Ending of weeks of he-said/they-won’t say, Atlanta United on Thursday confirmed the signing of Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez, an acquisition that is going to present the team with an interesting challenge.
Martinez, 25, is an Argentine midfielder who most recently led River Plate to a Copa Libertadores victory over rivals Boca Junior. That cup triumph helped Martinez become the South American Player of the Year.
The left-footed midfielder was reportedly acquired for a fee of $14 million by Atlanta United, making him the second-most expensive incoming transfer in MLS history. The first was the $15 million the club reportedly spent to acquire Ezequiel Barco prior to last season.
The drama of the wait for Martinez rivaled that of Barco Watch last season.
Martinez has been quoted many times in the past few weeks as saying that he was joining Atlanta United, even as members of the club’s front office have consistently parried away inquires with “Pity who?,” “no comments” or “there are always rumors on the internet.”
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Even earlier this week, after Martinez was greeted by Atlanta United fans and signed Five Stripes merchandise upon his arrival at the airport, the club’s front office declined to answer questions about him, even as its social media team put out teasers on Wednesday. A press conference is scheduled for Friday.
“We’re excited to announce we’ve secured Gonzalo to a long-term contract with our club,” Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said in a statement released by the team. “Recently named as the best player in South America in 2018, Gonzalo is an attacking player who can play wide or centrally. His abilities complement our style of play and we expect him to make a smooth transition to MLS.”
Now that Martinez has signed, how will he be used?
That question may not be answered until the club figures out if he can be used as early as the first game against Herediano in the CONCACAF Champions League on Feb. 21.
“I’m very excited to come to Major League Soccer and to join Atlanta United,” Martinez said in a statement. “The club has shown a lot of trust in me and I’m looking forward to working with Frank de Boer and my teammates to continue making history at the club.”
The dilemma for reigning MLS champs is Martinez will become the fourth person on the team with the status of a Designated Player, a designation used only in MLS that signifies the player’s salary is more than $530,000. The team’s other three DPs are Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Barco. MLS allows each team to have as many as three DPs.
Atlanta United has options to make room for Pity Martinez.
The first would be to complete the long-awaited sell of Almiron during the January transfer window. He has said his dream is to play in Europe. Previous manager Gerardo Martino said he promised Almiron that he would help him get there. Numerous clubs in Europe have reportedly been interested in acquiring the Paraguayan playmaker, but as of last week no team has submitted an official, written offer. Atlanta United President Darren Eales said he values Almiron at around $30 million. Eales has also said that the club doesn’t have to sell Almiron.
Should they not sell Almiron, things get complicated.
An option would be to loan Barco, a 19-year-old who has the status of a Young DP. MLS created that subset of the DP to encourage teams to take chances on younger, unproven players that they have found. While the salary of a Young DP can be as much or more than a typical DP, they don’t count as much against the salary cap. They also come with a special exemption: the transfer fee paid by the club to acquire the player doesn’t count if the team is trying to figure out a way to change their status from a DP to that of a regular player.
So, if Atlanta United wanted to loan the 19-year-old for a season, they would need the club taking him on to agree to pay his entire annual salary ($1.425 million in 2018) in order to free up both a roster spot and DP spot. If the club taking him on only wanted to pay a portion of his salary, Atlanta United would have a roster spot but not a DP spot.
Selling or loaning Almiron or either Martinez would be almost impossible because of the conditions of their salaries and transfer fees paid to acquire them.
Atlanta United has until March 1 to get its roster to comply with league rules.