Analyzing Atlanta United’s Unconventional SuperDraft

What exactly was the plan here?

The 2018 MLS SuperDraft will be remembered fondly by Atlanta United fans as the day the club finalized arguably the most significant transfer signing in MLS history, $15 million wonder-kid Ezequiel Barco. The AJC’s Doug Roberson reported that the official paperwork was processed around 1:45 pm, right as the draft’s second round was getting underway. Months of hard work by the front office was finally coming to fruition.

In the midst of all that excitement, United’s execs possibly got a bit sidetracked from the other task at hand, which was, well, the SuperDraft. With a team so heavily loaded with South American difference-makers and attacking depth already stretching into the club’s brand new reserve team, Atlanta’s draft plan looked pretty straight forward: pick up players who can add to the team’s depth in defense and midfield that won’t take up precious international slots. That’s…not what happened, as United came away with three international players in the first two rounds: attackers Jon Gallagher (Irish) and Gordon Wild (German), as well as English midfielder Oliver Shannon.

As of now, here’s a quick rundown of the Five Stripes’ international players: Miguel Almiron, Gbenga Arokoyo, Ezequiel Barco, Carlos Carmona, Franco Escobar, Gallagher, Julian Gressel, Jose Hernandez, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Tito Villalba, Wild, and Romario Williams. Currently, the club only has eight international slots, with twelve players needing them.

Of those twelve, the two new rookies Gallagher and Wild feel like the least “important” to the first team squad in 2018. And of course, ATL UTD 2 exists now, so choosing them was about filling out that roster, right?

Actually, it’s not that simple. Gallagher was one of four college seniors signed to an MLS contract prior to last week’s SuperDraft combine, and Wild is signed to a Generation adidas contract. This means that both players have guaranteed contracts with MLS in 2018. If Atlanta United want to avoid using international slots on the rookies, they will have to be loaned to ATL UTD 2 for a full season, rendering them unavailable for first team selection in 2018. United did this with Romario Williams and Jeffrey Otoo in 2017, but it seems like a bit of a waste to pick two already signed players and have no plans to use them in MLS.

Full season loans may not be the only solution to the problem, though. In its short history, Atlanta has shown a penchant for acquiring green cards quickly, which would allow players to be considered domestic by MLS standards. Both Wild and Gallagher played at least briefly in the US Soccer Development Academy, meaning they’ve both been in the US since before college, at least 4-5 years in each case. Both could be green card candidates, along with last year’s rookie of the year Julian Gressel (this is all pure speculation, I’m not an immigration lawyer).

Trades are also an option, and with a plethora of attacking talent at the club already, an experienced striker like Williams could fetch a decent haul while reducing Atlanta’s international player count. There’s also the curious case of the aforementioned Arokoyo, who was already under contract with the Portland Timbers for 2018 before he was traded. To this point, the club has essentially ignored his presence on the roster, which leads to the belief that he could be traded again or have his contract bought out.

Despite also being an international, Oliver Shannon’s situation differs from Wild’s and Gallagher’s since he does not have a contract with MLS in 2018. While Shannon should be given every chance to make the first team out of preseason, the Englishman faces an uphill battle to do so considering the position the club is in with international players.

In some ways, Shannon was the pick that made the most sense for United, as he could be an excellent midfielder or even a center back for ATL UTD 2. However, even that’s not a guarantee. Since Shannon has not signed a pro contract yet, the only thing Atlanta owns at this point is his MLS rights. In USL’s eyes, however, Shannon is essentially a free agent. If the best Atlanta can offer him is a USL deal, he could choose to take a better offer from another USL team and United would get nothing from it.

Thus, Atlanta United’s SuperDraft strategy was quite confusing and did not seem to address the team’s needs very well. However, this is not the first time we’ve seen the club’s bosses make some questionable decisions, and so far they’ve proven they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Rosters do not have to be compliant with MLS rules until March, so there’s plenty of time for the club to figure out how to solve their international slot issue. Time will tell how they choose to do so, as well as if any of the new rookies will ever make an impact for the first team.