has come out of the Red Bull academy in Whippany since then has come close to matching his influence.

Atlanta United and the Red Bulls aren't yet disasters. In 2019, Atlanta United won the Open Cup and Campeones Cup, and the Red Bulls reached the playoffs for the 10th year in a row, the second longest streak in MLS. The way things are set up for the modified 2020 season, both teams will likely make the playoffs again.

But one thing is for sure: MLS can't afford to have two of its most important teams -- Atlanta United with its 50,000 fans a game and the Red Bulls in the No. 1 media market -- flounder for long.

Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

8 comments about "The sudden fall of two MLS giants raises concerns".
  1. R2 Dad, September 6, 2020 at 7:31 a.m.

    What does it tell you that players would prefer the Belgium First Division to MLS? Belgium's not a top 5 league--so why are they selling? And why are players so desperate to bail on MLS?

  2. Ira Jersey replied, September 6, 2020 at 12:11 p.m.

    I think it's more that European leagues like Belgium and Denmark (and also Netherlands) are seen as places to get noticed by those big 5 leagues... there's still anti-MLS and to some extend anti-non European league bias... but also less scouts in Liga MX and MLS than in those leagues.

  3. humble 1 replied, September 8, 2020 at 1:12 p.m.

    What it tells you is that the MLS is struggling with the reality that while they have a stranglehold on the US viewer marketplace - unlike NFL, NBA, MLB - they do not have a handle on the labor market place - since players can play abroad.  Their strong arm tactics of signing young players for long term with club but not player 'options' has been sniffed out.  It also shows that young players are not convinced the MLS platform, even with USL participation is the optimal development platform. USSF walking away from the DA and Minnesota United outright droping their academy contribute to this lack of certainty.  At this moment the MLS response to DA blow up not at all clear.  Minnesota is one blip, but try and find out details about the new MLS academy league.  Schedule?  Rosters?  Sure, you can call your friends, but if you, like me and many parents of players or not on the 'inside' - good luck.  DA was the only 'free' option.  For me, Pay-to-Play just took a bigger slice b.c. boys DA was zero 3 years ago today - it's 50+ acadedmies - and all pay.  This is what's happening.  Lack of leadership.  Lack of accoutabilty. Youth path is still bespoke not systematic.        

  4. humble 1 replied, September 8, 2020 at 1:15 p.m.

    I meant boys ECNL was zero three years ago and 50+ academies today.  This is a major change - like rearranging chairs on the deck but now you have to pay for your seat - not change like improvement - though maybe it is - we'll see...carry on!

  5. Donald Lee replied, September 8, 2020 at 4:43 p.m.

    It's not bias, or something wrong with MLS.   European soccer has MUCH more money in it.  Salaries are higher in Europe.  If you want to try for your top potential you have to go get noticed in Europe.  That is not MLS's fault.    

    If any of this bothers you go write a big check to an MLS team, buy a bunch of seats, buy a bunch of jerseys.   As long as Europeans spend more on soccer then salaries in Europe will be higher and players will want to go test themselves over there. 

    How is any of that bad or controllable by MLS?  I mean WTF is this constant whining and chest-beating about MLS?   They are trying to establish the sport here in the US.  Seem to be making strides are they not?   How incipid is it to constantly bash MLS because Europe has been playing football for over a century and the fan base is deeper bigger there thus higher salaries thus players want to play there?  How incipid to make an issue out of that.  

  6. frank schoon, September 6, 2020 at 9:47 a.m.

    Good Point, Paul, we can't afford to have Atlanta and New York Red Bulls flounder. What happened to Atlanta was the perfect storm which Frank de Boer was wrongly blamed for. When you lose Almiron, the top goal scorer Martinez, as well as others to injuries ,retirements and trades, and disappointing acquisitions like Piti Martinez and Barco,than you have to conclude and blame POOR management by Carlos Bocanegra to not be able replace the losses of manpower.

     This situation ,without surprise,has effect Atlanta and their playing style much more than if this would have happened to any other MLS team. The reason being Atlanta actually "played" soccer because they had Tata and de Boer coaching, two quality coaches. It is like when you have a cheap watch and expensive watch. If you drop both on the ground which watch could have damaged 'inner-works', the expensiver one. Other MLS teams did not have the 'finer' tuning of an expensiver watch and therefore would be less effected by all this turmoil.

    I was not a fan of Armas and his style of coaching which basically is a continuation of Jesse Marsch, high octane, no brains kind of lacks the finer elements of soccer.  It is a style of soccer, American soccer should to get away from as far as possible, for we have enough of this garbage still being promulgated by licensed coaches, especially the physical, the athleticism and size aspects. In a sense, Armas leaving is good.

    Red Bull needs to figure out and become a flagship for good soccer like Atlanta was (and hopefully return to it). Hire top notch foreign coaches like Atlanta did who can actually influence ,teach, and show our players a much better brand of soccer then what NY now offers which is garbage...oh, do I long back for the days of NY Cosmos when they were the flagship of good soccer.


  7. Ira Jersey, September 6, 2020 at 12:12 p.m.

    in Graph "The Red Bulls sold young star Tyler Adams, who joined Vanney at RB Leipzig." I think you mean Marsch not Vanney... Vanney is still in KC as far as I know.

  8. Wooden Ships, September 7, 2020 at 6:27 p.m.

    Not sure we need giants in MLS, just increasing quality of play. I mean, after all, they aren't getting relegated. 

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