Atlanta United and importance of MLS Under-22 Initiative

Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) controls the ball against Orlando City midfielder Jhegson Sebas Mendez (8) during the second half of an MLS soccer match on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) controls the ball against Orlando City midfielder Jhegson Sebas Mendez (8) during the second half of an MLS soccer match on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Though few details are available about the MLS Under-22 Initiative, it could be very important for Atlanta United’s success on the field and at the bank.

Review the ages of two of the players that the club is reportedly signing:

Franco Ibarra is 19;

Santiago Sosa is 21;

And there likely will be more reports and rumors.

Though the Under-22 Initiative was in the collective bargaining agreement agreed to in January 2020, the league hasn’t released many details about it.

What is known is this: “Beginning in 2021, MLS will have the discretion to allow clubs to sign up to three players who are 22 years old or younger on a reduced charge to a club’s salary budget. More details regarding the new initiative will be provided at a later date.”

Questions about this initiative that have been asked include:

  • What is the salary budget charge?
  • What percentage of revenues return to a club if a U22 player is eventually sold for a profit?
  • Is there a maximum a team can spend to acquire these players?
  • Are the slots tradeable?
  • Do players occupy international slots?

The initiative is a gamble. Let’s say that a club buys a young player for $2 million and that player doesn’t develop as expected. That’s lost money. But if that player does develop the club likely will have the opportunity to sell at an immense profit.

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez fires a shot on goal against Motagua FC during the first half of soccer in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga. (John Amis/Special)
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Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez fires a shot on goal against Motagua FC during the first half of soccer in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga. (John Amis/Special)

It’s important for Atlanta United because it is a club that has shown it will spend money in attempts to field the strongest team possible.

  • It spent $2.75 million on Hector Villalba when he was 21 years old.
  • It spent $8.25 million on Miguel Almiron when he was 22.
  • It spent $5 million on Josef Martinez.
  • It spent $13.5 million for Ezequiel Barco when he was 18.
  • It spent $16 million on Pity Martinez.

Some of those signings, such as Almiron, have worked. He was sold for $26.4 million. Villalba was sold for about $4 million. Josef Martinez was league MVP. Pity Martinez was sold for $18 million. Some are still being scrutinized.

Though Atlanta United has yet to confirm the signings of Ibarra and Sosa, they fit the profile of players who are of interest to the club: Young, skillful and with potential.

They also represent gambles. Neither has made more than 30 starts for their clubs. Ibarra has 11 for Argentinos Juniors and Sosa has 21 for River Plate.

That’s why the Under-22 Initiative is important. Atlanta United can spend a few million on each with a slight cap charge. If the players develop, it seems probable that the club can sell them and, at least, break even. If they don’t, a few million for a billionaire owner is just the cost of doing business.